The European Capitals of Culture at the Italian Pavilion of Expo 2020 Dubai

“The European Capitals of Culture Day at the Universal Exhibition 2020 Dubai” is the event that the Matera Basilicata 2019 Foundation is organizing on October 30, 2021 in the Italian Pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai, in partnership with the Commissioner General of Italy. The initiative is the result of the Memorandum of understanding signed in October 2018 between the Foundation and the Commissariat, which envisaged the involvement of the network of European Capitals of Culture, headed by Matera, as a lever for strengthening the dialogue and cooperation between Europe and the vast region of Arab countries. Symbolically, the ceremony that marked the start of the one-year countdown of the Italian presence at the Expo 2020 Dubai was held in Matera, at Cava del Sole, in October 2019, the year the city was European Capital of Culture. Two of the main attendees were the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Luigi Di Maio and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates, H.H. Sheikh Abdallah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The ‘Day’ on 30 October 2021 will highlight the most significant cultural experiences of the European Capitals of Culture and their huge contribution to the themes that the Dubai World Expo is promoting: building bridges, leaving no one behind, living in an equilibrium.”

This day in the context of the most important event of the year acquires a special value during this prolonged period that has been marked by the pandemic and the compulsory cancellation of so many major live events. Not only by shining a spotlight on the European Capitals of Culture in the months when for the first time since 1985 there are no ECoCs, but also by creating a connection between the closing ceremonies of Galway and Rijeka in April 2021 and the opening ceremonies of Esch, Kaunas and Novi Sad in 2022. The event will bring to the fore the network of European Capitals of Culture that represent a huge and varied potential of experiences and practices of the transformative and regenerative impact of culture on the cities and their communities.

The program will be played out in four events: the International Forum “The European Capitals of Culture and the New European Bauhaus: how to build sustainable, inclusive and beautiful places”; the International Forum: “Urban/Rural: designing through culture new connections between overcrowded and sparsely populated areas”; “The ECoC game”, an interactive experience designed by the Open Design School aimed at taking visitors on an imaginary journey through the history of the European Capitals of Culture; the performance “Open Sound” – one of the original co-productions of Matera 2019 realized with Multietnica association-, a bridge between the production of contemporary electronic music and sound practices related to the most representative rituals of Lucanian tradition. The performance will involve Italian and Arab musicians and producers, celebrating the encounter of different and similar cultures.

Eight European Capitals of Culture will be participating in the discussions around the themes of the two forums: Esch 2022 (Luxembourg), Novi Sad 2022 (Serbia), Kaunass 2022 (Lithuania), Veszprém-Balaton 2023 (Hungary), Eleusis 2023 (Greece), Nova Gorica/Gorizia 2025 (Slovenia), Oulu 2026 (Finland), and Matera 2019. Major guests at the forum on European Capitals of Culture and New European Bauhaus will include architect Carlo Ratti, co-designer of the Italian Pavilion at Expo, and Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth (on video).

“It is a source of immense pride for us that Matera 2019 will lead the European Capitals of Culture to the Expo 2020 Dubai”, says Michele Somma, Vice President of the Matera Basilicata 2019 Foundation.

“We wanted to organize this initiative together with the Italian Pavilion and the network of European Capitals of Culture to relaunch this network and to highlight the resilience and ability to reinvent a major event by overcoming the unforeseen challenges posed by the pandemic. It is particularly significant for us to give a sign of rebirth and openness to the world by bringing together the capital cities in one of the few outside EU events, allowing them to be seen together as protagonists, live. Particular attention will be paid to the contribution that the European Capitals of Culture bring to the “New European Bauhaus”, an initiative launched by the European Commission, through an innovative process of co-design in which Matera 2019 is participating with the Open Design School to design more beautiful, more inclusive and more sustainable spaces”.

Oulu2026 Cultural Personality: Arja Huotari

Our cultural personality of the week is Arja Huotari, Director of Cultural Centre Valve and Head of Cultural Services in the City of Oulu. Her main priorities in the job have been to create prerequisites for operations in the cultural industries and for other cultural activities as well as to advance availability and accessibility of cultural services. Huotari’s career in the Cultural Services of the City of Oulu has lasted four decades now and will soon end as she retires.


Oulu, together with 32 Northern Finnish municipalities, is the year 2026 European Capital of Culture! How do you feel about that, Arja?

Oulu winning the bid for the European Capital of Culture is really a great thing and a transformative process that will open up new perspectives on the way. It is an invigorating opportunity to develop the city through art and culture. I believe that the Capital of Culture activities will create opportunities to increase North Ostrobotnian collaboration and the different sides of the region will become even more familiar to us and others.


What does our leading theme, Cultural Climate Change, mean to you?

When Cultural Climate Change actualises, art and culture are a natural part of the whole community’s activities and its development. Due to the change process that will take place, we will learn to recognise the impact of cultural activities on people’s wellbeing, and cultural activities and artistic content will become smoothly a part of citizens’ daily lives. The goals of Cultural Climate Change and the tactics necessary for its implementation have been described in the Capital of Culture bid as well as in the cultural strategy of the City of Oulu. To me, Cultural Climate Change also means commitment to control actual climate change. It means, for example, improving local cultural services as well as empowering citizens to implement their own cultural activities in their neighbourhood.


How do you find Oulu at the moment?

Oulu is just the right size. The city is large enough to produce and maintain diverse services while also being small enough that it is possible to build accessible services and activities. Oulu is a good and safe place to live. In Oulu, there is also always the opportunity to learn something new and get excited about new phenomena.


How do you spend your spare time?

I most prefer spending my spare time with my family and other people I’m close with. It is particularly nice to run about with small grandchildren. Of course, I’m also interested in art and culture during my spare time, and gladly participate in activities and events in Oulu and elsewhere in Finland. One dream for the upcoming retirement days is to improve my handicraft skills.


What will Oulu look and feel like in the year 2026? How do you think the Capital of Culture title will impact Northern Finland?

The Capital of Culture title will bring increased openness and tolerance to Oulu and the whole Northern Finland. Increasing European collaboration will strengthen our own Northern identity and, on the other hand, increase understanding of other cultures.


Photo: Harri Tarvainen

”Do not create for the tourists but for the residents”, Stuba Nikula, CEO of Helsinki Events Foundation

Kaupunkifoorumin yleisöä

Kaupunkifoorumi (City Forum) was organised in Oulu on 12.-13.10., and it gathered a noted crowd of experts to discuss the development of cities and city centres. Themes of the forum were international interaction’s new order, future of city centres, and sustainable economies where cities are the drivers of change.

The Mayor of Oulu, Päivi Laajala’s opening words were followed by Minister Krista Mikkonen who reminded the attendees about the significant role cities have in surviving from the pandemic.
–Cities’ innovativeness, development capabilities and the opportunity make fast movements are now in an important position. Coronavirus affected the typical services formats and city centres went quiet, the distress of the cultural industry grew, and surrounding nature became even more meaningful to people, Mikkonen said.

A Lovely City for People

Professor of Urban Geography at the University of Helsinki, Mari Vaattovaara, addressed in her speech the state of city development. Vaattovaara had a message to cities and said that cities’ task is to further the wellbeing of its citizens, and to organise it in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. Vaattovaara questioned the current construction trend of building small apartments and high-rises where the view is the wall of the high-rise next door.
–Quality of the surrounding environment cannot be emphasised enough, Vaattovaara said.

Addition to Vaattovaara, the panel consisted of Director General at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment Marja-Riitta Pihlman, Mayor of Lahti Pekka Timonen, and Chief Executive Officer of the Mortgage Society of Finland Ari Pauna. The panel was moderated by Piia Pasanen. Timonen praised Vaattovaara’s goal about a lovely city for everyone and said that the positives of Lahti are its urbanity, and that surrounding nature begins right from the back door.
–The city must have something enchanting that attracts you to the city centre. One must ask whether it is good to be here, said Timonen.

Other topics that were discussed in the panel included money, international markets, and cities’ attractiveness from the perspective of investors. Pihlman also brought up the importance of work-based migration. Conversation was also buzzing around the appeal of city centres and cities’ empty spaces.

The Capital of Culture Position Goes a Long Way

Dr Beatriz Garcia from the University of Liverpool spoke about international interaction and how far-reaching benefits the cities have achieved from the European Capital of Culture title.
–Culture should be seen as a development tool, said Garcia.

Information sharing between countries and cities is also important according to her so that everyone could develop and regenerate. She said that she has had a frontline seat in monitoring and investigating the European Capitals of Culture and their development for years now. According to research, the title has increased the locals’ participation in culture long term, and 50 to 90 per cent of the citizens have felt that the city has become a better place following the festival year.
–The European Capital of Culture position has many benefits to the cities locally as well as internationally. Around 30 per cent of tourists use the Capital of Culture as one of the criteria when choosing the destination, and 60 per cent of local population has participated into at least one Capital of Culture event, said Garcia.

Director of Oulu2026, Piia Rantala-Korhonen explained about the scope of the project and how 32 municipalities have joined Oulu in the project. The North has many advantages, and Rantala-Korhonen mentioned in her speech some projects that have a strong connection to locality.
–Arctic Food Lab brings forward the Northern flavours and local ingredients while also connecting local food providers and consumers, Rantala-Korhonen said.

