Culture, no matter what

21 April 2021

1 February 2020, after years of preparation it is Rijeka’s turn to show off as one of the European Capitals of Culture. They started with an impressive opening ceremony gathering more than 30,000 people and offering more than 70 events, and then… Covid-19 stole the spotlight.

“During our opening ceremony, the whole city was like a big stage,” says Irena Kregar Šegota, CEO for Rijeka European Capital of Culture 2020. “Everything was packed with people, it was amazing. Then, all of a sudden, something like this is not only impossible, but unimaginable.”

A political commitment

Rijeka was appointed in 2016 and became the first Croatian city to hold the European Capital of Culture title, after competing against eight other Croatian cities among which Dubrovnik and Zagreb. Ever since, the city has worked on the project. “We started pilot programmes and educational programmes right from 2017,” says Kregar Šegota. “And for 2020 we imagined not just an excellent cultural and artistic programme, with more than 600 events, but also different platforms, tools and activities that engaged citizens, making them into active citizens in an active city.”

The cultural sector was one of the most hit by the pandemic. “Culture is all about being close. Creating close encounters. It’s this that links us together,” says Kregar Šegota. And yet, Rijeka, as everyone else, had to deal with physical distancing measures. “We had also planned a really strong European and global dimension,” continues Kregar Šegota “but borders closed overnight.” The 220 partners coming from 40 different countries could not come anymore. Finally, the allocated budget for the project was also cut by 40%. Rijeka found itself having to implement this project in completely unexpected conditions.

Even with the budget cuts, the European Capital of Culture remains a big financial investment – about €20 million in programming and €40 million in infrastructure in Rijeka’s case – and a political commitment from the local, regional and national governments alike. “We could not just walk away” says Kregar Šegota. “We had the Mayor’s support and the Minister of Culture, Nina Obuljen Koržinek, who has been fighting for the cultural sector, understood the importance of keeping the project alive.”

A new scale for the project

“After the first shock, we adapted,” says Kregar Šegota. “We restructured the programme, relied heavily on local performances, the local creative and cultural scene, downsized and downscaled everything, in financial terms.” Which meant that in a year where culture and art stopped in many other places, Rijeka kept pushing the envelope.

“Everything became a stage,” says Kregar Šegota. “The roof of a skyscraper, a big parking lot on top of a shopping mall, squares, big empty industrial warehouses, with 7,000 m2 where you could organise physical distancing. The Mahler Symphony, for example, was played in a huge sports hall.”

Although audiences had to be smaller than initially planned, over 450 events took place in Rijeka in 2020 with a total number of 160,000 people participating – of which 120,000 in person and 42,000 online. These numbers don’t include the opening ceremony.

Opening ceremony – Zvončarska Symphony

Milder summer restrictions in Croatia helped Rijeka. Not all cities were as lucky, Galway, the second European Capital of Culture for 2020 had to endure a much stricter lockdown, which made it much more difficult to run events. In light of the pandemic the Commission also decided to prolong the European Capital of Culture 2020 to the end of April 2021 to give both capitals a better chance at taking advantage of the project.

Tangible legacy

While the title will pass on at the end of this month, Rijeka’s European Capital of Culture legacy will carry on. The most visible will be the infrastructure. “The city decided not to build anything new,” says Kregar Šegota, “we invested instead into renovating former industrial buildings and we now have the biggest infrastructural project in Croatia since WWII.”

The 30,000 m2 of the former Rikard Benčić factory complex are being transformed into a new cultural and arts quarter. “Even the public square between the buildings will be a new space for our citizens,” says Kregar Šegota. “With an open underground stream, an orchard and vegetable garden, the whole complex will become a pleasant cultural and touristic point.”

The 18th century complex originally a sugar refinery, then converted into a tobacco factory in the mid-19th century, and repurposed for engines and tractors after WWII, will now be home to four cultural institutions: the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the City Museum, the Children’s House and the City Library, which will be completed next year.

A home for children and parents

“Of all the things we are doing, the Children’s House gives me the most joy,” confesses Ivan Šarar, Head of the City’s Department of Culture. “It is ‘everyone’s favourite’ part of the Benčić neighbourhood.” Fresh from its inauguration a month ago, the Children’s House is Rijeka’s innovation jewel.

