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Aarhus finds success as European Capital of Culture

Last year, Aarhus became the European Capital of Culture. While previous hosts have struggled to unite their citizens behind the year-long programme, the city created a scheme all its residents could share in

Aarhus' year as European Capital of Culture has been a huge success, bringing enjoyment to locals and visitors alike. The challenge now is turning these short-term successes into long-term gains that every citizen can benefit from
Aarhus' year as European Capital of Culture has been a huge success, bringing enjoyment to locals and visitors alike. The challenge now is turning these short-term successes into long-term gains that every citizen can benefit from 

When the European Capital of Culture (ECOC) scheme first began back in 1985, its stated mission was to bring the citizens of the European Union – or the European Community, as it was then known – closer together. While this remit has remained unchanged in the years since, the methods employed by the various host cities have differed substantially.

In its early years, the ECOC was primarily an arts festival, focusing on museum exhibitions, music, theatre and other audiovisual spectacles. As such, the first cities to be awarded the title were all globally renowned metropoles: Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris. It wasn’t until Glasgow was chosen in 1990 that the programme began to broaden its scope, taking on economic and social development goals too.

Earning the right to be a host city is also more competitive than in those early days. Until 2004, European Capitals of Culture were simply selected by EU member states. Today, the programme is subject to a lengthy bidding process, where multiple cities attempt to convince EU delegations of their suitability.

Fittingly, Aarhus describes itself as the “world’s smallest big city”. And yet, the city had enough cultural cachet to win over the ECOC judges

In 2017, Aarhus was designated the European Capital of Culture, sharing the title with Paphos in Cyprus. The Danish city, located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, is indicative of the recent approach taken by the ECOC scheme, which has aimed to shine a light on some of the continent’s lesser-known cultural hotspots.

Aarhus’ moment in the sun has been a huge success, bringing enjoyment to locals and visitors alike. The challenge now is turning these short-term successes into long-term gains that every citizen can benefit from – something previous European Capitals of Culture have not always managed.

Like the Vikings
Ask most people to locate Aarhus on a map of the world and they might not even get the right continent, let alone country. While it may be Denmark’s second-biggest city, with a population of little over 250,000, it is far from huge. Fittingly, Aarhus describes itself as the “world’s smallest big city”. And yet, the city had enough cultural cachet to win over the ECOC judges.

Aarhus’ rich musical history would certainly not have harmed the city’s chances – a history that is reflected today in the annual Aarhus Jazz Festival and the Aarhus Concert Hall, which is the largest in Scandinavia.

As a city founded by the Vikings in the eighth century, Aarhus is one of the oldest settlements in Denmark. The Viking Museum, located on St Clement’s Square, is situated directly over the area where archaeological excavations found Viking Age tools, cultural artefacts and human remains. What’s more, the city’s heritage is not consigned to the past.

Aarhus’ year as European Captial of Culture


Increase in private sector turnover


new jobs were created


businesses and foundations engaged with Aarhus 2017


return on government investment

Previous host cities that have not put as much emphasis on sustainable planning have found that negative perceptions can begin to cloud their year’s programme

Every year, the Moesgård Viking Moot attracts locals and visitors from all over the world to recreate the festivities that existed in Aarhus’ early days. Both the finesse and ferocity of Viking life are put on show, with delicate craftsmanship vying for attention alongside mock battles and single
combat contests.

The size and relative obscurity of Aarhus make it a perfect fit for the modern iteration of the ECOC. It was preceded by San Sebastián in Spain and Poland’s Wrocław, and has been followed this year by Leeuwarden in the Netherlands and Valletta in Malta – all cities that could not reasonably claim to be among the continent’s most well known.

In awarding the title to these locations, the European Commission (EC) is better able “to highlight the richness and diversity of European cultures and the features they share”. A programme focusing on national capitals, already populated by thronging tourists, would not have nearly the same impact.

For Rebecca Matthews, Managing Director of the European Capital of Culture Aarhus 2017, the city’s “bold proposal for a comprehensive and diverse cultural programme” is likely to have convinced the EC judges to approve its bid.

Certainly, Aarhus’ year in the hot seat has shown that choosing one of the continent’s more obscure cities needn’t mean surrendering the ECOC to parochialism. On the contrary: the city has successfully championed its own distinct cultural high points, while simultaneously placing them in a wider European – and, indeed, global – context.

