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Every year the European Union designates at least two cities from different member countries to become European Capitals of Culture for a period of 12 months. Italy’s turn is up again in 2019 (together with Bulgaria), and Siena has joined the race as one of the candidate cities, which are competing to represent the country and the whole of Europe.

Recently the website of SIENA 2019 has been launched in English, which gave me the opportunity to meet project director Pier Luigi Sacco to find out more about the reasons behind Siena’s candidature. Originally from Pescara the head of #SIENA2019 is professor of Cultural Economics at IULM university in Milan and of Creative Industries at the university of Lugano in Switzerland. No doubt a busy man, Pier Luigi Sacco nevertheless took proper time to thoroughly answer my questions.

The interview took place at the headquarters of #SIENA2019, which are based in the fascinating underground maze of the Santa Maria della Scala museum (in fact I nearly didn’t find my way back out).

Who suggested Siena’s candidature as one the European Capitals of Culture 2019?

The idea was initially launched two administrations ago, by Maurizio Cenni, who was then mayor of Siena, and was quickly taken over by the local cultural community. This happened however at a moment when the city was in a very different period, which resulted in a rather traditional concept for the bid.

In what sense was it a different period?

At that time Siena was still very dependent on Italy’s third largest bank, Monte dei Paschi, thus creating a de facto parallel welfare system. Although paradoxically, that context wouldn’t have been the most appropriate one to take part in the competition.

Why not?

Unlike what most people believe, the program of Europe’s Capitals of Culture has evolved over the years, and now focuses on cities in situations where a clear transformation is needed. The intent of the European Union is to use cultural interventions in ways, which demonstrate how culture can solve problems. This helps to illustrate on European level why we need to sustain culture, which is something that is always at risk. Now even more than ever.

Two administrations back Siena was still doing relatively well economically. Why then did the city consider to participate in this competition?

Most Italian cities see the importance of their cultural heritage as the main reason to candidate themselves as European Capital of Culture. Show what you are, in a way. This is very much in line with the Italian attitude. Initially, this is how we saw it in Siena as well. However, when we went deeper into the nature of the competition, we found a different orientation, which centers more on what you want to be, and especially on how you want to arrive there. 

What does this mean for Siena's bid?

Culture can be a response to economic crisis and an engine of social change. We think this is really the spirit of the competition, and our bid is thought as a concrete response to a serious set of crises that the city is currently experiencing. The idea of a city that has been knocked out by corporate gain and will be rejuvenated by culture in 2019 is a fascinating one. It’s a real challenge, but Siena's future is at stake, and we have to do our best to secure it.

Siena seen from the rear side of Palazzo Pubblico
#Siena2019: Envisioning a future for a city and its people 

2019 – that’s still a long way to go. What’s the timeline of the competition and at what point are we now?

We are at the first stage. Up to 20 Italian cities may be entering a proposal. There is no formal inscription procedure, so we’ll know for sure only by September 20, once all the bid books have been handed in. Judging from previous competitions, up to six cities could be shortlisted for the second round of the competition. There are seven jurors from Europe and six national jurors, so Europe retains the last word – if needed. Ideally, the winner is the city which is most promising in terms of making a difference in European culture. Other crucial aspects are how you're going to guarantee that everything promised will materialize, and the potential legacy the project will leave to the city and its citizens. 

What happens if you make it through the first round? 

If we pass the first round, we have to be ready to launch the second phase this November. At that point a short period of 9 months ensues with a lot of work to do. Presumably by August 2014 the jury decides which Italian city becomes one of the two European Capitals of Culture in 2019. However, the official proclamation will only happen in spring 2015. From that moment on, the winning city can use the title for the year.

When were you asked to join the team to work on Siena’s bid for the title?

