Melina Mercouri: Culture is Greece's heavy industry

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Melina Mercouri’s legacy:
European Cities of Culture

The European City of Culture was the result of an initiative by the late Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri. In November 1983 she invited European Community (EC) culture ministers to Athens and presented them with a project for creating knowledge of European cultures within the EC member states. At the time, the Greek minister felt that culture was not given the same attention as politics and economics. She told her European colleagues that the voices of artists should be heard as loudly as those of politicians and economists. “Culture, art and creativity are not less important than technology, commerce and economics,” Ms Mercouri said.

In the summer of 1985 the European City of Culture programme was launched with Athens being the first title-holder.

The European Cities of Culture between 1985 and 2004 were chosen on an intergovernmental basis. The European member states selected unanimously cities worthy of hosting the event, and the European Commission awarded a grant each year to the city selected. While between 1985 and 1999 only one European city carried the title City of Culture, in 1993 the procedure was changed for the year 2000. The start of the new millennium represented a special case, and it was decided, because of the year’s specific symbolic importance and as a gesture of European unity and cooperation, to award the title to nine cities.

After initial doubts about the Commission’s decision, the nine cities got together to coordinate their cultural programmes. The outcome of their cooperation was, a surprisingly successful series of Europe-wide events showing the different cultures of the participating cities.

During the German Presidency in 1999, a new selection procedure was introduced. At the same time, the European City of Culture was renamed the Cultural Capital of Europe. The Council decision of 25 May 1999 will enter into force as of 2005. The new procedure is based on a rotation principle, with individual EU member states able to suggest one or more Cultural Capitals for a particular year, possibly stating preferences.

An independent international, seven-member Selection Panel examines the candidacies collated each year by the European Commission. The panel consists of two members of the European Parliament, two members of the Council, two members of the Commission and one member of the Committee of the Regions. The panel makes a recommendation to the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. Within a period of three months after receipt of this report, the European Parliament may forward an opinion on the nominations. The Commission then submits its recommendation to the Council. Nomination by the Council should take place at least four years prior to the year in which the title is to be awarded.

Culture is Greece’s
heavy industry
Melina Mercouri left her seal on the Hellenic Ministry of Culture during the 80s. She was a world-famous actress, brave fighter in the resistance movement against the Greek military regime (1967-1974), a politician admired Greece and abroad, Minister of Culture for eight and a half years (1981-1989 and again 1993 to 1994). But above all, she is regarded in her home country as one of the great Greeks of the last century, a woman who was cherished and passionately loved by the Greek people.

Using her own splendour and glamour, Melina Mercouri managed to make culture part of everyday lives in Greece, a front page story in the newspapers and big news in radio and television. During her years of office at the Ministry of Culture, she campaigned for the return to Greece of the Parthenon's marbles, kept in the British Museum in London. They are the masterpieces that were acquired in disputed circumstances at the beginning of 19th century by Lord Elgin, then the British ambassador to Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Aware of the fact that the existing Acropolis Museum had not enough space to exhibit the marbles, Melina Mercouri started procedures for the construction of a new museum which is now open to the public but keeps its most beautiful room empty, awaiting the Marbles' return to Greece.

On the European stage, she initiated the foundation of the European Cities of Culture, an annual event that culturally unites European countries. At the inauguration of the European Cities of Culture movement, Melina Mercouri said that Culture was Greece’s heavy industry.

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