EU chiefs went out on a limb to back an unfancied community-sized bid for European City of Culture in 2018. Now, it is transforming not only the small city of Leeuwarden, but also the surrounding region. Patrick Kelly reports.
It’s fair to say that Leeuwarden, the Dutch city which shares the 2018 Capital of Culture title with Valletta in Malta, is not one of the major tourist sites of the Netherlands.
Indeed, before it won the accolade, even their fellow countrymen would have had a hard job pointing it out on the map.
All that has changed now. As the culture year draws to a close, an extraordinarily eclectic and engaging programme of artistic events has transformed Dutch attitudes to this small city in the midst of the Frisian farmlands, just one and a half hours drive from Amsterdam.
More importantly, the Leeuwardians have altered their own self-image in the process. Spend an hour or two walking around the canals and walkways of this charming place and you will hear and see words like ‘openness’ and ‘welcome’. Even in local pubs well off the beaten tourist track, regulars will insist a bar stool be found for a wandering stranger.
The roots of that change lie in the city’s bid for the cultural capital title. They won against heavily fancied rivals like Utrecht or Maastricht because judges were impressed by a deep-rooted commitment to a ‘bottom up’ cultural programme which presented culture as not just an economic but a social game-changer.
It wasn’t an easy route to get there. An initial decision to enter the Cultural Capital competition was scrapped by local authorities in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008. But a group of creatives in the city, inspired by the idea of using the arts to put their city on the map, published their own manifesto for culture-related change. It was swiftly adopted by officials and formed the core of the successful bid.
Claudia Woolgar, creative producer for the European Capital of Culture team, says that keeping that level of community involvement going through the long lead time of the process (they won the accolade in 2013) is not easy, but they had to sustain that support. “How can you talk about an economic and cultural legacy if you don’t keep local people on board?”
So its no surprise to learn that at the heart of the Capital of Culture this year is the concept of Iepen Mienskip – which is Frisian (they have their own language here) for ‘Open Community’. Hundreds of small artistic initiatives have been created by locals, from remodelling an old supermarket into a village centre to a music festival run by farmers. Thus you’ll find front doors with poems painted above the letterbox, gable walls and pavements covered in murals, local parks studded with new artworks and shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and offices hosting City of Culture Events. The city’s landmarks have been embraced as part of the culture show; the Oldehove leaning church tower is the site of a light show, the Princessehof ceramics museum is hosting a plethora of exhibitions mixing classical and contemporary ceramics and the former prison turned arts atelier has been a regular venue for all sorts of festivals and events.
That embrace has also included the whole of the Frisian region, as the bid made it clear that the ‘Capital’, would extend across the whole area, right up to the Wadden Sea.
There were no expensive building projects, no extravagant festivals with big name rock stars, just an eclectic and engaging programme of events which infuse very street, every neighbourhood, and every community in the Frisian farmland.
The programme does feature some big names – Royal De Luxe have been here with their Giants show and MC Escher’s exhibition at the Frisian Museum has been a huge draw - astonishing 200,000 visitors so far well beyond their initial target of 120,000 for the year, and a Rembrandt exhibition is coming as a finale to the cultural year. Major contemporary artists like Cornelia Parker, Lucy Orta and Jaume Plensa have made their mark on the event with extraordinary public sculptures which now dot the landscape.
Indeed, one international project, which invited 11 leading artists, including Parker, to design a fountain for each of the urban communities in Frisland, was the cause of controversy. Local artists, annoyed at what they considered to be exclusion from this part of the cultural year, decided to build their own ‘penis fountain’ as a protest. To their credit, the organisers decided to incorporate the new sculpture, which, into the programme and even gave them money to complete it.
Another example of the inclusivity factor is the story of Henk an independent tour guide who set up an English language walking tour of the city a few years back. This year, thanks to the Capital of Culture, he has had 20,000 customers, compared to the 5,000 he had a year ago. Henk is an enthusiastic champion of the arts in Leeuwarden. No tour is now complete without an insider guide as to where to find the best art and the best music. He is a huge fan of the Capital of Culture year, which he says has changed people’s attitudes from scepticism to pride. “People feel more confident about the place. They like to talk about the positive side and its really has put a smile on their faces.”
But the Capital of Culture is not just about creating a local feelgood factor. Matthea De Jong runs Open Up, a programme strand which is dedicated to artists engaging with different issues – often uncomfortable and challenging ones, she says. “We are not shying away from contentious matters such as refugees, an issue which has divided much of Europe, or climate change. We want to showcase not only art that pleases but art that confronts.” Artists, musicians and comedians have been hosting events in a Leeuwarden pub to discuss these sorts of issues and an artistic climate summit in October attracted artists and activists from all over the world.
Woolgar, who is UK born and has a track record in arts work which encompasses the Kilkenny Arts Festival and international theatre, admits that despite being based in Rotterdam, she knew little of Leeuwarden or Frisia before coming onboard the creative team. But she has been bowled over by the region’s embrace of culture. “ There will be a physical legacy, with the fountains for example, but the great thing about something like this, in a place like this is that it unleashes a huge amount of creative energy– thats the legacy.”