Every year, one or several cities host the European Capital of Culture. In 1995, Luxembourg's capital city was awarded this title – known at the time as 'European City of Culture' – for the first time by the European Union. Twelve years later, the Grand Duchy was selected for a second time, when its cultural wealth alongside its bordering regions was placed in the limelight.
The link between the Grand Duchy and the concept of European capital dates back several decades. In fact, the European capital initiative finds its origins in the Grand Duchy. The idea of having a 'European City of Culture' came from Greek Minister Melina Mercouri and French Minister Jack Lang during an European Union Council meeting that took place on 13th June 1985 in Luxembourg. That year, the city of Athens was the first to be designated 'European City of Culture'.
Given its transnational programme, the trademark of 'European Capital of Culture' exerts a leverage effect in that it encourages cultural exchanges between different countries or its inhabitants. The European Commission even specifies that this qualification showcases Europe's cultural richness and diversity. When a city bears the title of 'European Capital of Culture', concerts, exhibitions, festivals, literature, drama and science projects will take place in the capital in question over the course of one year.
1995: start of the cultural event
In 1995, Luxembourg City was designated European Capital of Culture for the first time. The next 12 months promised to be full of discoveries with a plethora of activities in all areas. The official launch provided a taster with the days of festivities, from 13th to 15th January 1995.
Looking at this exceptional event in hindsight one year later, the tremendous outcome was obvious. The event was a real success and the figures were remarkable: over 1.2 million people enjoyed around 600 events organised by 'Luxembourg, European City of Culture'. 61,969 visitors attended the first exhibition - 'Luxe, calme et volupté' - that took place at the Luxembourg Casino. Other events such as Megabugs in Limperstberg's Victor Hugo Hall (41,290 visitors) and the permanent exhibition The Family of Man in Clervaux Castle (28,320 visitors during the year of culture) were also a success.
Megabugs - The fascinating world of insects
One of the aims of the Megabugs exhibition was to show that insects are not only stinging creatures and creepy crawlies. Megabugs took place from 22nd September to 26th November in Limperstberg's Victor Hugo Hall. 41,000 visitors attended this naturalist exhibition that showcased insects as giant mobile models.
Open-air summer events boasted the best results in terms of the number of participants. For example, 100,000 people took part in National Day celebrations in the streets of the city. José Carreras, one of the most famous tenors of our times, sang at Josy Barthel Stadium in front of an audience of 15,000 thousand people on 28th June.
As for the mega concert of the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge Tour in Kirchberg on 27th August, it broke all records. That day, 60,000 excited fans cheered Mick Jagger & Co for this exclusive two-hour show. Six hours before the concert started, thousands of people gathered in front of the entrance gate to get a spot in the first row. It was an amazing show that also opened the door to all the major cultural events that followed in their footsteps and performed in the Grand Duchy.
It was also in 1995 that the famous festival Live at Vauban was born. This event was bathed in young and diverse vibes and hosted national and international rock bands at the 'Knuedler' and 'Zeltstad'. The young and old alike went to see famous bands, but also less well-known artists as well as great stars like Charlélie Couture, Paul Young, Angelo Branduardi and Konstantin Wecker.
The open-air exhibition of Niki de Saint Phalle with her 'Nanas' (girls in informal French) placed at strategic locations throughout the capital can hardly be forgotten. From 30th May to 15th September, the colourful female sculptures were a special visual feature of the year of culture. The aim of the French-American artist's 1992 work known as 'La Grande Tempérance' was to rebel against a male-dominated world. When the year of culture was over, Luxembourg City decided to acquire one of her sculptures, i.e. the winged blue Lady in a bathing suit, which symbolises the virtue of temperance. For 16 years, she was located on Hamilius Square, facing the old post office. She now stands proud in the park of the Villa Vauban.
People did not always unanimously approve of the "girls" and their generous curves. They even caused a scandal during the 1995 Octave procession. Ecclesiastic authorities actually requested that 'Clarice' be covered during the final procession so as not to irritate the pilgrims.
Three questions for Claude Frisoni, general coordinator of Luxembourg - 1995 European Capital of Culture.
1. What memories do you have of the Luxembourg - 1995 European Capital of Culture? Is there a highlight that you remember in particular?
It's difficult to sum up those twelve months in a few words. They were marked by hundreds of exceptional events, important moments of collective emotions, insane discoveries and intense feelings of happiness. One event particularly struck me... the last one. The day after the official closing ceremony, when Grand Duchess Joséphine-Charlotte, foreign partners, ministers and elected representatives... attended a brilliant performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony of the Millenium, another closing ceremony, a popular one, was offered to the general public on the Place Guillaume. It was raining cats and dogs, a few food and drink stalls and a stage were there. And despite the cold weather, a large crowd came to listen to the band 'Les Tambours du Bronx' while enjoying a hot soup offered by one of the 1995 sponsors. And while the artists were banging away on their drums, it struck me to see, among the crowd and in all discretion, the Grand Duchess, dressed in a thick red raincoat, enjoy an artistic performance that she was hardly used to!
