A reflective and comprehensive interview with Professor Victor Neumann, historian and Director of the Timișoara Arts Museum
In the fall of last year, an international jury selected Timișoara for the title of European Capital of Culture in the year 2021.
Romanian cities, in a first authentic competition
When they became public, I read all bid books, as well as the international jury’s final reports. I found more about the ideas and projects of each candidate city. I understood the jury’s observations, recommendations and conclusions. I was especially interested in certain candidates, such as Iasi, Bucharest and Cluj. As I learned from the media, some candidate cities organized shows, promoted themselves by means of concerts, festivals, contests. Yet, the main task of these associations was to draw up the bid book. The task required research, teams of volunteers gathering information, meetings with the townspeople, asking them questions and writing down their options. Timisoara – European Capital of Culture Association applied itself to this exceptional work of inviting advice and gathering data from all social sectors. According to the regulations drawn up by the European Commission regarding these projects, the bid book should not cater solely to an elite or a minority of people, but to a wide range of audiences. Which means the capitalization of authentic creations for the benefit of a numerous public – in other words, culture that targets a large mass of people. I believe this is where those who relied on exceptionalism and who neglected the fact that modern societies are based on the emancipation and education of the middle class, fundamental to the operation of a democracy, made a mistake. One of the candidates relied on ticking all the boxes for becoming Europe’s most important artistic center. Such self-projections failed to convince. It is not excellence that European capitals of culture aim for. Without underestimating values, high culture, individual and collective performances, we cannot forget the drawbacks plaguing certain European cities. We cannot ignore the relationships between people or communities, and in Romania’s case, the intellectual monologue that oftentimes replaces a culture of dialogue. Romanian society faces a stark need for reinvention, and this is only possible by means of culture. Therefore, it is not just a segment of the population who must benefit from cultural creations, but a wide middle class, interested not only in ownership and consumerism, but also in intellectual creations that shape our thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
Inherited social and cultural realities
The project talked about the inherited social and cultural realities, paid tribute to the city’s history of habitation by a multi- and intercultural urban society, and its ecumenical, tolerant and fraternal guiding principles. A history of competitions and innovations, scientific and technical discoveries, musical, artistic and literary creations, the light shone by predecessors. A storyline in which fantasies and myths are outperformed by the civic spirit of the inhabitants. We also proved how and why Timisoara was the most European city of inter-war Romania, an example of peaceful cohabitation of a plurilingual, cosmopolitan population, ignoring ethnical, cultural, religious segregation. We supported the idea of European capital of culture based on historic and cultural references that set Timisoara apart. We showed that a political revolution is not enough to sustain a fundamental change, and that true adaptation to the European collective mentality is based on knowing and recognizing otherness, but especially on the bridges between individuals and Europe’s multi- and intercultural communities. In other words, a plea for a paradigmatic change by means of culture and education. A free urban community focuses on overcoming social, cultural, religious segregation.
A relatively small number of people worked from dawn till dusk for the preparation of this bid book and its presentation before the selection jury. It was an enormous amount of work. As someone who was close to those who did the actual work, I can say that their effort showed once more that any project of this magnitude needs a common belief, discipline, a strong skillset and a coordinator who is both demanding and empathetic. The bid book is not a literary or a scientific text, so its wording was a great unknown. So what the team did was show understanding of key notions, provide credible information and arguments, specific examples, statistics and clear messages. Finally, the translation and the design had to be on par with the content. Understanding the project’s aim, the designer put its fundamental ideas into images, creating a complementary pursuit. The skill and creativity of the artist worked wonders in highlighting the ideas contained in the bid book.
