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Conversation with Dr. Franco Bianchini: European Capitals of Culture, the impact of the pandemic and possible future political scenarios

Dr. Franco Bianchini, a Visiting Professor at the Sibelius Academy, is a prominent expert in the fields of cultural policy and cultural planning. His research and publications cover a wide range of themes, including culture-led urban regeneration, cultural diversity, and the relationship between arts and sport policies. Recently, Jenni Pekkarinen interviewed Dr. Bianchini about his background, European Capitals of Culture, the impact of COVID-19, and his current topics of interest.

Picture of Matera in Southern Italy. Dr. Bianchini was part of the team preparing Matera's successful bid for European Capital of Culture 2019. © Dr. Franco Bianchini

Background: The importance of internationalism and trans-disciplinary collaboration

Dr. Franco Bianchini has a very versatile and fascinating professional background, in which internationalism has played an important role. Besides having studied and worked mainly in Italy and the UK, he also has vast experience in international collaboration projects.

“Internationalism has meant almost everything for me, really. It is a continuously developing project. A lot of my own academic work and ideas are built on an understanding of the UK and Italy. The dialogue between the ideas and practices in the two countries has led me to formulate a particular approach to cultural policy and culture-led regeneration,” Bianchini explains.

After studying public policy and politics as an undergraduate in Italy, Bianchini did a PhD on the cultural policies of the British Labour Party at the University of Manchester. He worked at the Centre for Urban Studies at the University of Liverpool, studying urban regeneration together with city planners and political scientists.

Bianchini is well-known for his contribution to the debate on cultural planning and is one of the first people to apply the idea in Europe from the late 1980s. He created the first MA course in European Cultural Planning at De Montfort University in Leicester, where he worked from 1992 until 2007.

In parallel to his university work, Bianchini collaborated closely with Comedia, an independent research centre and consultancy ran by Charles Landry and others. He participated in several research projects on topics such as the future of the urban night-time economy, creative cities, and the social impact of the arts. He also studied intercultural cities, focusing on seeing the increasing ethnic diversity of European cities not as a problem but as a potential advantage for policy and cultural innovation.

Bianchini was also a member of the teams preparing the successful European Capital of Culture bids for Liverpool 2008 and Matera 2019. In the case of Liverpool, his team developed and delivered a cultural co-operation project called Cities on the Edge, which was a collaboration between Liverpool and other port cities (Bremen, Gdansk, Istanbul, Marseilles, and Naples). Largely as a result of this work, Bianchini developed a research interest in port cities and European Capitals of Culture.

Until April this year, Bianchini worked as the Director of the Culture, Place and Policy Institute at the University of Hull, which was responsible for evaluating the outcomes and impacts of Hull UK City of Culture 2017. Currently, besides working as a Visiting Professor at the Sibelius Academy, he is an Associate Director of the recently established UK-wide Centre for Cultural Value and collaborates with the Fitzcarraldo Foundation, a cultural training, research and consultancy organisation based in Turin, Italy.

Dr. Franco Bianchini © The University of Hull

European Capitals of Culture in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: opportunities, challenges and changes

In 2026, a Finnish city is due to be European Capital of Culture (ECoC). Oulu, Tampere and Savonlinna are competing for the designation. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, many things have changed, and Bianchini assumes that the pandemic will affect the benefits that cities can draw from the Capital of Culture year.

“Probably it will affect even the Finnish European Capital of Culture in 2026 because we are going to enter a period during which travel will be more difficult. There will be a redefinition of tourism. I don’t think tourism will disappear, but it will be more local, regional and national,” he argues.

In terms of financial models, Bianchini points out that there will probably be increased health security costs, the necessity to have smaller audiences, and less funding available from local and central governments due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

When it comes to the Finnish ECoC, he thinks that things may be a little bit easier, since Finland has been less affected by the pandemic than many other European countries. He also thinks that the size of the Finnish bidding cities is good: for small and medium-sized cities, the benefits of the ECoC generally outweigh the costs.

According to Bianchini, the ECoC can be beneficial in many ways. The local cultural sector tends to become more ambitious and better networked and continues to develop more high-profile projects even after the Capital of Culture year. He sees benefits for both tourism and for attracting inward investment. For the Finnish cities, according to Bianchini, it can also be very important to raise their profile: many people in Europe and elsewhere in the world don’t know where they are and what they have to offer.

To benefit from the ECoC, there are several factors to pay attention to. Bianchini highlights the importance of having a well-defined legacy plan, building the calendar of the cultural programme carefully, and mobilising the local population.

Rather than seeing the ECoC merely as an event focused on cultural consumption, Bianchini emphasises the central role of a well-defined strategic legacy, which has to be present in everything that a Capital of Culture does. He underlines the need to have a balanced ECoC team with both very good event managers and people who focus on legacy and connections with local stakeholders:

“What has been the problem in some cases is that there has been a strong team at the beginning with a strong vision and legacy plan. With this plan, they won the title, but then the city council and other key stakeholders decided to have a different team for delivery – for very good reasons, because to deliver such a complex event, you need people who have strong project management and fundraising experience. But these people were not really in touch with the original vision as much. So the shift between winning the title and then delivering the year of culture meant in many cases that the legacy plans were abandoned, reduced or deprioritized. If that happens, I think it is a problem and not a very good use of public money because it means that many potential gains (in terms of cultural, economic, social and image impacts) are perhaps not built upon and can evaporate in the short or medium term.”

