Our visit to San Sebastian found the same international manager we spoke with in 2014, so it was easier for us to continue our discussion and see how much things changed in last two years. # DSS headquarters remained the same, a former fireman reconverted building, close to the downtown area, where there was more excitement now…
We talked for two hours with Eneko Garate about the changes they went through in the last two years, what are the effects so far and what advice can he give us in this current context. More in the interview below.
What can you tell us about the cultural programme for this year in San Sebastian?
Eneko: If you compare our bidbook with the cultural programme for San Sebastian 2016 , there are some projects that remained the same, even the name. In some other cases there are projects that disappeared from the programme. This happened mainly for two reasons: one is that some projects that were proposed by local agents could be delivered in another context. They did so and we have a few examples, thus there was no reason to do them again this year. Also, because the process [of implementing the title of European Capital of Culture] takes 5 years, in some cases even though the projects seemed innovative at the beginning, after a few years they were quite old. If they can, they will make the projects earlier.
Some of the projects were outdated, so we modified them, and other projects were not technically possible or had budget restrictions. When we prepared the bidbook, we calculated the budget and tried to be as fair as possible. We did make some calculations for the budget but we didn’t have to go into details. For example, productions costs can be different after 5 years. Also, we planned to make a trip by train to all European cities but it was technically not possible because the railways have different measures in different countries. You can rent a train but if you make some calculations you’ll see that it is actually impossible. We had to adapt the idea and we reached an agreement with a bus manufacturer 15 km away from here, so we modified the project and instead of traveling by train we are traveling by bus. The project is called Europa Transit.
The first idea for this was very ambitious. We planned to have a mobile embassy with artists that will play and spread the message all over Europe, but moving so many people implies a lot of costs. Now we have a production team that is travelling to 10 different cities and shoots a documentary film. Through this we are announcing that we are the ECOC this year. Normally the bus is parked in the center of every city and acts like an info point.
So that’s the way we modified some projects, but I would say that 70% of the initial projects are the same.
What about San Juan? It was supposed to be launched in May 2016.
Eneko: This is a very good example of how things changed. This was a co-production with Albeola and we were funding partners for the ship. Finally they were not getting all the resources they needed, so in order to finish the ship the only option was to invest three times more money and the cost raised up to 4 or 5 million euros, which was not possible at all. It was a beautiful idea…
The main goal was not the reconstruction of the ship. Of course it’s important to keep the heritage and reconstruct it, but to finish it by this year was very expensive and risky. We changed the agreement and now we cooperate with them on a smaller scale, they continue building it and now they don’t have the pressure to finish it this year. The last time I spoke with them, they told me that they will probably finish it in two years.
In the end we have to move artists and make these exchanges, so we redesigned the project and we called it ‘The Cultural Car’ and we organised a cultural exchange with Wales, Scotland etc. This was done during March and April this year and we recently started touring. We ship these containers and organise pop-up festivals. Now we have a calendar with 6 festivals and the last one will be in Pasaia. More about this project.
Tell me more about the documentary, when do you plan to finish it and launch it online? Or maybe even at film festivals?
Eneko: The first two episodes are already available. We are broadcasting them on Basque public television. We are shooting one per month and in total they will be 10 episodes. We are also offering them to some documentary film festivals and the premiere of the first two episodes was in April at San Sebastian Human Rights Film Festival.
What is the reaction of the people so far, after a few months?
Eneko: The point and the big discussion is whether they are happy or not and if their expectations are fulfilled.
I would say that everyone is different and everyone has a different point of view. Those who are music lovers are expecting big music names, those who have children are expecting a lot of projects for families and children, those who are architecture lovers expect something different and so on. In the end you realise that it’s impossible to satisfy everyone.
When you are a consumer of culture you almost never look to all the diversity of artistic disciple and it’s hard to be satisfied. Sometimes I think there are some projects really interesting for specialists, but not for the general audience. If you do them for the general public, the specialists will complain that there’s nothing for them and so on.
I think it’s also about expectations. Everyone thinks this: “Wow, ECOC 2016!”
For example, we have a big jazz festival with big names every year. This year they hope to have even bigger names and more concerts, but that’s not possible. We can’t have every weekend some big artist on stage, it’s not in our hands if they have a tour scheduled or not, if we have the necessary budget etc.
And then there’s always the expectations of the politicians, that they want big moments to be there and profit out of it.
So you can organise and international conference and bring the main specialists in the world, let’s say in architecture field. You can have impact on specialised magazines but for local newspapers this is not a subject of interest. The same goes for politicians, if it’s not an opportunity to have some photos taken, then it’s not an important event.
Our projects are not designed to attract tourists. They are long term projects, in some cases long process with other cities that will last until 2018 or 2019 so the results cannot be measured now.
