European Capitals of Culture

Say Linz. Say change

For years Linz had a reputation as a drab industrial town with the added burden of its links with National Socialism and Hitler. It offered nothing to tempt those travelling between Vienna and Salzburg to stop.

Aware of the cultural and competitive advantage of Austria’s two metropolises, Linz decided to carve out a different path for itself. It has launched itself into experiment and innovation – contemporary art, the creative industries and new media; culture accessible to all. The first signs of this strategy were Forum Metall – a display on the Danube riverfront of large scale sculptures in metal by well known international artists (1977), Forum Design – a three month design festival (1980), and above all the Ars Electronica Festival (launched in 1979) – an international festival of art, technology and the electronic society, created long before the digital revolution. Another symptom of this innovative way of thinking about art and culture was the construction of facilities such as the Design Center, the Posthof cultural centre, the OK Offenes Kulturhaus Oberösterreich centre for contemporary art, and the art museum Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz. The ascendant reputation of Ars Electronica and Linz Klangwolke provided the impulse to establish the Ars Electronica Center – a laboratory for digital projects and a kind of computer art think tank.

copyright: Stadt Linz

The slogan “Linz. Verändert” – in English: “Say Linz. Say change” – became the town’s official slogan.

From Hitler’s town to a town of culture

Linz’s first initiative on its road to clinching the title of European Capital of Culture was to organise, in September 1998, a European Culture Month.4 The programme was based on the interaction of four themes: work, network, genes, and fun, to create a symbiosis of industry, technology, culture and social issues.5 Most of the events were held on the Danube waterfront, and venues not previously associated with culture were exploited, among them a disused tannery, the port, the Danube boulevards, and a hangar at Linz airport. September 1998 saw the initiation of an important debate on the town’s cultural policy and its future strategy in this sector. The strategy itself was laid out in a document compiled in 2000, the Culture Development Plan (Kulturentwicklungsplan). At the heart of all activities is the concept of culture for all, with particular emphasis on new media and technologies, open spaces, and the independent scene. The Plan also comprises direct references to Linz’s bid for the title of ECC in 2009.6 The city’s bid was unveiled in 2004. Contrary to previous plans, neither St. Pölten–Krems, Salzburg nor Innsbruck submitted bids of their own. Six months later the Austrian cabinet endorsed Linz’s candidature and submitted it to the European Union, which awarded Linz the title in September 2005.

The planned events were ordered into a number of priority areas. The slogan “culture for all” was retained, and expanded to encompass the additional facet of “culture – our daily life”. There were to be cultural events everywhere, and on various scales – from large gatherings intended for mass audiences to small local or niche initiatives. Issues related to women’s participation in cultural life were central to the programme, as was amateur art. While tradition and heritage were respected, “the avant garde now and always” took centre stage. Great emphasis was also placed on the role of new media in creating a democratic and civil society. Intercultural dialogue, openness to emigrant cultures, and cooperation with other regions and neighbouring countries were further important points in the Linz09 conception. The city’s cultural life and cultural infrastructure were to be renewed and transformed.7

In planning the programme, the director of Linz09, Martin Heller, stressed the importance of the long term nature and permanence of the events and changes that were to take place in the city. He set a target of the six year period from 2009 until 2015 to transform Linz into what he believes will be Austria’s most interesting city.8

The past.

In accordance with the recommendations of the panel of experts assessing the ECC 2009 bid9, the town decided to address its past. In the words of Ulrich Fuchs, the deputy director of Linz09, there was a recognition that they could not “sweep Hitler under the carpet”10, and that this shameful page in its history could not be ignored. There was the issue of the concentration camps in Mauthausen, Gusen, Ebensee and Hartheim, the plans to transform Linz into “the Führer’s city”, one of five model cities in the Third Reich, and the VOEST steelworks, built on the ruins of the Herman Göring Werke – even innocent looking buildings built in this period were stained with the blood of prisoners from the nearby camps, who worked quarrying granite for the local construction industry.

Adolf Hitler spent his childhood in Leonding nearby Linz – hence his fondness for the town and his sense that it was his own in a special way. He intended to live out his old age in peace there. So plans for its industrialisation and metropolisation were made; there was to be a five star Adolf Hitler Hotel and a 160 metre high tower as a mausoleum for his parents. There were also plans for a Führer museum, with 16 million exhibits looted from across Europe, as well as new residential districts, buildings, bridges, streets, and an underground factory making aeroplane parts.
The Linz0912 mission statement included a declaration that the town and the region of Upper Austria had in recent years invested much effort in coming to terms with and taking responsibility for their past. It undertook to find a new way of talking about the past that would be comprehensible and acceptable to both Linz residents and guests from Europe and the rest of the world.

