Revamping a city, opening up new avenues of economic development, all while reinforcing residents’ sense of cultural heritage… these are just a few of the aims of the European Capitals of Culture project. Since Glasgow was declared European Capital of Culture in 1990 the city’s cultural or creative, economy has flourished, helping the once flagging community find a new lease of life in the wake of major deindustrialisation and an economic crisis.
In 2015, the EU granted the title of “European capital of culture” to Mons, a Belgian city of just over 100,000 inhabitants, situated in Hainaut, around 70 km from Lille, and roughly the same distance from Plzeň in the Czech Republic. This year the city will play host to over 300 events, 5,000 artists, and more than 40 exhibitions, 20 of which will be on an international scale. It is tempting to compare the city to its French neighbour, Lille, itself European Capital of Culture in 2004, and now a well-established cultural hotspot, and to hope that Mons’ year of cultural events, organised by Yves Vasseur, will follow in the footsteps of Lille’s success. Indeed, one may very well pose the question, raised by Boris Grésillon, of whether culture may be a remedy for a declining community. Often hailed as a cure-all for the problems faced by contemporary societies, what is meant by ‘culture’ depends completely on its context, on which aspects of its heritage a city chooses to celebrate, and on the role played by local institutions in the process. However Mons chooses to interpret its new title, it seems that the Belgian city will be awash with culture this year, and may well profit from its reinvigorating influence.
A dazzling start for Mons year of culture
The opening ceremony, which took place on 24 January in the city-centre of Mons, kicked off the year of festivities with a hot air balloon and firework display, which attracted over 100,000 visitors. Thus begun, with great success, the year of cultural events orchestrated by Yves Vasseur, vocal advocate of the “link between artistic creation and the future”, or, more specifically, the relationship between culture and technological advancements, along with Elio di Rupo, the town magistrate and former socialist prime minister (2011-2014). Di Rupo explained to TV5 Monde journalists that the project, which received the stamp of approval from the EU in 2010, represents the culmination of 12 years of careful consideration, in addition to €70 million of funding.
Yet aside from the success of the individual events and programs, the success of Mons as “Capital of Culture” will also be measured in terms of the financial returns on the investments made in the event. “With Lille 2014, we saw a return of 6 euros for every euro invested”, explains Elio di Rupo, a firm believer in the power of culture to aid economic recovery, not only for the city in question, but also for the region as a whole. As Di Rupo highlights, “The economic recovery will go hand in hand with a broader, and multifaceted regeneration of the region of Wallonia as a whole”. Indeed, the culture industry is not limited to the tourism sector, but also involves the manufacturing and service industries. Though it may seem that the parallels with Lille can only go so far, since at first glance Lille offers far greater entrepreneurial opportunities, Mons nevertheless possesses an important string to its bow, namely “the digital innovation valley”. The initiative, conceived by director of technocITé, Pascal Keiser, has got off to an auspicious start with the recent opening of branches of IBM, Microsoft, and Google in Mons, right across from the historic centre. The industrial zone, which is soon to be linked to the town centre by a new footpath, is one of the first milestones for the city’s development project, and the new high-tech industry will no doubt attract young talent to the city in the coming years.
A new era for Mons?
The economic recovery of the city and of Wallonia as a whole, a long-term goal of the project, is dependant on the engagement of the younger generations, for whom Mons must transform itself into a dynamic and forward-looking city. The student population, accounting for 20% of the city’s residents, are also at the heart of the project. 80% of the events that are to take place throughout the year are free of charge, which will no doubt prove helpful to the 20% of the population of Mons that are unemployed. Furthermore, the partnership with the Fondation et l’Université catholique de Louvain (UCL Mons) will allow for stimulating discussions between the university, artists, and public institutions. The university also is also offering research opportunities for the creative aspects of the programme.
Mons aims to make creation exciting, completely transforming the urban landscape. A whole quarter devoted to the arts and innovation will be created in a place that used to be a military wasteland. Based near the headquarters of the Fondation Mons 2015, the area has already been termed the city’s “the cultural kilometre”. The transformation of this area means that it is now equipped with show rooms of all types, whose names evoke this strong push towards the future. Arsonic, for example, is a new space dedicated to sound and emerging music, while the Maison Folie will present shows of all kinds as well as residencies. The former has been erected on the site of an old fire station, and the latter where a school once stood. The origins and the mission of these places reveal the key elements of the Mons project. The city has chosen locations that are well anchored in the urban landscape and tightly linked to its history as a backdrop for these new cultural structures, in order to give these places a new meaning as opposed to demolishing them completely. Giving the local heritage a breath of fresh air and encouraging the appreciation of the architecture that reflects the events it will host: united, open-minded, and democratic.
