The city will face an exam at the end of March. It’s an exam we don’t face often: Kaunas will host several representatives of the European Commission, looking around and evaluating the cultural, infrastructural and other parameters before the big decision on March 29th.
‘Everyday Bread’ project by Vėjūnė Sudarytė / Kaunas Biennial’2011
What’ll happen then, one would ask. Well, a group of experts have listened to presentations on Kaunas and Klaipėda, they have read a pile of documents that the two cities have prepared, and eventually one of these destinations will become the European Capital of Culture in 2022. Both Kaunas and Klaipėda, while getting ready for the contest, have been working hard to secure this beneficial win for over a year now, catalysing talks amongst townspeople on future visions, planning impactful cultural programmes, activating their partner networks and generating PR campaigns. Since the final decision is almost upon us but the drama hasn’t started yet, this might be the right time to make a short pause and appreciate a few significant moments.
First of all, both cities presented unique documents – the cultural strategy reports. The official approval of such a document for no less than ten years’ time is one of the necessary conditions of the contest, all this in order to ensure that even if a particular city loses, its cultural activities won’t take a step back – they will still follow the plan for regeneration. Among many aspects in Kaunas’ strategy, I would personally mention the priority to foster innovative and captivating cultural ideas for various groups and communities of the city, providing more people with opportunities to take part. The intercultural factor was specifically stressed, targeting the multi-layered past of Kaunas and the impact that an array of ethnic minorities had on the town’s cultural development and legacy. However, the most important thing here, in my opinion, was that culture was being referred to as a horizontal axis going through all sectors of Kaunas, including infrastructure, economy, education and social affairs. Unlike the current image of culture in Lithuania (mostly one of a beggar), this was a confirmation that the sector is essential for economic growth and social harmony. The mentioned strategy has a big number of aspects that were present in the contest proposal – this acts as a guarantee that all the work won’t be in vain, and a few already active projects of “Kaunas 2022” won’t be forgotten.
One of the projects that got their start this way was an initiative to connect pupils with culture, named “Kauno iššūkis” (“The Kaunas challenge”). It’s based on a programme created with the centre for business internships at Vytautas Magnus University, involving methods of creative business practices adapted to benefit the cultural sector. By following these strategies and collaborating with various mentors from the cultural field and the relevant institutions of Kaunas, youngsters of 10-11 grades will propose their carefully tailored ideas for organisations in the culture sector. It’s believed that this might not only awaken the interest of older pupils in the cultural activities of the city but also provide some crucial feedback for the current organisers to recreate the bonds with younger audiences.
Secondly, whilst preparing the “Kaunas 2022” programme and the new strategy, a few angles on the city were closely examined. For instance, a detailed survey for 1,500 residents on the quality of culture’s services was organised for the first time. People of Kaunas tend to think that the cultural life in the city centre is more than just satisfactory, however it’s very centralised. Apparently, in their own personal environment, there is a lack of spaces, occasions and initiatives to communicate with neighbours or to attend cultural gatherings that could strengthen a civil community in their district. The residents also mentioned that the information about cultural events often doesn’t reach them. Additionally, we must admit that the quite fragmented audience of such events suggests that we need new ways of communicating with townspeople in order to keep the culture alive, open and active, we should aim at different dialects, topics and geographical spots too.
Photo by Elijus Kniežauskas
Research was also done on the city's creative industries – the last examination of this sector took place in 2011. The updated data and talks with more than 120 professionals show an impressive growth of 112%, especially in advertising, programming and photography. We’ve found out that the field is dominated by small companies looking to form clusters and settle in creative hubs that, according to them, Kaunas could have much more of. By declaring clearer strategies to support young businesses, the city has a realistic shot of becoming a leading innovation centre and stop the emigration of creatives. I’d also give those creatives some of the forgotten heritage buildings to establish incubators.
This contest should be perceived as an impulse rather than a prologue, all because of sparking the typically rare gatherings of people from the fields of music, theatre, visual arts, museums, also representatives of creative industries and local communities. It was a solid opportunity to think on and evaluate our strengths and weaknesses. Despite a few setbacks, Kaunas is full of European spirit, unique creators, strong creative businesses and art professionals of the highest level. Our cultural profile is definitely considered to be bright by many European experts, so we should let this impulse turn into a continuous workflow rather than just focus on the results.
P.S. If by any chance you find yourself in Laisvės Avenue on March 28th, smile to the passers-by – they might be members of the contest’s jury!
The article by Ana Čižauskienė was published in the March issue of ‘Kaunas Full of Culture’, a monthly magazine about cultural issues in Kaunas. It's available free of charge in both Lithuanian and English.
Read more about our preparations to become the European Capital of Culture here: www.kaunas2022.eu.