The main achievement of this incredible year in 1995 was undoubtedly that culture in Luxembourg gained 'credibility'.
Claude Frisoni, general coordinator of Luxembourg - 1995 European Capital of Culture.
2. In 1995, Luxembourg was 'European Capital of Culture' for the first time. What were the greatest challenges in terms of organising the event?
While in the memory of many, the trickiest task lay in the very short period of time (barely seven months) available to the new general coordinator and the small team he had to finalise a programme, find sponsors, draw up a budget, define the broad lines of the communication campaign and make sure the logistics were in place, it seems to me that the real challenge was elsewhere. In fact, by making everyone (political figures, cultural stakeholders, business entities, artists) understand that no more time had to be wasted, this time issue became almost an advantage, as everyone became aware of the urgency and played by the rules.
On the other hand, giving credibility to the cultural aspect of the event was no easy task, nor was demanding trust in this adventure as well as respect for the cultural stakeholders and artists. It was a matter of making public opinion as a whole and in all its diversity aware that culture would be an opportunity for Luxembourg, a factor of social cohesion, a vital means to promote nation branding, a way of imposing respectability at international level... In other words, it was necessary to make culture accepted as a core element of the country's societal development and as major factor for its economic development. The cultural sector needed to gain a level of credibility, professionalism and we had to safeguard its future. That was the greatest challenge, but it is also what gave the greatest satisfaction! For many people, after 1995, nothing was the same as before!
3. In your opinion, what impact did this first edition of the European Capital of Culture have on the perception of culture in Luxembourg?
The main achievement of this incredible year in 1995 was undoubtedly that culture in Luxembourg gained 'credibility'. This also applied to the creative talent, organisers and workers. Despite the sheer urgency in which the team had to work and the lack of infrastructure (there was no concert hall worthy of its name, no amplified music hall, no venue dedicated to contemporary art, no experience of large-scale open-air events), the event was successful. Moreover, let's not forget that the self-financing rate exceeded 30%, that the event came in on budget and we even had some money left in the coffers, that no scandal shook the organisation, that the support of the public, artists, cultural and even economic stakeholders exceeded expectations and that the reputation of the city and the country benefited from this exposure from on the international stage... all of this pleased the organisers.
1995 brought about a clear acceptance of the idea that an artist or cultural actor could be as competent in his/her expertise and as respectable as another professional in any other sector. The success of the event also drove the government to commit to a broad programme in order to develop the cultural facilities across the country (refurbishment of the Neumünster, the building of the Philharmonie, Rockhal, Grand Duke Jean Museum, regional cultural centres, etc.). The money allocated to this programme was no longer deemed to be unjustified expenditure.
In a word, the European Capital of Culture 1995 contributed to placing culture at the heart of the country's development initiative, as well as being a factor of social cohesion, a means of living together, a factor of economic development and an asset for nation branding. That's a major achievement and it probably explains the will to embrace the following editions.
2007: the cultural festival returns
12 years later, in 2007, Luxembourg City took up the challenge once again and became European capital of culture for the second time. The Grand Duchy officially launched its cultural big bang on 9th December 2006 under the name 'Luxembourg et Grande Région, Capitale européenne de la Culture 2007'. It was marked by a night of festivities and fireworks to the sound of the philarmonic orchestra.
The year of culture that started with the first squalls of the blue deer - the event's official logo - involved five regions from four different countries, all of which aimed to diversify audiences and reach new ones. The general coordinator and decision-makers were quite satisfied, as the 2007 edition brought about a new, more diverse and younger culture-hungry public.
In view of the public's growing enthusiasm for all forms of culture and in the wake of the success of the 1995 edition, the Grand Duchy became aware that it was lagging behind in terms of cultural infrastructure. Luxembourg decided to improve the situation and invested heavily in new breeding grounds.
The cultural landscape which was almost desert-like in 1995, and a whirlwind of activity swept across the country in the 12 years between the two events. With a bigger budget for culture and hundreds of million invested in new cultural facilities, Luxembourg City truly became worthy of the name of European capital of culture. Between 1995 and 2007, the number of cultural institutions tripled.
The Philharmonie, a sumptuous venue built by Christian de Portzamparc, the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art designed by the architect I. M. Pei and the Rockhal concert hall were built. Other venues emerged: the Museum of the Fortress or the National Audiovisual Centre, the Kirchberg Sports and Cultural Centre (Coque), the National Literature Centre, the National Natural History Museum (natur musée) and the Nationalmusée um Fëschmaart.