Sharing success
Inspiring locals through dance or stimulating visitors through museum exhibitions are worthwhile reasons for hosting the ECOC in and of themselves. Art, of course, should not be motivated by financial reward. However, the only way to assess the impact of the ECOC effectively is to collect detailed information from visitors, locals and businesses. Economic metrics will naturally play a significant role in this.

Fortunately, Aarhus’ time as 2017’s Capital of Culture has proved hugely beneficial for the city. Private sector turnover increased by €108m ($126m) across the year and 973 new jobs were created.

By attracting huge numbers to the city – Aarhus received visitors from more than 65 countries in 2017 – local restaurants, hotels and other businesses all received a boost. So-called ‘mega events’, like the ARoS art museum’s first triennial event, provided a particularly large boost to revenues across the city.

The ARoS art museum
The ARoS art museum

While the city of Aarhus was undoubtedly the focal point of last year’s programme, all 19 municipalities of the Central Denmark Region played a part. A regional steering group, with representatives from each municipality, ensured that views from across the region were heard. The collaborative approach has resulted in cultural projects being deployed from Aarhus all the way to Lemvig in the northwest of the region.

Previous host cities that have not put as much emphasis on sustainable planning have found that negative perceptions can begin to cloud their year’s programme

Collectively, businesses in Central Denmark saw a €159.1m ($183.8m) increase in turnover throughout 2017, with 1,965 new jobs created. Similarly, overnight stays grew by 19 percent to a record high of 11.2 million over the course of the year. To ensure these gains were spread evenly, some of the most popular cultural events were located outside of Aarhus.

The second-best-attended event in 2017, for example, was the Silkeborg Fireworks Regatta, which attracted 280,000 visitors. The Snapsting – Rethink your Audience event in Viborg and the European Encounters case studies in Norddjurs also made the top 10.

These business gains were well deserved. Private sector companies played a pivotal role in both the awarding and execution of the city’s ECOC programme. In total, 127 businesses and foundations engaged with Aarhus 2017 through its tiered partnership initiative. Government funds were also rewarded, with the DKK 392m ($61m) invested over the year delivering a 300 percent return.

“The impact of hosting the European Capital of Culture has been huge, and we’re still only seeing the immediate results,” Matthews noted. “98 percent of Aarhus citizens knew about the [ECOC] programme, and 60 percent attended at least one event. Total attendance topped 3.3 million and the programme spurred plenty of tourism.”

Perhaps the success of Aarhus 2017 should come as no surprise. The ECOC has demonstrated previously that it can provide a significant return on investment. In 2015, locals and visitors spent approximately €21m ($24.4m) while attending ECOC events in Pilsen, the Czech Republic.

Similarly, Maribor – the Capital of Culture in 2012 – experienced a 20 percent increase in the number of overnight stays compared with the previous year. Evidently, being chosen as the ECOC is not simply a matter of great prestige; it produces concrete business benefits too.

A lasting impression
The short-term gains of being named the ECOC may not be in doubt, but delivering more enduring benefits is less easily achieved. A look at some of the many abandoned Olympic venues around the world demonstrates how difficult it is to maintain the enthusiasm, and indeed investment, that accompanies a major global event.

To continue last year’s momentum for as long as possible, legacy planning has constituted a core strand of Aarhus’ time as the Capital of Culture, going all the way back to the bidding stage. For Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard, Chairman of the Aarhus 2017 Foundation, the city’s time as ECOC is simply the start of something bigger.

“Although Aarhus and the Central Denmark Region have undergone remarkable development in recent decades, the [ECOC] has given us a tremendous boost that has also reverberated internationally,” he said. “We are all keen to continue building on the momentum. Aarhus 2017 was only the beginning.”

One of the ways the ECOC programme helps promote long-term benefits for its host city is by raising its international profile. Throughout 2017, foreign visitors motivated by the ECOC stayed in Aarhus for a total of 523,000 nights collectively. The city also received 27,723 media mentions throughout the year. When considering international mentions only, 95 percent of these were positive.

Aarhus 2017 also put a great deal of emphasis on young people, in the hope that the cultural impact would continue to inspire them for years to come. This approach began with the opening ceremony of the event series ‘Land of Wishes’, which involved children from across Central Denmark “creating statements, visual installations and pieces of music”.