Around October 2011, when the Ceccuzzi administration started. It’s a very demanding job, but it’s fully worthwhile. The European Capital of Culture program is the most far-reaching opportunity in Europe, or anywhere else, to work on long term culture-driven development. And I think that Italy cannot miss this chance to realize the potential of culture in shaping up our economic and social future. Well designed and implemented bids can provide a terrific contribution in this respect, under the form of inspiring good practices and success stories. This is a great opportunity for all good bidders, whoever the actual winner. I am very grateful to the new mayor of Siena, Bruno Valentini, who has come into office in tough times, but nevertheless has found the time to examine the project carefully, to understand its motivations and potential, and to enable the team to pursue our work in the best possible conditions. 

What is your background? 

I’m a cultural economist. I’ve been working a lot on cultural development processes at local, regional and national level and have quite some experience on European level. I’ve also cooperated with some of the past European Capitals of Culture on specific grounds, but #Siena2019 is probably the most ambitious and complex project I have ever embarked upon. In the past I’ve also collaborated with the MPS foundation on the Santa Maria della Scala museum project, during which the potential of Siena as a cultural capital was actively discussed. 

Which other Italian cities are most likely to become finalists?

There are so many competitors that it is not easy to make forecasts, also because it is difficult to keep track of what all the others are doing. To make an example, certainly Ravenna and Matera are looking very good. They’ve been working longer than anyone else and they are doing a lot of wonderful things about participation. But there are in principle many other potentially good bidders.

In fact, this is something I’ve been wondering about: why is there only little information 
on the internet and hardly any participation on social media around Siena’s candidature?

There are a few things to consider in this respect. First of all, citizens’ involvement is certainly one of the key aspects of a successful bid, but we think that in order to be stable and credible, participation has to build up gradually, according to the development of the project. We are at the pre-selection stage now, and we have to keep in mind that Siena is a city that has been deeply hurt by very painful events recently. Therefore, at this stage boosting expectations and raving up enthusiasm could be inappropriate and even dangerous. We have to be humble, daring, and very concrete at the same time. We are just at the beginning, and there is a steep mountain to climb before us.

This is why for the initial phase of the competition we have chosen a low profile on social media, and a carefully balanced website communication. At the same time, we have gradually increased our presence in the local mainstream media such as press, radio, and television, but always maintaining a sober, down-to-earth attitude. We want to give hope to the city and create a sense of confidence without losing sight of reality. Step by step, we let our actions speak for us rather than promise too much. Finally, we have had countless meetings with all kinds of local players and stakeholders, both within and outside the cultural sector, so as to acquire a direct knowledge of the activities and potentials of each, and to provide a first hand information and exchange about the project and its possible outcomes. We know that we're working on the right themes thanks to these exchanges with our civil society. 

At the pre-selection stage, what matters at the end of the day is to present a carefully designed and thought through bid book, which reflects the potential of the city and the urgencies that keep people awake at night. In this sense I can say that there has been a lot of participation and real interaction with the territory. If we arrive at the next stage, it will then make sense to upscale the tone and intensity of communication, and to tune up energies and expectations accordingly: maybe the big dream could come true, and it’s up to us. But now, we prefer to develop our participation out of sight, in warm, direct relationships.

The whole idea of culture is about participation and involvement. On the other hand you say you don’t want too much involvement – at least not yet: how much space is there to integrate ideas from the population once the bid has gone out?

It is not that we do not want too much involvement, we aren’t just overly pushing the participation-related communication at this stage. We need to engage the community about the real things, and trying to build euphoria around the project now would only waste energy and focus, and could even be read as manipulative by some. We want to build trust and we want to be very clear about the purpose and the possibilities ahead of us – no frills.

Right now participation equals face to face dialogue, in small or larger groups, depending on circumstances and opportunities. We regularly hold public question time meetings and presentations at major community events. We routinely organize small thematic workshops, sessions, and brainstorms throughout – even now that we are entering the crucial phase of the bid book preparation. Only trough a close dialogue with the local community can we really check whether the themes we are focusing on have a real potential to leave a legacy. And the community is a powerful, practically endless source of ideas and crucial information of all kinds. 