The city also boasts a number of other impressive sites, in particular the future train station whose construction is under the guidance of the architect Santiago Calatrava. Calatrava, who was also behind the station in Liège-Guillemins, has designed the the new station in Mons to emulate the geography of Wallonia. As for the new congress centre, plans suggest that it will look similar to the Jewish museum in Berlin or the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, other iconic buildings designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind. Another eye-catching addition to the city will come in the form of the installation Sun City, a labyrinth of 8,000 sunflowers created by the artist Fany Bouyagui, which will be displayed in July 2015 in the Grand-Place de Mons. Such projects aim to prove that “culture” need not be limited to the confines of a museum, and to explore the many meanings of the word “culture”, whether it be living together in harmony, entertainment, self-enrichment through experience, or freedom of expression.
The patrimonial assets of the city of Mons
Thus, in the programme compiled by Yves Vasseur, all seems geared towards the development of different contemporary cultural practices. However, as illustrated by Fanny Bouyagui’s use of the sunflowers in her installation, this creative energy draws upon the city’s past and its rich history, which remains largely unknown despite the fact that several places in Mons are classed as UNESCO world heritage sites. Few know, for example, that Verlaine was put behind bars in the Mons prison after he shot Rimbaud, or what exactly is meant by a “Doudou”, to name but a few examples of the many patrimonial treasures in the city.
Would it be an exaggeration to say that the life of Vincent Van Gogh would have taken a completely different turn had he not lived in Mons in 1878-1880? It was, in any case, during this time that his vocation as a painter appears to have taken precedence over his interest in being a priest, his original career path. Spending time with the mining people in the Borinage basin, Van Gogh executed his first drawings which thematised poverty and solitude, as well as the comfort of the miners’ little houses. The exhibition that opened on 25 January at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Mons directed by Sjraar van Heugten recounts these first few years that were so key for the painter. Another older but equally important historical attribute to Mons is not a man but a monument, the 87-metre-high belfry that was built in the 17th century.
A mark of the city’s pride and the only Baroque belfry in Belgium, (recognised by UNESCO since 1999) its famous silhouette pays homage to the city’s glorious 17th century heritage. This part of the commune’s history is far from being forgotten thanks to the the newly renovated visitors centre which has recently opened inside the monument. Other emblematic buildings dot the city’s landscape; notably, the medieval Sainte-Waudru collegiate church, the construction of which began in 1450 in honour of the founder and patron saint of the city. Although Lady Waudru lived there in the 7th century, the recognition of Mons’ centuries-old history carries on to the present day.
Museums and Memory
However, as Silex’s, the centre for the neolithic mines in Spiennes, demonstrates, Mon’s history goes beyond chronological boundaries. Following the example of four other new museums in the city, Silex’s is set to open on 7 April. Other cultural institutions in Mons include the Doudou Museum, the Mons Memorial Museum, and the Artothèque, the new home of municipal collections which promises to find a new lease of life for the Ursuline convent. The French historian Pierre Nora defines sites of memory as “material or ideal elements used by different actors which play a role in the construction of a collective identity”. Can we speak about these sites, which have been protected from, even saved, from destruction, studied, and explained to the public, as sites of memory? In a sense yes, especially since they involve the city’s industrial past, reconciling it with other traditions, and displaying a diverse, rich, and exciting local identity. Furthermore, it is easy to imagine the way in which once their symbolic value is cemented, it is translated into economic potential.
A good example of the general shift towards official recognition of cultural heritage is the creation of the Doudou museum. This Doudou fair, for the un-initiated, is a yearly event organised on the Pentecost weekend. Stemming from both popular and religious tradition, this event is the celebration of local traditional folklore that includes a procession of relics of the Saint Waudru and a reenactment of the battle between St. George and the dragon. Bringing myth to life, visitors are plunged into the depths of history, both local and european, and in a sense even universal. Part of the city’s heritage since 2005, this colourful event brings together a community of tourists and devotees alike, continuing in the development of the Mons’ cultural landscape.
A European crossroads
Indeed, with so much on offer, Mons is expected to see more tourists this year than ever before. However it is not just tourists that are expected to flock to the Wallonian city, which has also expressed its desire to to bring in artists and investors. In order to make the most of its year in the spotlight, institutional players and the mayor have been looking to the future; 2015 should be more than just an exceptional year, but the dawn of a new era for Mons. In addition to the turnover predicted by Elio di Rupe, a staggering €400 million, the city is also on the lookout for numerous regional, European, and even international partnerships for the European Capital of Culture.
Mons’ strategic geographical location on the Franco-Belgian border places it at the heart of European administration and notably, in the middle of the Antwerp-London-Paris triangle. Strengthened by its 19 previous partnerships with other cities, from Lille to Ghent, Mons 2015 has played its cards right with its geographical assets and close collaborations with surrounding cities. Seeing the involvement of American giants in the newly-created innovation park, it would seem that this move has already paid off, as long as this dynamism brings with it favourable repercussions for local start-ups. The city will also be taking this opportunity to cement its links with its Czech counterpart by welcoming an artist from Plzeň as part of an exchange, which will also permit an artist from Mons to discover the Czech art scene. However, much time remains before a report on the year can be compiled. Having said this, the city’s ambitious program of projects and events, a coming together of culture and technology, linked all the while to a broader dialogue of urban and regional change, is a good omen for the coming years.