Bianchini points out that constructing a calendar for the ECoC’s cultural programme is not easy: an often-underestimated challenge is that it is not a short event like the Olympics or the football World Cup. Therefore, it is essential to prevent fatigue by organisers, the cultural sector, the local population, external audiences and the media. Instead of constructing a programme with an even distribution of events and activities for the full 12 months, Bianchini recommends having moments of intensity and moments of calm and absorption. Furthermore, he notes that cities in Northern Europe sometimes have a weak programme in the final months because of the weather and the Christmas season. That, according to him, is a mistake because it is important to build a bridge with what comes later. A disappointing season at the end can make people disillusioned, making it more difficult to build on the legacy of the event.

Mobilising the local population, according to Bianchini, is another vitally important element of ECoCs. There should be an active volunteering programme with co-creation projects involving a lot of people and a systematic programme of activities with schools. In the context of the pandemic, Bianchini thinks that the role of volunteering is potentially even more important: active volunteering can reduce loneliness and can thus be effective in responding to increasing mental health problems. As a result, a more active local population can be one of the legacies of the European Capital of Culture year, but that requires work after the Capital of Culture year, too:

“The question is, how do you keep it going? What kind of agreements can you have with schools to maintain a very high level of cultural activities? In some cases, the European Capital of Culture has been the first time that children in schools have worked with artists. But in several cases these activities have ended with the end of the ECoC year, despite the benefits in terms of the pupils’ motivation and performance .”

The world during and after the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed and challenged the cultural sector in many ways. Bianchini is interested in the impacts of the pandemic and has taken part in debates about possible future scenarios. The key questions, according to him, are the resulting level of damage and our ability to adapt to live in a different world.

Bianchini believes that there will be significant changes. He points out that the likelihood of an economic depression with mass unemployment in many different countries is necessarily going to change things, and that such structural issues cannot be solved in a short period of time. Furthermore, he notes that what will happen will depend largely on developments at political level. Depending on the dominant political and ideological responses, countries may be heading either towards nationalism, protectionism and surveillance, or towards a more balanced, equal and sustainable future.

Bianchini warns that if the dominant response is an authoritarian one, there could be big problems for the cultural sector, such as growing restrictions on the freedom of artists, independent researchers and journalists. He notes that in Western countries, an authoritarian shift would lead to confrontations and a situation of crisis.

On the other hand, Bianchini notes that things could go to a completely different direction, too:

“It could well be that we have a strong visionary role of the EU that legitimizes itself again through a strategic intervention, and we have some equivalent of the post-war settlement, a post-pandemic settlement where we achieve a much more balanced economy, a reduction of economic and social inequalities, a green model of future development, and a more resilient and adaptable society with a much greater presence of creativity and arts teaching in schools. Whether we achieve this will depend very much on how people mobilize themselves, because what we have seen in the last few months is that governments in democratic counties respond to pressure from grassroots movements. The Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most recent and powerful examples.”

In terms of teaching, Bianchini thinks that almost every aspect of the syllabus needs to be re-examined during the pandemic and after it. He thinks it is important to encourage students to come up with their own answers and to think carefully about the role of the cultural sector in the pandemic. This should be not only in terms of the survival of cultural organisations but also with regard to culture’s role in producing a political outcome that is good for the cultural sector and for the society as a whole in the long term. Furthermore, Bianchini emphasises the importance of thinking about how to use cultural activities to help people overcome a sense of loss:

“There are some cities where thousands of people have died. This is a very big collective disaster. How do we mobilize and use this cathartic function of the arts to respond to these traumas?”

The cultural dimension and dangers of populism 

Besides the impact of the pandemic, Bianchini is currently interested in the ideological use of cultural policy by different political movements and parties in trying to consolidate their hold on power. He is worried about the rise of right-wing populism in Europe:

“It can have very damaging environmental consequences and it can weaken international co-operation, which is essential to attempt to solve the most serious problems that we have now, including the pandemic and climate change.”

Therefore, he is interested in trying to understand the cultural dimension of right-wing populism and the cultural foundations of people’s support for politicians like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Trump in the United States, Erdoğan in Turkey and Orbán in Hungary:

“These political leaders are divisive and certainly not universally liked, but they enjoy a basis of popular support because otherwise they would not have been elected. So, what is it? What sort of narratives do they mobilize, what kind of emotions? And what can be a democratic cultural response to this political phenomenon?”


To know more about Dr. Bianchini’s thoughts on the Visiting Professor Programme, Sibelius Summer Academy, teaching, and digitalisation, visit Uniarts Newsroom.

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