Nevertheless, one should be careful. The most straightforward solutions are not always the best. Some cities for instance made open calls for their proposal. However, the experience of past European Capitals of Culture shows that open calls are not always a good idea.

For what reason?

The reason is very simple. Open calls are a selective process. In the end you have to turn down an overwhelming amount of the proposals. This upsets a lot of people and has a negative effect on participation and involvement in the medium-long term. Calls for workshops, on the contrary, focus on cooperation and mixing of ideas.

No open calls, but workshops and brainstorming. What else can we expect in regard to proposals by cultural operators from the territory? 

Again, we have to keep an eye on the whole process. Quality of proposals and scope of collaboration will naturally improve the more we dig in; especially during the second phase of the competition, once we have a clear and validated framework to work upon, and concrete, widely shared objectives. Committing too quickly upon too many proposals in the early stage could leave little space for future, more carefully tuned proposals. Participation is like an orchestra, the more we play together, the better the sound and the bigger the fun. So we should never make a record out of the first take. We need to play together a lot before we are ready to record. And we have a very difficult score to play. Europe wants a coherent program, which doesn’t address everything, but touches a few, well defined areas that play a role in the life of many Europeans. We look for ideas and projects, which deal with the theme of our bid in effective ways that leave a legacy, so as to solve parts of the crisis. And we also need people to learn to cooperate with other players in the territory, which means that we have to overcome the usual self reference so typical to many social and cultural operators.

This doesn’t sound like an easy task in a place like Tuscany?

It’s a difficult exercise, especially for Italy. Of course in countries like Sweden or the Netherlands this is easier as collaboration is part of their administration and city culture. But here in Italy we take great pride in our independence. We think we have so much that we do not need to look into the future. We don’t want to associate with others, especially in Siena! So yes, it’s a big challenge.

Back to the other competitors and their websites. It seems some of them think differently about participation and the right timing to get the population involved?

If I can use another analogy - we’re running a marathon. You shouldn’t be concerned after a few miles, because somebody runs ahead of you. Rather than having cosmetic forms of participation, we’d like to involve people once we can listen with respect. As an example, you can easily create a group of 150 friends, who tweet every day or post on Facebook. This is what some bidders did and it looks as if the whole territory, the whole population is teeming with initiative. But in the end it all comes down to 150 people. I’m not criticizing them. I think they are doing great work, but it is not exactly what #SIENA2019 is concerned about right now. 

Why not?

Siena has a very strong culture of participation, and it has to be engaged within the warm network of relationships that happen every day in the city, with all due respect and attention. For instance, an important stakeholder for bottom up participation are the Contrade (Siena’s neighborhoods), and we give a lot of importance to this. And consequently the communication and trust between the Contrade and #Siena2019 is building up, once again, gradually but steadily. Without being old style, we feel that this is not something you drop on a website or a twitter account. That would not be respectful.

So we’re not benchmarking ourselves now against where the other candidate cities stand. Another sporting analogy here to illustrate a slightly different aspect: think of the America’s Cup. Everybody has a different notion of where the wind is coming from. We are taking the wind from a side where we will get the force of our citizens behind this bid, other competitors from another side. In the end only the crossing will tell, who’s ahead.

Preparations for a community dinner in Contrada della Civetta (Siena's neighborhood of the owl)
Neighborhood gatherings in Siena: ample space for real world communication

Siena as one of Europe's Cultural Capitals in 2019: what does this mean for the rest of Tuscany?

No doubt, if we are successful, this is a platform for culture and innovation for the whole region. We’re working along a sort of two circles scheme, as it’s important to clearly define your key territory. Therefore our inner circle is Siena and its province, whereas the outer circle is made up by Tuscany.

We are busy analyzing the specific contributions each Tuscan province can make. The Grosseto province with the Maremma come to mind immediately, since they are historically linked to Siena. They are the inner part of the outer circle so to speak. Another important partner is obviously going to be Florence. Even more so as 2019 marks the five hundredth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. This presents a unique opportunity for a major project on the future interaction between science, technology and culture. But we want to pay due attention to the interaction with other Tuscan territories as well.

