Interviev

Sibiu – city of cultures

Did one of the smallest (roughly 170,000 inhabitants) cities designated European Capital of Culture rise to the challenge, made all the more difficult by the fact that it happened in unusual circumstances – in the year of Romania joining the European Union?

For many it is the most beautiful city of Transylvania – founded in the twelfth century by Saxon settlers, Sibiu held the title of European Capital of Culture in 2007, with the motto, “Sibiu. A City of Culture – A City of Cultures”. Saxon, Romanian and Hungarian influences mingled here over the ages. The city was for many years regarded as the capital, both political and spiritual, of the Transylvanian Saxons, as a vigorous centre of scholarship and culture. Now ethnic minorities (mostly Germans, Hungarians and Roma) constitute just four percent of the population.

Luxemburg House, one of the houses in Sibiu's Small Square, renovated in co-operation between Sibiu and Luxemburg
© Paweł Mazur

Remarkably, the residents of Sibiu, today overwhelmingly Romanian, but aware of the history and importance of the 850 years’ Saxon heritage, elected Klaus Johannis, a Transylvanian Saxon, as their mayor in 2000 (and then for two successive terms in 2004 and 2008). And they owe to him the comprehensive restoration of Sibiu, the title of European Capital of Culture and a chance for a much more rapid economic development.1

The multicultural nature of the city finds its expression not only in its official motto, but also in its official name: Sibiu / Hermannstadt. During the presentation before the panel of experts assessing the European Capital of Culture applications Sibiu presented itself as a European laboratory engaging international partners through dialogue and promoting artistic mobility. The jury appreciated such a project; but the necessity of working together with entire Europe, and not just with Luxembourg – awarded the ECC title in the same year – was pointed out, as well as the need to prepare a programme attractive for the European public.2

Goals and challenges

The celebrations were managed both centrally (the Ministry of Culture) and locally (the society Asociaţia Sibiu 2007 created especially for this purpose). This solution was regarded as necessary for multiple reasons. The city was legally unable to give financial support to projects within the ECC. It also lacked the logistical possibilities of organising recruitment and selection of applications. This is why the Ministry announced an open competition of cultural projects for the ECC programme. The role of Asociaţia Sibiu 2007 was to coordinate and give technical support to the implementation of a given cultural programme. Promotion was divided between the Ministry, employing an agency which prepared a large scale national and international campaign, and the society, whose tasks included: the website, contacts with the press, promotion in the local media and helping smaller cultural operators in informing about ECC events.3

The city’s strategy, still being adjusted at the preparatory stage, finally included the following goals: • altering the city’s image, enhancing its international profile, developing international cooperation, cultural growth; • enhancing self confidence of the residents of Sibiu and making them more proud of their hometown, expanding the group of recipients of the city’s cultural offer; • attracting visitors from Romania and abroad, “a new concept of tourism”; • economic development, improving infrastructure (including cultural infrastructure), promoting creativity and innovation, strengthening social cohesion.4

Cultural life

The cultural programme proposed in the application focused on the broadly conceived theme of the city of cultures, accentuating the use of public space and architecture as the stage for cultural events. According to the organisers this aspect was the greatest success, as proved by a huge number of participants in such events, and especially of events inaugurating and closing the ECC, with over one hundred thousand spectators.5 The European aspect of the undertakings was also regarded as very important, which found its expression in exhibiting European artists, supporting joint artistic productions, presenting European heritage and looking at Romanian heritage as part of this legacy, and finally entering European networks of cooperation.

"Medusa" an interactive sculpture by Romela Pervolovici, part of the "Urban ambient" project by the Meta Cultural Foundation
© Meta Cultural Foundation

Over one thousand four hundred cultural projects were carried out, attracting more than one million participants.6 For such a small city implementation of such a large project was a great achievement. (The opening ceremony was attended by the President of Romania, for it was also the inauguration of Romanian EU membership.) The programme was divided into a number of subject areas: architecture and urban installations, visual arts, dramatic arts, multimedia, literature and reading, music, mobility and scientific research, heritage and interdisciplinary projects. One third of the projects involved musical and dance events and one fifth were held under the motto of intercultural dialogue.7 Many of them took place in the summer and in the open air.