An exhibition was staged, The Führer’s Capital of Culture (Kulturhauptstadt des Führers), opened in September 2008 in the Schlossmuseum. From its opening it aroused considerable controversy. The exhibition was deliberately opened ahead of the ECC Linz09 inauguration in the hope that the most turbulent debate it provoked would have time to abate. It was divided into two sections – the first presenting the megalomanic vision for the transformation of the city into the cultural metropolis of the Reich, and the second showing the impact of National Socialism on the art, music and literature of Upper Austria under the Third Reich. The organisers13 claimed that the venture enjoyed a largely positive reception – the museum was applauded for its courage in tackling such a difficult subject. In spite of the delicacy and prudence of the exhibition’s authors (e.g. no scale models of Hitler’s architectural visions were made to avoid charges of their propagation and creation of a place of cult), doubts remained as to whether the materials on display would not make the exhibition a Mecca for neo Nazis, and searching questions were asked as to the validity of using the figure of Adolf Hitler as way of promoting the town and its events.14 The museum’s director, Peter Assmann, refuted these accusations, saying that he did not see “any glorification of Hitler in the exhibition. Hitler is fact, so we just face this fact and we face it with many arguments, with a lot of information about that time.”15

copyright: Stadt Linz

Linz’s Nazi past also took on tangible form in the wider city – the “In Situ” project identified places connected with Nazi activity, such as the Gestapo building on Langgasse and sites of persecution of the town’s Jewish residents.

Throughout the year there were guided tours of the remains of the rather forgotten concentration camp in Gusen, 15 km outside Linz. The project “The invisible camp” used just i Pods to guide people through the site of the former camp (now a residential area) to an underground aeroplane factory. The symposium “Beyond history. Decline. Memory. Reconstruction” examined the subject of the architecture of places of memory and its conservation.16

The diversity of projects related to World War II and the care taken over the presentation of this subject, its educational values, and the breadth of their reception were such that the expert panel’s recommendations can be judged to have been accommodated in full.

The present.

The final decision on the ECC17 cites the active participation of a city’s residents in the creation and staging of events as one of the fundamental criteria in the assessment of its bid. However, projects should not be solely of a local nature as this would limit their attractiveness to a wider audience – and one of the primary objectives of the ECC is to promote cultural tourism.

The preliminary Linz09 programme was evidently lacking in this respect, as one of the expert panel’s recommendations was greater involvement of the city’s residents. Analysis of the projects staged shows that their organisers adopted a very professional approach. The initiatives below are merely a few examples.

Cultural Capital Neighbourhood of the Month was an initiative enabling each of Linz’s twelve residential districts to tell its own story and offer a presentation of its unique atmosphere and culture. The key was that the residents were to be both the audience and the creators of each undertaking. In the Bindermichl area, the pupils of Primary School No. 43 collected old sofas and armchairs, photographed them with their former owners, and then altered, renovated and decorated them to make a new meeting point for residents in one of the courtyards. In May, the local park in Neustadtviertel was given the name “The People Park” to symbolise the coexistence of the several minorities living there. NGOs and residents themselves drew up a culture and sports programme to revive and improve this “park of diversity”.
The “Bellevue” project was especially interesting. One of the major infrastructural changes was the diversion of a freeway through Bindermichl into a tunnel, above which green spaces were created. It was here that the yellow Bellevue building was erected; looking over the mouth of the tunnel on one side, and the new park on the other. It housed accommodation for visiting artists, a café, exhibition space, a library, a stage, and a media room. Over three months an intensive programme attracted more than 33,000 people to take part in free workshops, training sessions, film screenings, discussions and tasting sessions.18

“Culture for all”, a concept from the Cultural Development Plan19 is one of the key elements of the city strategy, and the intention is that it should gradually evolve towards “culture by all”. In addition to passive participation in culture, emphasis has been placed on the active dimension – creation. “Culture for all” is also a challenge to remove architectural barriers affecting disabled and elderly people. Already in 2008 multisensory information points designed for use by blind and deaf people were installed.

The future.

The new image that Linz has been working towards for years is a composite of new technologies, innovation and modernity. The flagship example, of course, is the Ars Electronica festival, which in 2009 celebrated its 30th anniversary, with a special programme entitled “Zukunft/Future”. Other investments for the future include the Wissenturm (Knowledge Tower), the new building for the municipal library and adult learning centre, and “Hörstadt” (Acoustic City), a project devoted to acoustics, noise and sounds in the urban space. No less important has been provision of Internet access via free hot spots across the city, and the digitalisation of the city and regional archives.