Matthews argues that the success of last year’s programme has helped to create a whole new mindset in the region. She believes Aarhus will reap the economic and social rewards of its cultural investment for years to come. “People in every sector learned so much; it has created such a strong narrative about what can be achieved,” Matthews explained.

“I believe the seeds we have planted will grow and grow in the rich soil of collaborations and partnerships formed, emboldened cultural organisations and creative workers, and a vision shared among all 19 municipal councils, who have agreed to continue cooperation across a range of social, economic and cultural areas.”

One of those areas relates to community engagement. From Aarhus 2017’s volunteer pool of more than 3,000 people, 75 percent said they would be motivated to volunteer again as a result of their efforts supporting the ECOC. Another important legacy relates to investment. The Aarhus municipality has managed to secure a funding commitment of €268,650 ($312,255) annually over the next four years to develop legacy initiatives.

One such project, National Symbols, Transnational Identity, takes inspiration from last year’s Seven Deadly Sins project and will involve seven regional art museums in 2019. It is just one of a number of cultural initiatives that takes the success of Aarhus 2017 and refashions it into something new.

Culture clash
The fact that Aarhus’ time as ECOC was met with an almost entirely positive reaction is testament to the city’s strong focus on sustainability. Collaboration between the various municipalities was strong throughout the planning stage, and strategies relating to security, infrastructure and logistics were made a priority as far back as 2015.

Previous host cities that have not put as much emphasis on sustainable planning have found that negative perceptions can begin to cloud their year’s programme. A 2012 study conducted by the Centre for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts found that life satisfaction for the local populace actually decreased as a result of being awarded the Capital of Culture title.

The research suggests that the kinds of challenges that accompany other mega-events, such as international sporting competitions, are likely to arise during a city’s ECOC year too.

“There are major positive and negative side effects of mega-events that may affect life satisfaction,” the report read. “On the negative side, construction works may generate unpleasant noise and make travelling to work more difficult. The influx of tourists may cause people to be less satisfied with life due to congestion in public transport or due to additional disruptions or littering.”

In addition, early ECOC programmes often suffered from a number of logistical challenges. When Thessaloniki in Greece was chosen in 1997, 235 events had to be cancelled due to poor planning or cuts to government funding.

Similarly, a lack of direction was blamed for underwhelming moments during Marseille’s spell as host city. Even in Glasgow, which is often held up as one of the more successful European Cultural Capitals, there was significant opposition to the amount of public money being spent on the programme and whether it could be put to better use.

In 1990, some of the criticism centred on the perceived gentrification of working-class areas in Glasgow and a belief that only a certain type of culture was being celebrated by the ECOC. This is an opinion that is not without merit. During Turku’s host year of 2011, a protest project dubbed ‘Turku – European Capital of Subculture’ was started in opposition to the programme’s “high-cultural understanding of art”.

What’s more, many of the negative consequences of hosting the ECOC are often most detrimental to the city’s poorest. Sharp rises in rent and general price increases may mean local businesses benefit, but less affluent residents lose out.

In many ways, this type of criticism is a result of the rising expectations surrounding the ECOC: what started out as an arts festival now has an obligation to deliver social improvements to its host cities.

Celebrating differences
If the ECOC is to be viewed as a celebration the entire city can get behind, then it is vital that local communities are involved in the bidding, planning and execution stages of the cultural programme. For Aarhus 2017, resident engagement was vitally important from the earliest stages.

“Between 2010 and 2011, some 10,000 citizens and representatives from cultural institutions and organisations took part in developing ideas for our programme, making proposals for cultural activities and inspiring the theme of our year – ‘Let’s Rethink’,” Matthews explained. “Part of the social legacy of Aarhus 2017 is the widespread involvement in a discussion about how culture can contribute to social challenges.”

For hosts to deliver a successful ECOC programme that appeals to diverse stakeholders, a clear vision is required from the outset. This focus could centre on raising a city’s profile, such as when Tallinn became the Capital of Culture in 2011, or in developing human capital, as was the case for Guimarães in 2012. The precise aims of a host city can be varied, but they must be focused and underpinned by a clear strategy.

Last year, Aarhus showed that the ECOC could have a wide reach and engage a broad spectrum of individuals, both locals and tourists. It demonstrated that a successful ECOC programme could extol the virtues of a specific city, while simultaneously highlighting its international connections.

At its best, the yearlong celebration not only acts as a catalyst for long-term development – it shows that Europe’s cultural diversity is one of its greatest strengths.

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