Besides new undertakings also existing ones were included in the programme (for example, ASTRA Film Festival or Festivalul Internaţional de Teatru de la Sibiu). Events normally taking place elsewhere were brought to Sibiu, such as the musical Festivalul George Enescu or performances by the Bucharest opera. Sibiu also hosted the MTV Awards of Romania ceremony.

The participants evaluated the cultural events very highly (giving them on average 8.6 points out of 10).8 Some of the respondents of the ECOTEC Report claimed that it had been the greatest cultural event ever to be staged in Romania.

It seems that the ECC designation significantly contributed to a positive image of the city and its cultural offer, as proved by the fact that on the national scale the number of museum visits fell by about twenty percent and cinema attendance by seventeen percent (in 2009, on 2008 figures), while in Sibiu an opposite tendency was observed. Understandably, the number of events in the city went down (from 1447 in 2007 to 297 in 2008 and 537 in 2009) – the mobilisation of financial and human resources in 2007 evidently exhausted the potential of the sector; we must also remember about the financial crisis painfully felt in most European countries.

One of the effects attributed to the ECC is a large increase of visitors to the museum complex ASTRA in Sibiu, which led to introducing nightly visiting hours (from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.).9 The Radu Stanca Theatre, which doubled the number of performances in 2007, did not observe a fall in the interest of the viewers in 2008 and 2009. On the contrary, its performances are now more frequently shown abroad (18 foreign trips in 2009, which marks a large increase compared to 2006).10 And some of the projects initiated in 2007 were continued in the following years, for example Festivalul Internaţional de Film Transylvania and Festivalul George Enescu, previously held only in Bucharest but now also in Sibiu and other Transylvanian cities. Additionally, the impact of the ECC is felt in the small cultural organisations sector – owing to enhanced cooperation skills and the ability to raise and process outside funds, these institutions are more active.

International cooperation and the European aspect

2007 was the first year when the ECC title was held by two cities: one in a “new” and one in an “old” EU member country. Sibiu was partnered by Luxembourg, the latter receiving this honour for the second time (the first time was in 1995). Such a pairing had profound historical justification: many of the settlers who arrived in Transylvania in the Middle Ages, including the founders of Sibiu, were Luxembourgian. This is proved, among other things, by the close affinity of the Luxembourgish language (recently recognized as a separate language, and being a variation of the Frankish language) and the dialect of the Transylvanian Saxons. The two cities mounted many joint projects – more than forty eight various initiatives, of which three had their continuation after 2007 – from “Waziro – Wazico go Romania”, through concerts by Luxembourg Sinfonietta in Sibiu and the Sibiu Philharmonic Orchestra in Luxembourg within the “Sibiu – Luxemburg 2007 Musical Cooperation” to the “Yvon Lambert – Retours de Romanie” project, that is an exchange of artists from Romania and Luxembourg and presentation of their works.11 The aim of these actions was to stimulate artistic exchange between the two capitals and promote cooperation between the Greater Region12 and Romania. According to the authors of the final report evaluating Luxembourg 2007, the joint projects, exchanges and cooperation expanded the range of artistic activity in both countries. However, they did not result in an increase of tourist traffic between Luxembourg and Sibiu (Romania). But one of the reasons for that could be the lack of a direct flight connection. Beside the differences in the financial structure of the projects, the Luxembourgians pointed to cultural differences which became apparent during implementation of the joint projects. What for them was cultural heritage, for residents of Sibiu was cultural diversity. And so two concepts of cultural diversity appeared, which was a problem requiring some reflection. In the part summing up the cooperation there was a comment by the mayor of Luxembourg, who could not come to terms with the fact that the jointly prepared exhibition on migration and the Roma was not shown in Sibiu (in the opinion of the Luxembourgians for political reasons).13

"Medusa" by Romela Pervolovici changes colours and images displayed in reaction to human presence and voice

Cooperation with Luxembourg began in May 1998 during the conference “Sibiu – European Confluences” with representatives of Luxembourg, France and Germany. Next year a delegate from the Duchy took part in the opening of the Council of Europe campaign in Sibiu called “Europe – a common heritage”. The very favourable attitude of the Luxembourg authorities resulted in a project to renovate one of the houses on Sibiu’s Small Square, now serving as the seat of Maison Luxembourg, with a tourist office, offices and guest rooms, debate café and so on.