If this was designed by the tourism board, we would have fireworks and concerts every weekend, excluding local artists.
Getting back to your question. In general, the people are happy, although they started with a bit scepticism, now the spirit is building and by the end of the year we will see an improvement. It’s all a matter of expectations and you can’t make everyone happy. If you want to make everyone happy, at the end everyone will be unhappy. I prefer to keep my strategy clear and reach my goals.
What can you tell us regarding law issues? In our country, for instance, it is accepted for prosecutors to come and look for different purchases regarding NGOs making cultural events. Things are usually not clear if the funds are public and they go to specific companies etc. Did you encounter something similar?
Eneko: Yes, of course. We are having a lot of legal problems because we are a public foundation and we are supposed to organise these tenders (biddings) even if we know which are the best companies to work with, that can deliver what we need. Let’s say we know who is the best in theatre, take this contract and make this show for us. There are some exceptions with a lot of paperwork and legal consultants.
You have the experience of preparing the bid book in cooperation, maybe with some local NGOs or cultural agents that have spent a lot of time preparing everything and then you have to say that the project can’t be delivered. We had these open calls, the people who had the idea they can’t go on because in some cases they don’t have the budget, or the offer is not good.
And then we are suffering because of a restrictive legislation regarding music in bars. Things have improved now but we are always asking for different licenses. For example, if a small bar wants to offer music every weekend, it’s impossible. You have to respects certain hours, you need insurances, isolate the entire place and everything is so expensive that they can’t do it. We are encouraging different places to schedule some events and we are helping the bars with the paperwork. They are happy to be under our umbrella and they would organise music events every weekend, but we have to do something that could allow them to do it themselves. The public administration that funds cultural centers has to offer support to these private bars also, otherwise it is unfair. I think these rules will change and this could be a legacy after 2016.
Tell me about tourism visits in San Sebastian. Do you know any statistics?
Eneko: There are some numbers already published for 2016. I think we have a 23-25% increase in visitors. For me it was really a surprise because in the first three months we didn’t have many, and attracting more tourists was not what we had in mind. We had the big opening, of course, but I would say that the flashy projects started after the Easter holiday.
For me it was a nice surprise because we are already talking about tourists exceeding in numbers. The tourists number is already huge, we are not talking about a city where no one was coming. I think Mons had an increase of 100% last year, but before that who was going there? I remember San Sebastian appeared in The New York Times as one of the best destinations in the world, so the comparison is not the same. We were not expecting there figures for the first months… If we are talking about the summer, from June to September, occupancy levels are 100%. Also, there are a lot of people who are not in the official statistics. We can’t expect 100% rise because last year during the summer we had 98% occupation. I think that in the last 2-3 years we had more foreign visitors than national ones. That’s why the main goal of our ECOC candidacy was not to attract tourists because it would be a contradiction. Of course it’s part of the strategy and we are glad that the tourist director is happy, but this is not our main goal.
Are you promoting this year’s ECOC programme across Europe?
Eneko: Yes, we are doing it but not intensively. I’m not happy about this because I would prefer to promote it in a different way. We’ve been to different tourists fairs, we organised press conferences in Brussels, I think it was in November, just to announced the programme. Then I’ve been to different places in different contexts as a guest speaker etc.
For example, within the Europa Transit bus programme, we organise a press conference in every city.
Do you cooperate with other ECOC cities? We saw down stairs some flyers from Pafos.
Eneko: With Leeuwarden we have a few big and long terms projects, and we are talking with them to continue two or three of them.
We are having a conference (tosta minority languages – de cautat pe site) in June and the idea is to organise this conference every two years. So most probably they will organise it in 2018 when they will be ECOC.
Then we have some smaller projects. One of them is about gastronomy and we are bringing different chefs to San Sebastian for a week, so it’s like an artistic residence for chefs. They are invited by local chefs, they cook together, starting from the visit to the markets and discovering the local products, they prepare a special dinner where you can buy a ticket. They have to cook their own cuisine using our ingredients. For example we have invited some chefs from Matera, Pafos, Aarhus, Mons, Valletta etc. Not all of them are from ex or current ECOCs but I think 6 out of 8 chefs are.
We have 17 or 18 projects with Wroclaw, some of them being quite big. For example we organised a music festival based in Poland and we made a stream connection here.
Recently we started to discuss about an artist exchange with Rijeka in this autumn.
With Aarhus we are preparing a photography project for this end of the year and to be continued next year.
We would like that next year or in two years time to receive these kind of proposals or open calls and I think this is important for locals artists. Maybe Leeuwarden will ask for a basque painter or musician to visit them in 2018. One of the aims is to make these connections and avoid that cultural operators or artists to be isolated to the rest of Europe. I think this is a real legacy.