The first building of its kind in Croatia, the building is dedicated to the development of creativity in children aged 0-12. Before the opening of the building, the Children’s House was the name of a series of programmes and festivals that focused not only on creating cultural and artistic content specifically for children, but which gave children an active role in making cultural and artistic content. Now, these activities will have a physical home open all day.

Children and parents will get the chance to make animated movies or create music in adapted studios, make video games, test product design and 3D printing. Children will also have access to a small amphitheatre on the roof of the building to test their storytelling skills. There will be interactive baby theatre, doll-making, therapeutic theatre, and customised movie screenings for children with developmental disabilities, and much more. The Children’s House wants to bring parents and children together in the creative process and stimulate literacy among 21st-century children.

Physically connected in the new arts quarter, four cultural institutions will be responsible for the combined management and governance of the institution: the City Library, Art Kino, Rijeka’s city puppetry theatre and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. “The audiences will mingle and there’s a lot of potential for future programmes,” says Kregar Šegota.

Passing on knowledge and skills

Besides the new quarter, Rijeka will count a few more physical traces from the European Capital of Culture 2020. The ship Galeb, former president’s Tito’s boat, is also being renovated and repurposed into a museum. And the city’s areas by the sea and by the Rječina River will welcome installations and permanent sculptures by acclaimed international and Croatian artists.

However, not all legacies of the project will be immediately visible to the visitor’s eye. “A lot of people gained knowledge in cultural management and production through this project,” explains Kregar Šegota. On one hand, through the ‘Classroom’ programme, which offered formal training to 1,200 people on different aspects of cultural production and management between 2017 and 2019; and through a structured volunteering programme that mentored more than 600 volunteers putting them in contact with professionals. On the other hand, the many people who worked on the project, or volunteered their time, gained invaluable knowledge and skills. “This has been an extraordinary professional experience,” says Kregar Šegota, “and I hope that these people will remain in the city and invest what they have learned into future projects.”

Citizens at work

Another example of intangible legacy are programmes born under the European Capital of Culture 2020 input, but that will continue to engage with Rijeka’s residents for years to come. One of these programmes is the 27 Neighbourhoods. The idea of the programme is that interested groups of people from an area in the city or from a village in the region apply to become a small consortium, one of the 27 Neighbourhoods. Each consortium then proposes cultural programmes that are meaningful to their communities, and the city then helps them to make them happen. “For example, we helped with financing, applying for EU funds, with promotion, artistic production, we linked them with artists, and so on,” says Kregar Šegota.

Each consortium was also paired with a similar consortium in one of the 27 EU countries, creating a new network of European communities working together. “The groups were very diverse, and some pairings worked so well that they will continue working together even after the end of the project,” says Kregar Šegota.

Rijeka also introduced a civil initiative programme where boards of citizens select proposals for projects and decide which should be financed and implemented, an innovative initiative in the Croatian context. “The city  worked as a mediator,” explains Kregar Šegota. “We really empowered residents, so they learned a lot about how projects are produced, how to make decisions about them, how you work with the city administration, like what kind of permissions you need.”

The European Capital of Culture project allowed Rijeka to experiment. “It’s a luxury to have the space to try new things, experiment, even fail,” says Kregar Šegota. “But this is how we move forward and we come up with good things.” Such space has been hard hit by the health crisis, yet it remains vital, and Rijeka hopes to have inspired others to still stand for culture and weather the storm.

Photo: Acoustic quartet plays flamenco and rumba – Tea Square – art association Ćeif, acoustic trio Agam

**The European Capital of Culture is a cultural project and title that has been awarded to competing cities since 1985 by the European Commission. Participating cities are required to prove that they consider culture an important aspect of their development and transformation. As a platform for cities to connect, develop partnerships and learn from each other, Eurocities helped many cities develop their European Capitals of Culture bid and implement their cultural year. The European Capital of Culture project provides financing for the cultural development of the city that is awarded the title from European, public, national, regional and local funds, as well as contributions from sponsors. By becoming the European Capital of Culture, Rijeka has been inscribed on the list of about 60 European cities that have held the title so far. Rijeka is also the first Croatian city to hold the title.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer