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Three lessons from Europe’s cultural cities

BOP Associate Director Callum Lee on the state of cultural policy in cities across Europe.


Since I moved to BOP’s Rotterdam office last year, I’ve taken in my own “grand tour” of the new cultural context across Europe. I’ve spoken to policymakers in cities like Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Dortmund, Vienna, Kosice, Budapest, Porto, as well as the European Commission (an important figure in the fight for the value of culture). Here are the three big messages I took away.

1. Has the battle been won?

The battle for the importance of culture in cities is becoming yesterday’s argument, as cities move on from a straight “making the case for culture”. It is rare to find a city without some sort of strategy for the cultural and creative industries, with investment attached. In fact, many of the city administrations that we work with no longer need to “make the case for culture” yet again. Although this is important at a macro-level (for national governments where budgets are decided), city administrations find it hard to imagine their cities without a vibrant and rich cultural scene. We argued this in the Policy Briefing from the Istanbul Summit of our World Cities Culture Forum: “The role of culture and the creative industries in driving growth and promoting cities is now widely accepted by politicians and city leaders”.

2. How, not why.

As the issue for cities is no longer one of grand strategy (should we invest in culture), it has become focused on practical implementation (how should we invest in culture). Cities ask consultancies like ours to analyse and assess the case for specific cultural investments. This means choosing from different cultural options – would it be better to develop a new festival, a skills programme, or a new art gallery? Which European funds can help meet their goals? How can they make the most of their cultural heritage?

3. New data for new arguments.

Because we are now looking at the local context, we can no longer just lazily borrow generic arguments. Local evidence and data has become much more important in helping make local decisions. For example, if we are a city administration making an “old” decision by choosing between investing in a theatre or in another facility, then Richard Florida can help. If we are making a “new” decision, by choosing between a festival and a skills programme, then Florida’s arguments are less easy to apply – you have to have local data that is rooted in the situation where you are making your decision. Our World Cities Culture Forum, which we developed with a partnership of more than 20 global cities, has data at its heart and this is central to its success.