As somebody who lives in Maremma, I’m very happy to hear about the involvement of the rest of Tuscany. When will we get to know more about this?

Since time is very limited we have to focus on Siena and its province right now at the pre-selection stage. But especially in the second phase, once we have a commitment on how the territory is involved, we will get in touch via the administrations of the Tuscan cities and provinces.

And when will the Tuscan population hear more about the project?

Also at the beginning of the second phase, of course provided that we are among the shortlisted candidates. We will likely receive the result from the jury by mid-November. From that point on, if we make it to the second round, we can roll down the real takeoff lane. At this stage, we didn’t even print business cards: we are just simple pre-selection candidates right now! If we gain a first sign of approval from Europe, it will be more evident to our citizens that the themes of Siena are relevant in more European cities alike, and that will be the time to print the business cards...

However we’ve been communicating with the Sienese a lot. Speaking in comparative terms we are not pushing this key as hard as other candidates, but we are very active listeners with the movable tent and try also to hear the things we do not want to hear. We just participated in Siena’s first Notte Bianca. Also, we did a very successful work with schools classes, who were asked to discuss their ideas for the future, and to redesign our logo with a doodle, which is then published on our website.

By the way, our website looks simple for a reason. It’s very important to us that everybody can easily access the website, also people with visual or cognitive impairment, an aspect which excludes an overly flashy design. What you see is what you get.

Considering that you’re investing a lot of time, effort and resources into this project, is there a plan B if Siena doesn’t win or become a finalist?

There has to be a plan B. This is one of the conditions of the competition. If you manage to find financial support from regional structures and private sponsors, why not go along with the project? The idea is to have a nucleus of ideas, a solid core that can be implemented anyway. The reason for this is very simple. This territory is in crisis. It’s not like if we don’t win we’ll just move on to other things. We have to do something to help this city. And we are confident, that we can make it anyway. In the past we have seen examples of cities that have been eliminated at the last round, but managed to do better than the actual winner of the title.

When will the bid become accessible to the general public?

It can’t be completely accessible now, as it has to be kept secret. However, after the first round we circulate bid book contents at the local level. Some cities put the proposal on their internet site, but we think this is not wise. We’re still in the midst of competition and the bid book includes very technical information.

You’ve used analogies from the world of sport. It sounds like the competitiveness is an important factor between the candidate cities?

Definitely. The competitive character is strong, because there is a lot at stake. Becoming one of Europe’s Cultural Capitals really makes a difference for a city. Siena needs this opportunity. We are trying hard to do a good job and I certainly feel a lot of responsibility. I’m not here just to make a consultancy. I may not be a Sienese, but I try my best to see these things like somebody who has been born and raised in Siena. Also, our team mostly consists of people from Siena.

What is your personal connection to Siena?

I’ve been coming to Siena very often as a young economist. The faculty of economics in Siena was one of the most important ones in Italy. The university organized great summer schools in Pontignano, where one could meet Nobel prize winners and people of outstanding reputation. That’s when I fell in love with Siena. I’ve received proposals from other Italian candidate cities, but it was immediately clear to me, that I’d want to collaborate with Siena if the city was planning to participate in the competition. I’m very involved here and I like the spirit of Siena. Many people say that the Sienese are closed and a little rough, but that is really just a defensive attitude. Once people in Siena realize that you are willing to listen and that you’re not just here to preach, they open up in ways that I’ve hardly ever experienced in other places in Italy. I am proud to gain some confidence from this city!

You’ve known Siena for a long time. Apart of the current economic crisis, can you make out any changes in the cultural setup of the city?

Culturally speaking Siena has been a closed, self referential city for the last two decades, but today there is a clear, general sentiment that things have to change. For example, there is now a young independent scene coming up, and this is a very good signal in my view. A crisis disrupting a previous stagnation is often an ideal turf for change.