What about the San Sebastian ECOC team? How did things change and how many people are there working now?
Eneko: We are now more than 70 people. Some of them left, others just started last week, but I would say around 70. When I started working here two years ago, the team had around 10 members, if I remember correctly.
One of our big failures are connected with different legal and political reasons. Let’s say that there was not a consensus on how to develop a project. Hiring people was blocked for almost two years so I remember that in the summer of 2014, when we had our first meeting, we were 12 people. Last year, starting in July 2015 we began hiring a lot of people, and from September 2015 to January 2016 we hired almost 50 people. We didn’t have time to train all of them, to planify properly. Yes, you have the strength of 70 people but it’s hard to coordinate. I see for example Aarhus, they have no plans to be more than 40-45 people. The point is when we were 20, Aarhus had also 20 members in the team and they will be next year’s ECOC. If you keep a team of 20-30 people for 2-3 years it’s better than having a team of 10 people…
You can always have external services or hire temporary workers and have some flexibility, but the core team it’s important to keep it around 30 people for the last 3 years, depending on the budget. We failed on this and had a lot of pressure, at the end we need to deliver even though people know more or less what to do. When you have 10 new people in one week you have no time for trainings. Sometimes we lost time because of new members that contacted people that we have already got in touch with.
With the municipality we had the same situation, sometimes we got 5 phone calls from different people representing them regarding the same issue, even though we already answered.
It depends for every city. I know that Mons had also a big team last year, Marseille they had more than 100 members in the team and so on.
Eneko: I was talking recently with Chris Torch (Interim Program Director – Rijeka 2020) in Brussels and he told me about another candidate city from Croatia, Pula. It seems that the mayor of Pula went to the panel at the end of the presentation and he told them that even if they don’t win, the city will still invest in culture and will continue with a few projects from the bidbook. Of course, if they were selected their plan was to deliver all the projects detailed in the bidbook, but they also have a Plan B.
Chris told me that it’s ok to say this to the panel, and the mayor organised a press conference in Pula and said publicly about the plan to invest in culture no matter the results for the ECOC candidacy.
For me this was something very interesting to hear, because in Spain we didn’t have a situation like this. After San Sebastian won, the rest of the teams from the other Spanish cities disappeared. All the mayors forgot about the bidbook and the projects. Most of the members of those team continued to work in similar projects, but all that work done before was forgotten.
I know that in Gdansk, Poland they did something similar and decided to keep the core team and continue to work in some international projects, even though Wroclaw is the Capital of Culture, and be a part of an international network. For example, we mainly cooperate with Wroclaw, but we also have a few projects with Gdansk that are founded by the EU and we plan to have this collaboration until 2018.
For me, if you manage somehow to convince your mayor to continue some projects that’s the real legacy.
It will depend on your city’s strategy and budget but you can have some projects that will continue in any case, even if you lose.
In our case, if we had lost in 2011 the bidbook, we would have disappeared.
Do you think that this was an advantage for Rijeka?
Eneko: That’s tricky but can be true. I had the same talk with Chris. At the same time it is risky because you are giving a promise to the jury that this city will invest in culture. There’s a probability that the panel could choose another city and so they have two cities investing in culture.
It can be risky to state this publicly, but I think to work internally with your team and the municipality is very important.
Could you summarize some of the wins that you acknowledged for San Sebastian in the last 4-5 years regarding culture? In Cluj, for example, the #cluj2021 team managed to convince the municipality to increase the budgetary part regarding the cultural NGOs. We have almost 200% increase in 5 years. This is a major win for the team, that it managed to convince the mayor to invest in culture. Have you experienced something similar here?
Eneko: Well, for me the huge win in San Sebastian was thanks to the bidding team, they convinced the mayor that culture is not only about immediate economic benefits, investment in infrastructure or investment in big touring names but also investing in long term projects, social impact of culture and so on.
I think this is a huge win when you are putting culture at the center of your city’s strategy.
We are always talking about benefits, but having a city without problems or conflicts, that’s a great benefit. It’s very difficult to measure this and not that visible…
Some of the ECOCs invest more in infrastructure, others in new buildings like museums, in our case most of our budget is for programmes.
Do you have projects with the other candidate cities from Spain?
Eneko: Yes, but… Most of them didn’t want to cooperate.
For me it’s hard to understand but two cities went to the court to sue the European Panel because they believe that their decision was not fair. They believe that it was an agreement to give the title to San Sebastian because they were better. They felt that this was a present from the EU to San Sebastian, to the basque minority.
We are not cooperating with the municipality from these cities, but we are cooperating with theatre companies or independent cultural operators.
