“I couldn’t find a parking space and I was already thinking: did Filip Watteuew also pass here?” Sami Souguir immediately got the laughs on Sunday morning in the town hall in Sint-Martens-Latem.
The Ghent Open VLD councilors, who are competent for culture, were invited by the local cultural council to discuss whether Ghent will be allowed to call itself the cultural capital of Europe in 2030.
In 2030, a Belgian city can hold that title for one year. This attracts visitors, income and all kinds of activity. But the title is coveted: Kortrijk, Leuven, Brussels and Liège also want it. Candidates must submit a file in 2024, after which Europe decides who it will be.
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Souguir came to Latem on Sunday to ask for support, along with fellow party member Stephanie D’Hose, Katrien Laporte, the director of the Design Museum in Ghent, and Pieterjan Bouten, the founder of Gent technology companies In The Pocket and Showpad, and Latem himself.
In Ghent, Mayor Mathias De Clercq’s Open VLD in particular has staked heavily on the title of European Capital of Culture. The party sees it as an engine for the entire city, from the cultural sector and business to the residential areas. It is one of the reasons why De Clercq so strongly emphasized last month that Gent does not cuts cultural budgets.
“There is still a lot of work to be done, but I am sure we have a great chance,” said culture mayor Souguir in Latem on Sunday. “We have the cross-border support of Zeeland, thanks to the port of the North Sea Port. But we also look to our neighbors, such as the artist village of Latem, for support for our candidacy. It can be good for our whole region.”
A case for Ghent’s candidacy as a ‘cultural free port’ is being drawn up. A process of thirty cultural voices has been carried out and the municipality has created a separate non-profit organisation. There is also money: the city of Ghent invests 300,000 euros a year in preparing the candidacy.
But this is also the sting in the whole story: A candidacy already costs money, but much larger budgets are attached to the organization of such a cultural year. The Dutch city of Leeuwarden, for example, needed around 70 million euros in 2018 to be European Capital of Culture.
Ghent can already start counting. A significant package of around 135 million euros in cultural investments is ready: the renovation of the Flemish Opera, a new wing for the Design Museum and an extension with a lift at Gravensteen. In addition, Floraliënhal and ICC in Citadelparken will also be renovated.
But those investments are also under pressure. The city already had to save 110 million euros this year and look for extra income. There are still difficult negotiations in the town hall about savings on investments and the city council has not made it easy for itself.
“We also have to be realistic,” museum director Laporte noted Sunday. “Ghent already wants to be a lot of things: technology capital, veggie capital, climate neutral, port city, cultural capital… The city needs to make a clear choice about what it really wants to be. The city’s budget is not huge.”
Ghent urgently needs to get rid of one case if the city wants the title, says Stephanie D’Hose. “In my role as President of the Senate, I see ambassadors and presidents every day. After Brussels, they visit Antwerp, Leuven and then maybe third or fourth Ghent. Once they have been to Ghent, everyone is wildly excited. But Ghent is really still a hidden pearl. We need to get rid of that mystery. We need to lobby more to national governments and to Europe.”
An example is the Winter Circus, said Bouten. The entrepreneur is part of a group of fifteen investors who want to lease the renovated building for 75 years and breathe new life into it.
“We want to make it a meeting place at the crossroads between economics, culture and knowledge. There is also a beautiful concert hall in the building. I believe that Winter Circus can play a role in the candidacy.” Laporte called it the ideal place for “an urban laboratory where you can work together in the quadruple helix”.
Souguir compared Ghent to Antwerp, “where culture was first cut down.” “In Ghent, around 15 per 1,000 inhabitants are employed in the cultural sector, more than in Antwerp. Research into Ghent’s cultural wealth places us just behind Florence, Venice and Bologna. Its strength lies in the super many cultures that Ghent has to offer.”
The question is, what will all that effort and money bring to the inhabitants of Ghent? Laporte contributed to Bruges’ bid twenty years ago, before the city finally won the title in 2002.
“It should be about more than culture, but about the big challenges: the climate, poverty, migration, the digital transformation… The year has been a lever for Bruges to get rid of its somewhat old-fashioned image. And succeeded.”
“But there was little cultural creation in Bruges, it’s not Ghent. A lot had to be imported. It has brought Bruges a lot, but mainly infrastructure, such as the Concertgebouw.”
When Bergen was able to carry the title in 2015, a study subsequently calculated that every euro invested gave 5.5 euros to the city. “That return on investment the culture is huge, people underestimate it”, says D’Hose.
“Every euro that the government invests in culture, you get back three times. You invest in the theatre, but no one goes to the theater alone. You have a beer in the café next door, you eat in the restaurant opposite, you park in the garage below. It all ties together.”
D’Hose calls for tougher lobbying. “Who is the Flemish prime minister, who is the mayor, who is at European level… It all plays a role. We have to get our farmers ready so that the decision falls to us.”
And what if Ghent doesn’t make it? “It remains a political decision,” D’Hose said. “We throw ourselves from Ghent, but politics develops very quickly. At some point the puzzle has to fall. It can be good, but also bad. We have to be aware of that.”