From Viking Horns to Penis Fountains | European Capitals of Culture

photo by Bo Amstrup

photo by Bo Amstrup


by eline schaart

Aarhus, Denmark

What connects Thessaloniki, Guimarães and Mons? Apart from the fact that you’ve probably never been to these cities, they have also recently been European Capitals of Culture. Cities are lining up to become the next Capital of Culture, but how successful is the cultural program really and what do its critics say? From a Penis Fountain in the Netherlands to gun-gang culture in Liverpool, this is what I found.

On a cold evening in January, the countdown on the library’s facade in Aarhus finally hit zero. Down in the city centre more than ten thousand people gathered to watch a parade of traditional Viking ships and folk choirs make its lumbering way through the small streets. After six years of preparation, Aarhus was now officially (along with Pafos, in Cyprus) European Capital of Culture.

When living in Aarhus in 2016 I enjoyed the city’s many cultural hotspots - especially the amazing ARoS museum, known for its “Your Rainbow Panorama” floor with a kaleidoscopic view of the entire city. I also observed how the city was preparing at full power for its year at the centre of the European stage: the industrial coastline was transformed by new cultural venues, museums were expanding, and the public library projected a clock onto its facade, counting down until the opening ceremony.

I had never heard of the Capital of Culture programme, so I was surprised by its omnipresence in the city. I decided I wanted to know more about the program and why it is so important for cities. Here is what I found.

Unity in Diversity

The European Capital of Culture programme started in 1985 and has since landed in 58 cities, including three non-European cities (Istanbul in 2010, Stavanger in 2008 and Reykjavik in 2000) . Before the festivities can begin, the chosen city spends a great deal of effort and money on preparations. These can take up to six years before the event.  Surprisingly, the European Capital of Culture is gaining popularity: cities bid against each other for the privilege to host the festivities with a passion usually reserved for big sports events such as the Olympics.

So why do cities want the title so badly? Previous European Capitals of Culture, like Glasgow, Essen and Lille, have shown that the title can be an opportunity to breathe new life into their urban centres, bringing tourists, creativity and international recognition. Funding is not allocated exclusively to museums, theaters and cultural projects, but is also spent on social projects and infrastructure.

Aarhus, for instance, is also spending part of its 57.6 million euro budget on a brand new tram and train system, opening in May. The city is trying to put itself on the map as an international hub, to attract the tourists that usually only visit the capital Copenhagen. So far the investments seem to be paying off. Aarhus was featured in many international print media and television programs and hotels are fully booked. No doubt the stream of visitors will boost local businesses too.

The other side of the Capital of Culture

Not everyone is a fan of the European Capital of Culture program. Some question whether it is a good idea to splash public money on European cities of culture, while others oppose the balance that some cities uphold between promoting shared European identity and respecting regional customs.  

The distinction between European and national identity is perhaps inherent to the program and the European Union. In 2000 the European Union adopted the motto ‘unity in diversity,’ which stresses the European identity, while respecting member states’ national and regional diversity. The Euro is a good example. The coins depict the continent on one side, but the other side is left blank for each country to show off a prominent symbol of national heritage, like the German eagle or Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man for Italy.  

photo by Bo Amstrup

But this interplay between local identity, national identity and European identity is as important to the program as it is potentially problematic. Two European Capitals of Culture, one in the past and the other capital-to-be, reflect both the successes and tensions within the European Capital of Culture program.  

‘European Capital of the Year – you must be having a laugh’

Liverpool was the biggest spender in the history of the programme: in 2008 the city burned through a jaw-dropping 83 million euros (the average is 39 million euros). The result? A flood of visitors and a 700 million-pound boost to its economy. At the same time, Liverpool brushed off its uninviting image of poverty, replacing it with that of a vibrant cultural hub. National and international coverage of the city’s cultural events doubled. For the first time in decades, positive stories about Liverpool outnumbered negative ones.

But moving away from the city centre and into the suburbs, the Culture Capital looked less rosy. In an interview with the BBC, Father Philip Inch, priest at a church in the Croxteth neighbourhood, said that “although people were enthusiastic about the festivities they also wondered whether they would only benefit the city centre and middle class people”.

“The only evidence celebrating the capital of culture in this area that I am aware of is when, about 12 months ago, someone put up a banner on a derelict house which said ‘Capital of Culture – you must be having a laugh’”.

A study done by Philip Boland, researcher at the Queen’s University in Belfast, supports Father Inch’s observations. The study points out that the Capital of Culture programme ignored the negative elements of the city, including the “gun-gang culture” and high unemployment, while promoting a new European cultural identity in the city centre. Because of this, many people living in poorer areas felt estranged from the cultural events and the city centre.    

In praise of the mobile penis fountain

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Henk van der Veer is angry. The local journalist and poet has started a petition to protest the arrival of six fountains in his homedistrict Friesland, a northern province of the Netherlands and host of the European Capital of Culture in 2018. I talked to him to find out how he feels about the Capital of Culture coming to Leeuwarden, the province’s main city.

“It feels like people outside of Friesland are coming here to decide what is going to happen,” he says.

The Dick-Fountain (Piemelfontein)

The Dick-Fountain (Piemelfontein)

The installment of the fountains in different cities is part of the Leeuwarden Capital of Culture programme. But not a single fountain was designed by a Frisian artist and locals feel that their objections were ignored.

“You should never look a gift horse in the mouth”, says Henk van der Veer. “But I am concerned about the costs of maintaining the fountains, which will be the municipality’s responsibility.”

A very special crowdfunding initiative found a more creative way to protest. Henk de Boer, a local artist, designed a ‘penis fountain’ that symbolizes the ‘pissing contest’ that the organisation of Leeuwarden 2018 is involved in. De Boer told Dutch newspaper AD that “everything has to be as big and international as possible, while normal citizens are overlooked”.

The fountain is designed to have a public toilet in the middle, so every time someone pees, the fountain shoots water too. In that way, the people in Friesland do have some ownership over what happens.

Liverpool and Leeuwarden show that although the European Capital of Europe is popular among organizers and tourists, some residents struggle with the international and elitist character of the programme. Nevertheless, the bidding contest continues. Despite leaving the European Union, three British cities (Dundee, Leeds and Milton Keynes) are working at the moment on their final bids to host the event in 2023. Although it is not yet known whether the EU will let the UK host, now that Article 50 has been triggered.


Eline is a Dutch journalist residing in Swansea.
She writes about micro-politics, European identity and protest