Considerable attention has been devoted to the “human dimension” of the city’s technological development and progressive modernisation. Increasing numbers of people find themselves unable to keep pace with the rapidity of change, especially the elderly and less well educated. We are more and more dependent on new technologies, and bombarded with vast volumes of information. These problems were the subject of a number of seminars, meetings and performances – which makes it all the stranger that the Linz09 programme made no reference to the European Year of Creativity and Innovation celebrated by the EU in 2009.20 Perhaps this says less about the organisation of Linz09 than about the visibility and promotion of EU initiatives – in particular its “years” devoted to specific priorities – in Europe.

The legacy of Linz09

Over 7,700 events and 220 projects, tens of thousands of tourists, over a thousand volunteers, more than 25,000 discussions of Linz09 in the media, 5,000 artists from 66 countries, €68,676,000 spent on implementing the programme. What remains? An evaluation of the long term results will have to wait. Martin Heller has announced that in 2015 a final assessment of the Linz09 programme and its impact on the city’s socio economic situation will be made. He is confident that it will then be possible to claim with conviction that Linz is Austria’s most interesting city.21

But what interim summary is possible now?


Linz09 has left a new cultural infrastructure (public investments totalling €280m): the reconstruction of the southern wing of Linz Castle (now the seat of the Museum of Upper Austria), destroyed in a fire in 1800; the International Atelierhaus Salzamt – the building of the Salt Authorities, restored and opened in the summer of 2009 as artists’ residences; the renovated Johann Kepler House on Rathausgasse, as a venue for scientific and popular scientific debates as the Kepler Salon. These investments come in addition to others completed prior to 2009, such as the new wing of the Ars Electronica Center (2007), the Adult Learning Centre and Main Library in the Wissenturm (2007), the renovation of the OK Offenes Kulturhaus (2007) and the Nordico City Museum (2008).

The city claims to take particular care over the aesthetics of its urban space and public facilities. As long ago as in 1988 an architectural projects advisory committee was established to guarantee a high standard of projects, “not to seek interregional prestige, but above all as an expression of our aesthetic and ethical duty to our own residents.”22 The ECC was also celebrated in a new zone designed primarily for pedestrians, the Promenade, created by taking vehicular traffic underground, and extending to the precincts of the Cathedral of Our Lady, Austria’s largest church. The Danube riverfront was also tidied up and redeveloped. Thus it is possible to claim that Linz09 has left the city more attractive, more pedestrian friendly, and with a new standard of buildings for culture, art and education. The only unfinished project is the Musical Theatre building, which is scheduled for completion at the turn of 2012 and 2013.

Cultural events.

Buildings and new public space are the first and definitely most immediately obvious outcome of the ECC. But its organisers promise that some of the events launched during the ECC will not disappear from the public eye. To date the city has been enriched by at least one cultural initiative – the Kepler Salon – an “interface” between the world of science and everyday life that has attracted the financial support of the federal state and sponsors, and currently operates under the aegis of FortBildungszentrum Elisabethenien Linz GmbH. “The Acoustic City” (Hörstadt) initiative has also been continued. One of its outcomes, the Linz Charter, a document designed to combat urban noise, has already been ratified by several other European cities. The bishop of the Linz diocese has also decided to continue to provide access to the hermitage at the top of the cathedral spire for the “Hermit of the Tower” (Turmeremit) project. Also importantly, the projects involving the various residential districts won sufficient approval for initiatives such as Bellevue and Cultural Capital Neighbourhood of the Month to be repeated in the future.

Tourist traffic.

As early as in April 2005 the panel assessing the ECC candidates drew attention to a decline in the numbers of people visiting Linz and suggested action to attract tourists. Increasing tourist traffic and encouraging longer stays in the city thus became goals of the ECC celebrations, and in this respect Linz has certainly achieved complete success. A comparison of the country’s main tourist attractions by the Austria National Tourist Office23 shows what immense work has been done – while most Austrian attractions have seen a decline in interest, or single digit growth, Linz has seen an increase of 527% (year on year) in numbers of visitors to the Ars Electronica Center, of 62.9% in users of the Pöstlingbergbahn, of 123.8% in visits to the Schlossmuseum, and of 51.9% to the Lentos Museum. The organisers estimate numbers of participants in the ECC events at almost 3 million.24 Owing to the economic crisis, tourist traffic to Austria overall (calculated in numbers of arrivals and nights’ accommodation) has fallen by 1.9%. Unlike either Vienna or Salzburg, Linz has succeeded in sustaining a growth trend in visitor numbers (9.5%). A survey of tourist traffic in 53 European cities in 2009 shows an average downturn of 2.2% in the numbers of people making longer stays (of at least one night) in a given city. In ¬Vienna this figure was −4.8%, in Salzburg −2.2%. It is thus possible to risk the claim that the ECC title has significantly helped the town to fend off the crisis in the tourism sector. Will this trend be sustained? The most recent data25 show a stable growth trend of 3.1% in tourist traffic in Linz in the first half of 2010. Vienna and Salzburg are also being visited by increasing numbers of people (by 12.9% and 4.4%, respectively), though in both the growth rate has gradually slowed since the beginning of the year.


