Once one of Italy’s most deprived cities, Matera’s rebirth as a European Capital of Culture presents an opportunity to break down barriers and change the cultural landscape through a spirit of co-creation. Nick Awde talks to some key players
Every European Capital of Culture offers a unique selling point – it goes with the territory for those attempting to brave the European Commission’s exacting selection process. For sheer boldness of vision, Matera 2019 seriously breaks the mould.
This city – well, really a small town of some 60,000 people – nestles in a gorge in the region of Basilicata at the bottom of Italy’s boot. The town, in the traditionally poorer southern half of the country, was deemed so deprived that by 1952 the government evacuated the population from its ancient centre, the Sassi (‘the stones’), a crumbling latticework of stone buildings and grottos.
Regeneration eventually kicked off in the 1980s: people started coming back and today the town is one of the fastest-growing in southern Italy. However, even such a massively positive step can’t disguise the decimation of the south’s cultural landscape caused by the recent loss of EU structural funding.
Matera’s winning bid to become a European Capital of Culture alongside Plovdiv centred on a remarkably simple premise: sort the money before anything else. Obviously there was more to it – fierce local support, for example, was vital – as Paolo Verri, Matera 2019’s general director, points out: “Strong participation from the citizens, vision and management are the three ideas that made it clear that we had this opportunity on the road. It all became more possible, more focused, because it is so small and the region all around is a sort of secret garden of Europe – a lot of people never come here.”
Aside from the rest of the European applicants, in Italy alone Matera had to beat off five extremely well-connected Italian cities – Ravenna, Siena, Perugia, Cagliari and Lecce. “But we were the only one that had a foundation representing our budget before closing our bid. In 2011, we looked at the money first, knowing we wouldn’t be able to ask the national government or Europe,” says Verri, a major event manager and northerner from Turin.
“So we found about €25 million (£22.2 million) that was not dedicated to anything and started our foundation with municipal and other partners before the EU’s decision, and of course this made our bid stronger than the other five.”
The programme itself had equal forethought put into it, says cultural manager Ariane Bieou – a qualified architect from France who arrived in Matera from working with In Situ, the European network for artistic creation in public space.
“Contrary to other capitals of culture, we didn’t want to do a general open call for all the projects. Instead, we selected projects that were most inspired by the local communities. We then asked people to choose their own projects from these and come up with their own interpretations,” she says.
That freedom to choose, however, was set within the strict frame of ‘What can Matera give to Europe, and what can Europe give to Matera?’ “In that sense, they had to work with other European or international organisations or artists, so they would be ‘contaminated’. Their first idea had to be developed by the ideas of the others and the ideas of the others had to be used to develop the local ideas.
“So it wasn’t artists coming from abroad handing over their own ideas. Instead, what we started was a living process of creation that we call the ‘co-creation’ process,” Bieou says.
A quirky but serious idea was to hand the prospective producers the sum of €2,019. “Go and see whatever you want to see, whatever you need to see. And when you come back, you need to have international artists working with your artists on something that inspires you.”
As Bieou recalls: “It was a long process with crisis and resolution, but we are extremely satisfied with the result because it is beyond what we could have imagined at the beginning.”
Another considered quirk of the Matera model is Bieou’s job title: cultural manager. “People are always asking us why there is no artistic director at Matera 2019, as in any other capital of culture. But that’s not really relevant because both myself and the director can delegate the artistic roles and choices. Of course sometimes we have made direct decisions when it was strictly necessary, but at other times, we have only advised, or just agreed or disagreed that a project was in line, or not, with the original brief.”
1. Launched in 1985, a European Capital of Culture is a town or city chosen by the European Union for a year to programme and host connected cultural events that reflect local and EU ideals. The first was Athens. The next are Rijeka (Croatia) and Galway (Ireland) 2020.
2. Cultural capitals are usually designed to happen in pairs. Matera and Plovdiv have evolved in close contact as they developed their structures and programmes, and they have also
referred to the expertise of previous ECoCs such as Leeuwarden-Friesland 2018.
3. The European Commission manages the programme and the Council of Ministers of the European Union formally awards the ECoCs. Past ECoCs for the UK and Ireland are Glasgow (1990), Dublin (1991), Cork (2005) and Liverpool (2008). Like Eurovision, non-EU cities have been awarded ECoC status: Reykjavik, Iceland (2000), Stavanger, Norway (2008) and Istanbul, Turkey (2010).