Intensified cross border cooperation (30 percent more joint projects) began with seventy three ECC projects with Eu foreign partners and six projects with non EU countries (Israel, Cuba, Croatia and Serbia).14 An exhibition of works from the Paris Bruenthal Museum collections, held in the winter of 2009–2010, is an example of continued collaboration.

As a result of its ECC designation Sibiu certainly enhanced its international profile or in many cases simply became present in the international awareness. The panel assessing the city’s application underlined the need to intensify marketing and communication activities as a necessary condition for attracting a large number of guests. Experts of the European Commission and the authors of the MPRA Report are convinced that the goal of enhancing the international profile of Sibiu and creating a positive image of it was achieved. This is confirmed by the data on visitor inflow (to some extent also reflecting the renovation of the airport) and the fact that one third of the respondents named Sibiu as one of the five places in Europe to be recommended for a visit. The city is now more recognizable in Europe. Also the evident interest of the foreign and domestic media (for example, Romanian television devoted 80 hours of coverage to Sibiu 2007)15 is worthy of note.

The residents

There is no information on active involvement of inhabitants in creating the programme of events, which is slowly becoming a norm in candidate cities. But the impressions of the people, the self confidence and pride they gained, were very important. Surveys show that these strivings were not in vain. The residents were more proud of their city, usually due to the fact that their city was more visible internationally, highly regarded by visitors from other parts of Romania and from Europe, and that the urban space and important buildings had been thoroughly renovated. As one of the respondents of the ATLAS survey said, “Given that I was born in Sibiu and my soul is here, I was proud that a great opportunity for international recognition had been given to me. For me Sibiu is a city with a huge potential and we are proud of that.” Another person added that the residents were greatly impressed by the changes in Sibiu; people have the feeling that “something good can be done, something of high quality, and it will be appreciated”.16

Great attention was also paid to changing the residents’ habits and increasing their involvement in cultural life, and the effects were significant. Participation in cultural life continues to show an upward tendency, which may be attributed to the ECC, as in other Romanian cities cultural attendance is declining.

The Inauguration of European Capital of Culture 2007 - a concert at the Large Square
©Marcel Baciu

While residents were not involved in creating the programme, each of them had a chance support the delivery of the ECC through a wide ranging system of voluntary work. Its primary goal was not mobilising the residents; the reason was more mundane, namely insufficient resources for employing such a large number of personnel; still there is no denying that the voluntary work met with enormous interest – more than one thousand four hundred people were involved, including four Luxembourgians. Most of them were young people hoping to gain experience and contacts in the cultural sector.17

Tourism

Together with the ECC programme a new strategy of promoting tourism was created. The tourist assets of the city were underlined already in the ECC application.18 These are above all the richness of the cultural heritage and the cultural offer, especially music, theatre and museums. An additional attraction is the location – with the Carpathians as a backdrop – favouring mountain hiking and winter sports: Sibiu lies just thirty two kilometres from the oldest Romanian ski resort Păltiniș, founded in 1894 in the Sibiu Mountains (Munţii Cindrel), and twenty kilometres from the Ocna Sibiului resort with salt lakes nearby. Despite the huge potential the municipal authorities had not been satisfied with the quality of the tourist offer. The diagnosis also pointed to the lack of a comprehensive strategy of tourist development encompassing adequate promotion. And this was the point of departure.

It was decided to develop a high quality tourist offer respecting the natural environment concerns. Tourists should feel comfortable in Sibiu and enjoy themselves enough to recommend it to their friends. Adequate marketing was also necessary, including promotion of the historic part of the city and organisation of events on a local, regional, national and international scale. Other things regarded as important were facilitating access to sites, developing a high quality gastronomic and accommodation offer, and creating new forms of tourism – religious, scholarly and cultural.