Recognition of the city as a modern, dynamic centre of industry and new technologies, both within Austria and abroad, was one of the pillars of the Linz09 programme. The market research firm Spectra conducted a survey in August 2009 that showed that 50% of the city’s residents, 30% of those living in the region, and 7.5% of all Austrians took part in at least one ECC event. The details of this study have provoked doubt among some researchers, however26, in terms of both the structure of the questions and the respondent profile. It was conducted halfway through the period during which Linz held the title – so it does not show the permanent changes in the perception of the city. Although the promotion of Linz09 was certainly extensive, and reached masses of recipients, without further surveys among residents and tourists and without analysis of media content it is hard to assess with any certainty the extent to which the ECC title has changed the city’s image.

Indirect benefits.

Citing research conducted by the Economics Faculty at the Kepler University in Linz, the organisers of Linz09 claim that the events connected with the European Capital of Culture in the period 2005–2011 will contribute €426m to the country’s GDP, with the highest single figure, €117.7m, generated in 2009. The same study found that Linz09 created or supported 4,625 jobs in Upper Austria.27 

copyright: Stadt Linz

The organisers also claim that Linz09 has produced additional, soft benefits and results. The intensification of activity that came with the ECC has taught organisations and institutions in Linz to work together better. Of particular note in this respect are the new links between the culture and tourism sectors. Many international contacts have been forged. Competition has increased, and the necessity of complying with European standards has helped to improve quality in all areas – artistic output, cultural life, gastronomy and other services. It is important to remember that the ECC is not only an arts and culture festival. It is also a project to develop every aspect of the city.28 Linz09 deputy director Ulrich Fuchs admits: “we were too quick to focus on cultural projects. It would have been better if we had started to organise the non artistic aspects of the ECC earlier, such as signage in the city, foreign language ability among hotel employees and taxi drivers, and availability of accommodation.”29 The fact remains, however, that Linz’s progress through its own transformation is decisive and successful.

European Capitals of Culture

The idea of the European Capitals of Culture (ECC) was born in 1985 on the initiative of Greek minister of culture Melina Mercouri.1 Initially the venture, known as European Cities of Culture, was designed as a way of bringing together citizens of different member states and helping them to learn about each other and cooperate. The cities selected were to showcase their own culture and heritage on the one hand, and cultural and artistic attainments of other nations on the other. A major breakthrough in the initiative came in 1990, when Glasgow was honoured with the ECC title. The city’s authorities treated the nomination as a pretext to work up a strategic plan for developing and investing in culture as a way of boosting the social and economic regeneration of a city blighted by problems typical of post industrial cities. From that point on, successive cities followed Glasgow’s example, taking the opportunity to ensure that their ECC year comprised not only festivals and big outdoor events, but also long term projects promoting change in the city itself and improvements in the quality of its residents’ lives.

This change in the approach to Melina Mercouri’s initiative was also noted by the EU institutions. In 1999 the Council of Europe adopted a new name for the project: European Capitals of Culture. Pointing out the positive impact that holding the title has on the development of culture and tourism, and the media response, the Council also issued a recommendation that decision makers in these cities should incorporate culture and the ECC initiative into their medium term development plans.2

While the primary aims of the project are still to celebrate the richness, diversity but also common ground in the cultures of the various countries in Europe, and to promote learning about each other, there are now more detailed guidelines on the elements that a city’s application for the title should contain in order for it to fulfil the ECC objectives. The events should be European in scale, and based primarily on international cooperation. In their applications, candidate cities have to demonstrate how their cultural heritage fits into the heritage of the wider Europe, and how it has contributed to the development of culture in Europe. On the one hand there should be promotion of creative work and events by artists from various regions of the continent, with the emphasis on cultivating long term collaboration. On the other, during the city’s time as European Cultural Capital as many residents as possible should be motivated to participate in the events, which should be designed to exert the maximum influence on the community.

Another important element of the project is the leveraging of historical heritage and urban architecture to improve the quality of life in the city (hence infrastructure and investment projects). The events organised should be designed not only to integrate residents with their city but also to attract citizens of other European countries and to promote intercultural dialogue.3