All important achievements require a long-term effort. The critical moments came when not all the inhabitants of the city understood the aim of the project. Not that they could. For instance, some of my colleagues at the university or from Timisoara’s cultural institutions did not have any information regarding the procedure and norms required by the European Commission for admittance to such competition. There were contradictions, frustrations, negative reactions in the local media. Sometimes, they were welcome. Other times, they were not. Yet the team kept its positivity, completing the bid book and preparing the two presentations before the international jury, timely and efficiently. Some believed Timisoara did not have a great deal of chances, in comparison to other Romanian cities. They were insisting on this uninformed point of view. And it is not pleasant to see some of your own townspeople ironizing the work of your entire team, launching denigrative remarks or expressing their support of your competitors. Yet in spite of all criticism and difficulties that came up during the preparation process, Timisoara – European Capital of Culture Association had the strength to see things through, proving that this city wants to and is able to reemerge on Romania – and Europe’s – map.
What was truly wonderful was that many youths joined the project, showing a positive reaction to the Association’s messages. In fact, there were people from various age groups who joined the Association’s efforts, volunteers who put in an unhoped-for amount of effort into seeing that everything went well. Besides the intellectual, opinion-forming community who joined the project team, the majority of the city’s inhabitants also believed in its chances of winning the title for the 2021 European Capital of Culture. This was the most rewarding part of the preparation, which the Association appreciated. At a certain point, the Association installed a board in Piata Unirii, asking people: “Do you think Timișoara will become a European Capital of Culture?“ Very many people answered. Their ideas were not just original, but also generous. That is when we realized that the city has a tremendous amount of human potential, waiting to be tapped into. Gestures of this kind doubled my confidence, but mostly motivated all those who worked on the bid book day after day.
The international jury
An international jury examined the pulse of the city, numerous matters of local and county administration, the capacity of authorities and the civil society alike to see the project through. The jury of twelve – ten international and two Romanian specialists – visited a few cultural institutions in town. The members were invited to meet the representatives of cultural, linguistic and religious communities, and were presented their reasons for coming together without exception in supporting the city and its candidacy. They listened to the messages of support for Timisoara coming from the mayors and councils of other towns in the region. This was the procedure that had to be followed by the jury, as well as by the other candidates Comprised of specialists, of people very much aware of the issues that a European capital of culture would have to deal with, the jury knew what the bid book had to look like, and to what extent the people and the local and regional institutions could implement the proposed programs. The assessors did the same for the other three cities left in the competition after the first round, in December 2015: Baia Mare, Bucharest and Cluj.
The reawakening and reinvention of Timisoara
Timisoara talked about its merits, but did not hide away its shortcomings: the fact that there have been many changes, before and after 1989, including – and perhaps most importantly – massive waves of migration. Contemporary Timisoara is undergoing rearrangement, and therefore has an abundance of flaws from the point of view of integration, social diversity, civism, wealth distribution. There is a segment of passive citizens who are satisfied with an acceptable salary and the consumerism it allows, refusing any interest in the matters of city life. This behavior is problematic, but can be corrected. If you want to be a European capital of culture, you must also think about what you want to improve about your town, the living standards and lifestyle of its population. This way, you will cultivate not only the act of culture, but the economy and administration that render it possible. Then, Timisoara’s candidacy situated at the foreground the idea of a better awareness of the city and the region in Romania as well as in Europe, by reinventing its urban identity by means of technical and scientific, musical and artistic, literary and architectural creation, at European standards. It was very important for Timisoara to win this title. Much more important than for any other city in Romania. Timisoara is an average-sized city in Europe, and a large city in Romania. It is undergoing a crisis of conscience, of identity, administration and policy. Yet in spite of these shortcomings, the multitude of local or international companies are giving the place a certain stability, an economic basis, showcasing a human potential waiting to be capitalized. The reawakening and reinvention of Timisoara can come true by means of the European Capital of Culture project. Our goal is for year 2021 to become a historic moment for Timisoara, Banat and Romania in its entirety. A new beginning, an East-West and North-South dialogue, contributing to cultural interferences, to the identification of that sensus communis, that fabric that unites people, cultures, religions, communities, and which is never stained by mystical inclinations or false ideologies.
Special thanks to Revista22 for the integral interview