4. In 2018, the EC cancelled the UK’s bids to host the ECoC for 2023. Five cities/towns had already spent large budgets to complete bids: Dundee, Nottingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Belfast/Derry. The EC, contrary to its own regulations, says
the UK is no longer eligible after Brexit in 2019.
5. Each year, the European Commission publishes an evaluation report on the outcomes of the European Capitals of Culture of the previous year. After 2019, the cities will carry out their own evaluation and send it to the Commission by the end of their year as ECoC.
Bieou and the team have ensured that the co-creation element was present in some way or other in at least half of the projects, while all of them strive to be multilayered and multi-audience. “What is important is that Matera has become a fantastic playground for artists,” she says.
Verri is proud of all the responses to this creative boost: “The idea of co-creation is very much Matera’s USP for the next 10 years, because we are now on the map. More than 800 artists have arrived and understood that it is very easy to work with the citizens.
“The citizens in the meantime are open to working all together and to experiment in the new cultural supply chain. In the first nine months of the year, we have had a combined total 16,000 who have taken part directly in the events.”
A large-scale example is Abitare l’Opera (Inhabiting the Opera), a reworking of Cavalleria Rusticana, the 1890 one-act opera by composer Pietro Mascagni and librettists Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, co-produced with the Teatro San Carlo of Naples, one of the country’s top opera houses.
Reflecting the region’s historical deprivation, there’s no opera house in the town or the region. “So we wanted a project on opera, but without relying on the necessary infrastructure,” says Bieou. “The challenge was to use the heritage part of the city as a stage – not for an opera in the open air, but using the city itself as a stage.”
A few hundred Matera residents worked with the professional company, while the town itself interacted as rehearsals took place while people went about their daily life. Passers-by joined in, people met artists in costume – and so the urban space became one big theatre on many linked stages.
Acoustically it was a huge challenge, so a technical team was brought in for ‘crash testing’ while the Teatro San Carlo created a new format for the opera. Under the careful eye of Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, a director known for his public-space performances, aspects such as audience zones and video screens became integral parts of the design, along with the idea of streaming and digitally morphing the action in reaction to the dramatic arc – adding another facet to the performance.
‘The idea of co-creation is very much Matera’s USP for the next 10 years, because we are now on the map’ – Paolo Verri
“The audience stood and moved between the orchestra, chorus and singers – they were all really close to each other,” says Bieou. “This was important because we were right in the sound, we were so close that even people who were used to opera discovered they had never been one metre from the singers.”
The idea of boosting community engagement spawned a smaller ‘pre-production’ for Cavalleria Rusticana dubbed the Prologo sui Sassi (Prologue on the Rocks). Under the title of I Sette Peccati Capitalisti (The Seven Capitalist Sins), Corsetti wove contemporary ideas into the opera’s themes with a group of young performers, resulting in a promenade piece with local songs and two huge street puppets that led the audience through the town to the main opera.
Tickets are issued as ‘passports’ that tell visitors they are not tourists but ‘temporary citizens’ – “to make it very clear that the people who come here have some element of responsibility, that they are not only here do a selfie and move on”.
“What we’ve learned this year is that there are a lot of tools from a cultural point of view,” says Verri. “So we have the idea that we need to do productions not only as entertainment but as a means of social inclusion – working with young people and excluded groups such as the disabled, immigrants and prisoners, involving them directly as the main characters in the work.”
Although the programming is necessarily centred around Mediterranean partners, Verri is mindful of lessons learned from the UK: “The example from the UK in managing culture and in producing content is so strong that it is a route of our work. It’s impossible for us in any part of Europe to think about our culture without British culture – and I think that we all want the UK to remain a strong, key centre for Europe in terms of culture.”
Population: City: 60,351 (2017), Basilicata district: 562,869 (2018)
Theme: ‘Open Future’
General director: Paolo Verri
Cultural manager: Ariane Bieou
Networking and development manager: Rossella Tarantino
Budget: €48 million (£42.5 million), of which 40% goes to the artistic programme
Events (total): 1,500 – theatre 20%, dance 10%
Venues: Indoor 50%, outdoor 50%
Performing arts companies: 40
Countries involved: 25 – national 60%, international 40%
Engagement: 50% of projects (excluding micro projects and grassroots) include a European partner or cultural exchange within Europe.
Contact for performing arts industry: firstname.lastname@example.org