Newlyweds on Siena's piazza del Campo, summer 2013
Siena 2013: ready for a new beginning

Thinking of the analysis you made in your book ‘Italia Reloaded’ about the effects of mass tourism on Italy’s heritage cities, where would you position Siena?

Siena is somewhat in the middle. The crisis could move the city into thinking that the economic solution lies in even more standardized mainstream tourism. That would destroy the city. We are trying to propose an alternative model. Tourism has to become compatible and in some sense socially sustainable. Of course, the bad example is Venice. We don’t want to become another Venice. In order to prevent this from happening, we have to provide the city with a solid economic model. It’s not just a problem of ideas, it’s a problem of jobs. So we really have to create a situation, where we have a sustainable path with real jobs, which will bring the city to the other side. 

You can’t turn back the clock. Big tour groups arrive daily for quick stopovers in Siena. How can the city escape this setup?

The best way is to make space for a different model. One of our areas of interest is how much the digital development will change the experience of the physical space. We have to invest into the right direction, and attract the right people and talents. Like that we can create a cultural economy, which is less dependent on mass tourism. We want to count on other forms of more evolved and less standardized tourism. This is one of the main objectives of our bid.

I very much believe in this, but isn’t it a difficult model to implement in a city, which has already started to go down a different path? 

I think the situation is still quite open. Siena has not just surrendered about defending its authenticity. If you create a different type of space, and different initiatives and events, different people will come. It’s a gradual transformation, you cannot rule out things legally. It has to be a natural evolution. There have been interesting examples of heritage cities in Europe, which have managed to change their identity completely; not by banishing mass tourism, but by changing their orientation. We are trying to do the same.

Can you give me an example?

Places like Antwerp for instance. Look at the difference between Antwerp and Bruges. Antwerp is yes, a heritage city, but today also a hub for contemporary art, design and fashion, whereas Bruges is an example of the theme park for tourists model. We want to become like Antwerp not like Bruges. Or better we don’t want to become just like Antwerp, which is an interesting example of the previous cycle. We want to create a new model inspired by the transformational cultural process that has occurred in places like Antwerp. Also, Siena is a university city. We have to engage students in a totally different way. Siena has to attract and retain talents, enjoy its diversity. 

Last but not least a personal question: every time I visit Santa Maria della Scala I wished I could open up its museum cafe, put a few tables out onto piazza del Duomo and bring the square back to life. I wonder whether this couldn’t also be a useful way of income for a museum stuck in deep financial crisis?

In fact, this is one of the topics in our bid. But just opening a coffee bar won’t do. We have to rethink the space of the square, which right now is a dead space. An in between space. One side of piazza del Duomo is much more attractive and visible than the other side. We have to rethink this completely as an important supporting part but not as an integral part of the bid. We may need a public art project to transform the perception of the space, so as to render it more lively. And of course this requires a bar, but it also requires some activities. Piazza del Duomo shouldn’t just be a transition space for tourists to take photos! Think of piazza del Campo. Of course the two are very different and Piazza del Campo is unique, maybe the best square in the world. But the difference of behavior from locals and tourists alike is striking. We have to find a way to infuse some of the energy of piazza del Campo into piazza del Duom

I’m looking forward to this! Thank you for the interesting conversation.

If you’d like to find out more about the background and history of the European Capital of Culture project (ECoC) read the FAQs on the #SIENA2019 website. You may also want to have a look at the websites of the current European Cultural Capitals: Kosice in Slovakia and Marseille in France.

Pier Luigi Sacco’s latest book (written together with his colleague Christian Caliandro) is a great read for people interested in the dynamics of contemporary art and culture in Italy. Italia Reloaded: Ripartire con la Cultura analyzes the reasons behind the current Disneyfication of Italy’s heritage cities and discusses viable roads for a more lively and authentic present and future. As the authors suggest, only cities with a vivid contemporary social and cultural life have the proper tools to protect their rich cultural heritage. I couldn’t agree more.

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