A tale of two cities of culture: Liverpool vs Stavanger

Merseyside isn't the only place to have launched its year as European Capital of Culture. So how does it compare with its tiny Norwegian competitor? Mark Hughes reports
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The Independent Online

Liverpool

* Population: 446,000
* Unemployment: 5 per cent
* Average personal Income :£16,234
* Life expectancy: Men 74, women 78
* Year of Culture budget £110m
* Orchestras: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
* Art Galleries: Walker Art Gallery, Tate Liverpool
* Major artists: George Stubbs, painter of Whistlejacket

Liverpool's Capital of Culture year burst into life on Friday night with a street party that lasted just 40 minutes. But, if the celebrations were short, the strides required in getting to this point have been anything but.

It started four-and-a-half years ago, cost nearly £100m and, along the way, has seen in-fighting and feuding of epic proportions. In fact, Friday night's celebrations could have been held to cheer the fact that Capital of Culture year is even happening at all.

Highlights in a programme of 350 events planned for the next 12 months include the Tall Ships race, the Open golf championship and the National Ballet of China all arriving on Merseyside.

And, most mouth-watering of all for the tens of thousands of Scousers who will pack the city's Anfield stadium on 1 June to see him, is the return of Beatles' icon Sir Paul McCartney, who will top the bill at a rock concert.

But, events behind the scenes have, perhaps annoyingly for the organisers who have invested so much time into the project, garnered even more publicity than those out front.

The first debate came over the independence of the Liverpool Culture Company (LCC), which was formed by the city council. But with around 65 per cent of its funding and most of its staff coming from the local authority, independence was always unlikely.

A bitter feud between the then leader of the council, Mike Storey, and the council's chief executive, Sir David Henshaw, ensued and resulted in both men resigning.

Then there was the appointment of the Australian cabaret singer Robyn Archer as creative director of the LCC. Although appointed in 2004, she only came to work full-time in Liverpool in April 2006 after troubles obtaining a work visa and was given a £125,000 four months later after her direction was not deemed artistic enough.

The next embarrassment came last year when the popular Mathew Street festival was cancelled at the last minute because of health and safety fears.

Confidence in the LCC wasn't exactly restored when, after seven weeks on sick leave, the company's chief executive Jason Harborrow quit just days before the opening ceremony. Negotiations for a £250,000 pay off continue.

On the back of his departure, it has transpired that the aforementioned Mr Storey and Warren Bradley, the current council leader, are to be investigated by the local government watchdog, the Standards Board for England for conspiring to get rid of Mr Harborrow. Add to this the fact that the design for the Museum of Liverpool Life – the intended iconic building for 2008 – had to be scrapped after it was realised it would cost £100m more than expected, and that there are reports the council are facing a £20m budget shortfall, it could be forgiven if the LCC's aim was simply to get through the Capital of Culture year without any more scandal.

However that is not the case. The defined aims for Liverpool Capital of Culture 2008 are more ambitious. In the same way that it could be asked why Stavanger, an already wealthy city, needs the potential cash fillip that being Capital of Culture will bring, it can also be asked why Liverpool, a needs the title?

After all, the city is famed for its numerous pop acts – it has provided more UK chart number one hits (54) per head of population than any other metropolis on the planet and is famed for era-defining acts such as The Beatles. The fact is Liverpool needs the Capital of Culture title more for the regeneration of the city than as an excuse to bring even more events to the city.

The Capital of Culture year will, hopefully, attract two million visitors to the city and bring in a cash boost to the city of more than £2bn in investment and provide an extra 14,000 jobs. The cash spin-offs for the surrounding north-west region could total £100m.

The figures will make pleasant reading to residents of a city which is blighted by high levels of unemployment and personal debt levels which are well above the national average.

Stavanger

* Population: 117,000
* Unemployment: 1.1 per cent
* Life expectancy: Men 77, women 82
* Year of Culture budget: £28.5m
* Orchestras: Stavanger Symfoniorkester
* Art Galleries: Rogaland Kunstmuseum, Rogaland Kunstsenter
* Major artists: Jan Groth, New York-based modern artist

While Liverpool cheered at the sight of Ringo Starr shouting his love for the city, the celebrations nearly 600 miles away in Stavanger had a distinctly more regal feel to them.

The "other" Capital of Culture held its opening ceremony on Saturday night, a day later than its British counterpart, and, somewhat surprisingly, drew a bigger crowd: an estimated 50,000 people crammed into Stavanger's city centre, among them the King and Queen of Norway.

They kicked off their year of culture with a huge parade through the streets of the city and were entertained by performances from artists at various venues in the city centre before the obligatory firework display brought proceedings to a close.