In 2010-2011, how did you tell your citizens that you are competing for the ECOC title? Did you have an outdoor campaign for example?
Eneko: I think the main key for our success was that. When we were preparing the bidbook there was a huge investment in communication. But not a one week campaign, we organised a lot of workshops, conferences and a lot of people found out about this. Of course we contacted all the cultural operators, but we also focused on those who are not involved in culture. We had local support from the media and our logo was everywhere. Then it became a problem, but I will explain this later.
That moment was really important. Our bidbook was like a newspaper. We didn’t only publish a few copies for the panel members, but we also published thousands of copies to be distributed in the city. The same day when we had the last presentation to the panel we distributed the bidbook for free with the local papers. We didn’t know if we will be the winners at the end of the day, but in the morning we decided to give back to the citizens because it was done with their support and their help.
I remember we had a lot of posters and big banners, we had support from the citizens and they were really engaged. Then it became a problem because of the expectations. You can’t keep this support or excitement for 5 years.
At that time, when I joined the team, the first thing to do was to decide the legal organisation. In the bidbook you have to provide this information, but then you have to implement it, which is not that easy. You have to sign a lot of agreements and this takes a lot of time.
Our logo was everywhere. We offered for free to everyone, even companies that started to advertise with this, saying that they support us, but in fact they were not real sponsors / partners. Once our logo was everywhere, some companies said to us: “What are you offering if we want to become a sponsor? Everyone is using the logo and everybody is a supporter.”
We had to make some modifications for the logo, the old version remained for the people and the new one became the official logo that could be used only if having an agreement with us.
It can be helpful to have the logo present in many places, but once you can see it everywhere the value goes to zero.
How did you convince the bar owners to have their employees wear a blue T-shirt with #Donostia2016?
Eneko: There is a strong ONG for the bar owners in San Sebastian that cooperates with us. This also became a problem because they wanted a bigger share of the project. I remember back in 2011 when a lot of workers from restaurants, bars, hotels etc started wearing our T-shirt, but after a while the bar owners came with different suggestion on what events we could organise in their bars.
They feel this power to ask or to question your programme. I understand that and I have no complains because they did a very good job, but I remember one meeting they were saying more or less that they could organise a European Gastronomy Week in their restaurants, but we have to pay the costs and the benefits were for the restaurants. It was something like “we helped you, now you help me” and that was not the ideea.
It’s difficult and during the years a lot of people come with ideas and suggestions. All of them feel that they deserve part of the budget…
Speaking of this, was is your budget between 2012 and 2017?
Eneko: Well, in our bidbook we stated that our budget is for ten years (2010-2020). The idea was that some projects have a long term view and do not focus only on this year. We started making programmes in 2012-2013 and this year is like a peak of activities, but the idea was not to cut all the projects in 2017. The first budget was 89 mil euros for 10 years but it was very ambitious and I would say too much. Our plan was to get 22 mil euros from tickets, sponsoring and merchandising, but that was completely unreal. In 2011 we were already in economical crisis, many of the companies from around had been declared bankrupt so in that context we didn’t have a chance. After the foundation was setup and the public administration reviewed the budget, they decided to forget about the last two years and keep it until 2018. They reviewed also the forecast for private funding and they decided another cut of 5% or so. Also, last year there were some discussions and nowadays we have 50 mil euros or something like that for 8 years.
This year the budget changes constantly. Last year we decided about the programme but we kept some projects in case we get more funding, and we also kept a 3-5% of the budget in case new opportunities arise. You never know how many tickets or merchandise you will sell, or even how many sponsors you sign with, so you must be prepared. For example, we signed a new sponsor in April for a project that we have planned for October.
In our case was not possible, but maybe in Romania it is possible to get some structural funds from the EU.
Our relationship with the government is really difficult. If you read the last report from the panel of European Commission, it says that it is a case of bad practice the way the Spanish government is funding our project and not only in terms of money. Comparing it with the Polish government, where they are giving around 20 mil euros to Wroclaw, that’s like 5 times more than in our case, and if you compare the power of Spanish economy to the Polish one…
But the critics from the European Panel were not about the amount of money but about the way they are funding the projects. We have to show them project by project and they decide for each one, and for example they consider gastronomy as not being a part of culture. This situation can interfere in the programme.
This example can be borrowed by other governments, let’s say yours. You can go with some projects and they say that this year’s priority is about another direction so you won’t get funded. This way you are not independent anymore and sometimes the paperwork is totally crazy. First, we have to apply for funds from the government, project by project, then we have to pay taxes for every project and so on. The paperwork that we are doing to clear those 4 mil euros that we received is a lot more than all the paperwork we made for the entire ECOC project.
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