The Grand Théâtre, where dance and opera events take place, was renovated, Neumunster Abbey was converted into a 12,000 m2 cultural centre, while the Grand Ducal Palace and the Luxembourg City History Museum were refurbished.
In the same vein, the national theatres in Luxembourg and Esch-sur-Alzette were modernised and re-equipped with state-of-the-art technology.
The Rotondes: epicentre of the 2007 year of culture
For 2007, the organisers also worked on reconverting the nation's industrial heritage. The focal point of the event was undoubtedly the site of the two roundhouses that were previously used as locomotive storage and servicing areas. These buildings were converted for the year of culture into new cultural and events centres, mainly for young audiences.
For a long time, the two domed roundhouses, located in the heart of Luxembourg City station, were home to the bus maintenance department and the CFL (Luxembourg's national railways) workshops. Today, they have contributed to the redevelopment of the area as a venue for shows and exhibitions. This epicentre of the 2007 year of culture was also selected to announce the event and introduce the logo, while at the same time giving a symbolic value to this historical place.
The year of culture 'Luxembourg and Greater Region, European Capital of Culture 2007' showcased 555 projects and more than 5,000 events across the Greater Region, including 133 cross-border projects. The year of culture had a budget of 45 million euros, on top of the 13 million donated by foreign partners.
Three questions for Robert Garcia, General Coordinator of Luxembourg & Greater Region, European Capital of Culture 2007
1. In comparison to the 1995 event, what were the biggest changes to the European Capital of Culture 2007?
1995 was the starting point for a cultural policy, which began at almost zero. 2007 was supposed to reap the benefits of an ambitious policy of investment in a wide range of cultural facilities for the general public. Under the auspices of a temporary association, Luxembourg & Grande Région 2007, these cultural bodies had to demonstrate that they were worthy of this investment. If 1995 was considered in retrospect as a 'start-up', the credo of 2007 became the professionalisation of the local and regional cultural scene and the fostering of this new cultural spirit across wider and more diversified audiences, especially amongst young people. Confronting local stakeholders with international stars was the watchword. As such, almost all of the projects carried out were multicultural, European and innovative... or at least satisfied the slogan: 'unexpected'.
'Almost all of the projects carried out were multicultural, European and innovative... or at least satisfied the slogan: unexpected.'
Robert Garcia, General Coordinator of Luxembourg & Greater Region, European Capital of Culture 2007
2. Luxembourg - European Capital of Culture in 2007. What was special about the Grand Duchy at that time?
In contrast to Luxembourg 1995 and Esch 2022, the 2007 edition did not emanate from a strong demand from the city in question. The hidden agenda of this quasi 'undesirable' event was shaped instead by two strategic pillars of the government: firstly, the objective was to replace the negative image of the Grand Duchy as a tax haven or 'rogue state' with that of an original societal and economic dynamic brought to the fore by a firework display of events, as well as artistic and socio-cultural concepts showcasing an ambition for sustainability. Hence the final slogan '2007 really begins in 2008'.
Second strategic pillar: to use the European capital as a Trojan horse, in the positive way, in order to federate the vast economic area of a Greater Region spread over four countries, but which, with its 11 million inhabitants, must actively foster the shared dynamics of a European mega-region. And all this with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg as the driving force… who would have deemed it possible? This is clearly an illusory ambition in view of the modest significance of culture in relation to 'hard' political, economic and social realities.
3. You were responsible for the organisation of the event Luxembourg and Greater Region - European Capital of Culture 2007. Did the outcome meet your expectations?
Even though the new cultural forces in the field responded inconsistently to the specific needs of the European Capital of Culture, it must be noted that with 555 projects selected on the basis of a principle of equity, of which 133 are cross-border and about thirty with Sibiu (Romania), a programme which showcases several thousand events can be considered a source of immense satisfaction. This was pointed out, both quantitatively and qualitatively, by two independent expert reports which were almost too considerate in their conclusions.
On the other hand, with regard to sustainability, the results were rather subdued, as the slogan soon succumbed to the reality of the global financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent: the cancellation of the budgetary reserve accumulated by Luxembourg 2007 for the continuation of successful projects, placing the cross-border dynamic on the back burner, putting the brakes on many promising initiatives. However, one major innovation, the Rotondes, continues to play a key role and new events, such as the international film festival, were carefully redeveloped. On the whole, the legacy of 2007 led to a major professionalisation of the cultural sector and the profusion of young artistic talent. As such, despite the immense challenge, this fleeting moment was truly worth it!