However, it's fair to say that Stavanger 2008 had not been as hotly anticipated as the Merseyside version. Some local artists, musicians and performers have refused to give their backing to the event. And the organisation "Ka da ittepa?" ("What then after?") believes the year may have no lasting effect. Other critics have said that, with a budget of 300m kroner (nearly £30m), the culture year is a waste of money. The crowds on Saturday may have shown that the dissenting voices are in the minority, but why did the city bid for the title?

Unlike Liverpool, it is not using the year of culture as a chance to regenerate the city. Nor is it bracing itself for an influx of visitors as a result of its new-found status. The city does not need the money being Capital of Culture could provide. It is already very wealthy. The average annual wage is more than £30,000 and its unemployment rate is just 1 per cent. The only official reason is, rather romantically, simply that the city wants to promote culture and raise the city's profile.

The theme of Stavanger's year is Open Port – a series of events that will encourage major artists to visit the city and work with local artists, and to encourage local people to make their own art. At the heart of the theme are four month-long residencies from various international groups – music theatre company Muziektheater Transparant, Lithuanian group Oskaras Korsunovas Theatre, Israeli dance company Inbal Pinto and the South African Handspring Puppet Company.

The head of Stavanger's Culture organisation is a Scottish journalist and former violinist, Mary Miller. She said of the bid: "When I first arrived, I thought, why does this place need to be European Capital of Culture? It's an extraordinarily precious place, almost like a little utopia. It is a massive investment in people. You look at this pristine country, in many senses the chief enemy here is that it is as good as it is."

Liverpool and Stavanger do have some things in common. For a start, the people are proud of their distinctive identities. Where Liverpool has Scousers, Stavanger has Siddis – the word used to describe someone born there, who speaks the dialect, and whose parents were from Stavanger. And both cities owe much of their economy to their respective ports.

But the architecture of the cities is rather different. A typical Liverpool street scene is a row of two-up, two-down Georgian terrace houses, while most city centre buildings have their roots in Edwardian architecture.

Stavanger, on the other hand, boasts of being the wooden-house capital of Norway. The reason: simply that there is a lot of it about. Indeed much of the city's history can be told in stories of natural resources, from its economic foundations in timber and paper mills, to its Viking empire built on wooden ships.

The cities also have different cultural backgrounds. Liverpool has its roots firmly in pop music icons such as The Beatles; Stavanger's main cultural export is its symphony orchestra. And this year it will capitalise on the year of culture by hosting the European Amateur Brass Band championships, a big event in a country where such bands are an institution.

They've kept rather quiet about their year of culture in Norway, but now they are ready to make a bit of noise.

What became of previous European Capitals of Culture?

* Athens 1985

The hope: The first European City of Culture, Athens was used as a blueprint for others. The dream: was to foster deeper knowledge of the differences and similarities of cultures among the EU.

The reality: Hundreds of events were held throughout Greece showing the best of the country's dance, music, theatre and film.

The legacy: Transport and amenities improved greatly. It is now the sixth most-visited capital in the world and hosted the Olympics.

* Glasgow 1990

The hope: As the first British city to be named European City of Culture, its aims were simple; it wanted to lose the "mean city" tag.

The reality: The city's theatres, museums and art galleries saw a 40 per cent increase in visitors during the year.

The legacy: When the city made the bid in 1983 it attracted tens of thousands of tourists a year. That figure is now 4 million. However, a report suggests that Glasgow's image changed only superficially.

* Dublin 1991

The hope: Aimed to provide a spring to its economy by moving away from its turbulent past. Sought to move into a new era of tourism, redevelopment and investment.

The reality: Dublin's year didn't get off to a good start with many critics fearing it could become an underfinanced flop.

The legacy: The city is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. In 2003, it was named in a BBC survey as the best capital city to live in Europe.

* Cork 2005

The hope: To provide a tourism boost, raise the profile of a city and bring social, cultural and economic benefits to the area.

The reality: The city saw a 25 per cent rise in tourism in the first three months and the title was the catalyst for bringing in investment, and for the expansion of the city's airport.

The legacy: The rebirth continues, according to Fiona Buckley, of Failte Ireland South West. "It raised the profile of Cork and that effect is still resounding today."

* Weimar 1999

The hope: An unlikely cultural Mecca, Weimar wanted to show its cultural beauty to a wider audience. It also wanted to use the year to perform something of an image change – the city is tagged with the legacy of a Second World War concentration camp.

The reality: The year was used to confront its past and celebrate the reunification of Germany.

The legacy: Aside from a brief boost in tourism the city has all but remained in obscurity.

* Lille 2004

The hope: To give identity to a town that became a transport hub when the Eurostar arrived in the 1990s.

The reality: A year-long programme of events which covered theatre, art and design, music, dance, cinema and literature.

The legacy: Lille has stepped out of the shadow of Paris and is now seen as a legitimate place to visit in its own right. The company that was in charge of the culture year is still going and is now planning "the city of tomorrow".

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