Greg Richards and Ilie Rotariu, authors of a survey concerning the effects of the ECC in Sibiu, believe that the strategy outlined above was implemented with a large degree of success.19 In the ECC year an increase of arrivals (178,532) and stays (280,993) in Sibiu was observed, which probably stemmed from intensified promotion of the city and expanded cultural offer. But 2007 was good for tourism in most Romanian regions. Unfortunately, successive years are marked by a significant decline in tourist traffic, which is explained on the one hand by the natural outflow of visitors at the end of the ECC year and on the other hand by the economic crisis which affected all of Europe. This tendency may be observed in all available data on tourist traffic in Romania in 2008 and 2009. But Richards and Rotariu advise some caution in interpreting the data, because their research shows that more people find accommodation in places not covered by statistics (about 30 percent of places do not meet the standards of the Ministry of Tourism) and in homes of family members and friends. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the impression that promoting the city within the ECC designation did not rescue it from the crisis of the tourist industry, which particularly affected Transylvania as a whole.

Economic and structural aspects

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the condition of the city in the early 1990s was critical. The medieval old city in ruins; public buildings dilapidated; no new collections in museums and galleries; no concert hall; many streets unsurfaced; not enough brid¬ges across the river and over railway tracks; shorta¬ges of drinking water.20 Successive local authorities had to cope with these problems, but Mayor Johannis, who was behind Sibiu’s ECC candidacy, proved particularly successful. Preparations for the ECC encompassed a wide ranging programme of renovating the infrastructure necessary for the successful organisation of the planned projects. The main focus of renovation was the old city, including its sewage system (€ 135 million).21

"Medusas", sculptures by Romela Pervolovici filled with air and hovering above Nicolae Balcescu Boulevard. Part of the "Urban ambient" project by the Meta Cultural Foundation
the Inauguration of European Capital of Culture 2007 - a concert at the Large Square 
©Meta Cultural Foundation

According to the Chief City Architect three structures in the old city show how a fortified church was transformed into the city which to this day reflects the urban shape of the medieval Hermannstadt. Huet Square (Piaţa Huet) forms the first ring of fortifications. The second ring consists of the Renaissance houses in this square and of the Small Square (Piaţa Mica), while the third one is the Large Square (Piaţa Mare). Comprehensive renovation work was carried out in all three squares. During resurfacing work on Huet Square a medieval cemetery was discovered and about three thousand human remains were transferred to a new burial site. A rotunda was also discovered, predating the Lutheran parish church. When renovating the square, great care was taken to preserve the medieval ambience of the place, introducing additional signs and information making it easier to visualise how this place looked six hundred years ago. The Small and Large Squares were also resurfaced and equipped with historically styled street furniture.22 A central government subsidy was used to finance the renovation of façades, courtyards and passageways in thirty buildings at the three squares and in nine structures at Nicolae Bălcescu Street, as well as illumination of historic façades and public space.23 Infrastructural investments also encompassed modernisation of the airport (€ 55 million) and refurbishments in the ASTRA Museum, Talia Theatre and other cultural institutions (€ 6.5 million).24 Large scale investments motivated the residents to take greater care of their immediate surroundings, at least such was the impression of Ilie Rotariu25, evaluating the effects of the ECC in Sibiu in 2007. A photography exhibition was mounted showing the renovation work “from behind the scenes”.26

The impact of the ECC in Sibiu is also evident from the economic figures. The data show an almost 10 percent increase in the turnover of local enterprises and institutions. Obviously, the tourist sector was the greatest beneficiary (13 percent growth). In the year of EU accession Romania attracted more foreign tourists, but for Sibiu the increase was twice as large as for other places, which seems to prove the positive impact of the ECC.

Although the ECC goals include issues of social cohesion, specific data concerning that area are difficult to come by. Authors of the report for the European Commission include in this category the decision to locate the events in various areas of the city and not only in the centre, which was aimed at encouraging participation, as well as an attempt to prepare an offer satisfying all possible tastes – from high art to popular culture, targeting children, teenagers, adults and senior citizens.27

Conclusion

Most materials concerning the European Capital of Culture Sibiu 2007 positively evaluate this undertaking. Residents, cultural operators and business expressed an equally favourable, sometimes even enthusiastic view of the ECC, as confirmed by surveys quoted in the MPRA Report. Moreover, the feeling of a positive impact of the ECC on the city continued into the following years (2008, 2009). The organisers themselves claim that the most important effect is the return of the city to the world of European values and European spirituality, of which the city was part for eight hundred years of its history and from which it was brutally and artificially severed in 1945. An additional benefit is the decision to make culture a central strategic and developmental area for the city in a long term perspective.28