Eleusis2021 – Planning a European Capital of Culture

Eleusis as seen from the Archaeological Museum. Ancient ruins, chimneys and the harbour mark its landscape. Photo by the author.

by Prof Ares Kalandides

When Eleusis, a small industrial town in the vicinity of Athens, was appointed European Capital of Culture for 2021, people received the decision both with joy and surprise: Joy, because this town, once one of the most important ritual sites in ancient Greece and home to the goddess Demeter, was back on the map; Surprise, because industrialization has clearly left its mark on the town, whose landscape is marked by factory chimneys, large industrial complexes and a commercial harbour. However, the choice of the European Commission is not based on what the city is, but on what it can become according to the bid book. And it was the bid, with its promise of a “passage to EUphoria” that managed to convince the jury.

“Nuit de la lenteur” – Photo by John Skouskoutis

In 2017, a municipal company was set up to prepare and implement the cultural programme – Eleusis2021 – and I have the honour of being on its Board of Directors. Events have been taking place regularly since the first day – exhibitions, conferences, guided tours, installations, and much more – and are set to peak in the year 2021. These are exiting, but not always easy times.

As every place manager knows, the job comes with several challenges, some of which we all share and some that are very particular to the locality. In this blog post, I would like to talk about the challenges of the endeavour and promise to come back with more news in the future.

Factory chimneys behind the archaeological site. Photo by the author.

The motto of Eleusis European Capital of Culture 2021 is “Passage to EUphoria” – a double play both on the EU and Euphoria as a Greek word and as a reference to Demeter, goddess of the harvest as well as the cycle of life and death. However, a motto is not a Vision. It needs to be filled with content – with life – and supported by a series of goals and measures. A municipal company set to organize and implement the programme cannot and should not be responsible for that. At the best, it can be a catalyst and a supporter. It is for the people of the town, under the guidance of the democratically elected Mayor to look for the Vision and own it.

Whereas the institution of the European Capital of Culture is not mainly about attracting Tourists, it is also about that. Once again, it cannot be the objective of a municipal company with a limited life span (2021) to plan a tourism strategy, as it is not for the company to implement measures of urban renewal and infrastructure. A strong European Capital of Culture needs a strong municipality.

Community Engagement Manager Yannis Koukmas during Culture2030. Photo by Pandelis.

The Engagement of local – and maybe not so local – Communities in the endeavour will define its success or failure. This is not a project limited to artists or the cultural jet-set – it is a gift to the people of Eleusis. It is there because of them, lives through them and needs to be implemented for them. A strong European Capital of Culture needs – but also can help constitute – a strong civil society.

Not everybody is happy with the European Capital of Culture. Elitism, isolation, lack of transparency and accountability are some our greatest risks. Photo by the author.

There is always a strong risk of Elitism in cultural projects. We are not there to impose our concept of culture to the people of Eleusis and we are certainly not there to organize another festival or a series of events: So, what is our concept of culture – what do we include and what not? Are we maybe confusing Culture with The Arts? How do we include people’s personal histories, their traditions and everyday lives? Where do we find space for heritage, architecture and landscape? Where is popular music and local food? Community engagement can only work if we are honest and humble about this.

Former refugee housing in the Synoikismos Neighbourhood in Eleusis. Photo by Petros Chytiris.

Eleusis does not stand in Isolation. It is embedded into a network of other towns around it, which all together form the Thriasion plain, one of the most industrialized – and polluted – regions in Greece. Also, Eleusis is part of other families: the Mediterranean, the family of ports, the family of ancient shrines, the family of industrial sites and working-class movements. Such local and not-so-local links need to be filled with life.

Eleourgio. “Upon the Earth, Under the Clouds”. Photo by Panos Kallitsis

What will be our Legacy when, on 31st December 2021, Eleusis2021 finishes its job? What will be left in and for Eleusis? There is material legacy – infrastructure, buildings, cultural sites, etc. – and there is the immaterial one – the consolidation of a civil society around culture, institutions that will take over where we left, a vision and strategies in urban development. We are using public money for this project and only transparency and accountability can guarantee that this investment goes back to those most in need.

And finally, the European Capital of Culture is a project that should fill us all with Joy. The difficulties of everyday management, the squabbles over micro and macro-politics, the upcoming municipal elections in May 2019, stress everybody involved – so much that we sometimes lose site of what we need to do our job best: The feeling that we are a team – a team composed by excellent, highly motivated and talented individuals – who work towards a common goal, which, no matter how arrogant it may sound, is to make the place better through culture.