Mervi Luonila and Vappu Renko, who are researchers at Cupore, discussed about the research that is conducted over the next years. They said that their task is to produce research knowledge about the impact of Oulu2026 before, during and after the festival year.

From Retaining to Enchanting

Stuba Nikula, CEO of Helsinki Events Foundation, held a concise speech that evoked excitement in many listeners. What came across from his speech was that residents living in cities appreciate change. Change that can also last longer than just a moment.
–Cities should enable an abundance of options. People search for experiences and encounters in the city centre. Do things so well that the neighbouring city becomes interested, Nikula summarised.

Air Guitar World Championships have been held in Oulu for a long time, and its producer Hanna Ikonen said that Oulu is precisely the right place for the competition. Ikonen specified that the event community is tight-knit and highly international, and that the event has been tried to be bought elsewhere. She said that many locals come to her astonished about why anyone would want to come to Oulu.
–Oulu could not be prouder of itself. Both the organisers and the attendees think that the setup and atmosphere for the Air Guitar World Championships have always been tremendous. For many, the trip to Oulu is a yearly highlight, Ikonen said.

”The unique Capital of Culture title will bring visibility to Oulu, also internationally” Elena Näsänen, Member of the Board of the Oulu Cultural Foundation

Elena Näsänen

Elena Näsänen is a Master of Fine Arts, visual artist and a filmmaker. She acted as the Chairperson of Artist’s Association Finland between 2004 and 2007. She has worked as Production Advisor for the Promotion Centre for Audiovisual Culture (AVEK) between 2004-2007, in other positions of responsibility such as the Chairperson of MUU ry, and has participated in the operations of international artists associations. At the moment, she is the Chairperson for AV-arkki’s board. Näsänen was granted the state’s five-year Artist Professor grant 2021 that begins in 2022.

Is Oulu a familiar city to you?

”Oulu is somewhat familiar to me as a city and I have visited there. As a child, I spent time during the summer in Hailuoto at our family friends and I have many good memories from those days.”

What image do you have of Oulu?

”I have a very positive image of Oulu. While there, I have enjoyed myself a lot and I think that the citizens of Oulu are easy-going, competent and extremely pleasant people.”

What are your thoughts about joining the board of the Foundation?

”I have not previously been involved in such a large project so I’m very excited about what is to come. The project is unique and I’m widely interested in all of its aspects. It is rewarding to get to have conversations with the board. I’m looking forward to the collaboration with different artistic sectors, and want to take into account both big and small creators.”

What relevance does the European Capital of Culture title have for Oulu and the Oulu2026 region?

”The title is great and will bring Oulu lots of visibility both in Finland and internationally. Hopefully as many international visitors as possible find their way to Oulu, especially during the festival year in 2026. It is interesting to see how the commenced processes continue also after the festival year and how far the Capital of Culture title’s impact carries to.

What are you specifically bringing to the Foundation?  

”I’m an artist myself so I will bring to the foundation the perspective of those creating art. I want to pay attention to that prerequisites for artists’ operations improve. I’m particularly interested about media art which combines multiple artistic methods and making that more visible.”

How do you spend your spare time?

”I do yoga, casually go to dancing lessons and walk around in the forest with my dog. My autumn is a very busy time due to different projects and exhibition preparation, and I’m hoping to be able to do more of the things I mentioned.

The Capital of Culture is a common endeavour, Jouko Niinimäki, Member of the Board of the Oulu Cultural Foundation

Kuvassa Jouko Niinimäki

“I participate in cultural events together with my family every time there is an interesting opportunity.”

Jouko Niinimäki was born in Oulu and is a Doctor of Technology who has worked at the University of Oulu since 1995. The past years, he has acted as the Rector of the University. He studied in Oulu and graduated from the University of Oulu as an engineer. He has several positions of responsibility in various foundations and boards. 

How do you find Oulu as a city right now?

Oulu is a great city where we have plenty good things and wonderful events. The citizens of Oulu have all the reasons to be proud of their city, but we should see things more positively and through that create common good. We could speak more positively about our city to others. Maybe we are somewhat too self-critical. Maybe we could increase the positive feelings about our city with the Capital of Culture position. 

What are your thoughts about joining the board of the Foundation?

I’m happy and proud that I was chosen to the board. I see this as a great opportunity and I’m ready to work together with the Oulu2026 team to achieve the goals. It is a shared project, so it is important to engage operators, citizens and those living in the surrounding municipalities. 

What relevance does the Capital Culture title have for the city?

The Capital of Culture 2026 is an endeavour. A common endeavour that the project forms, diversifies our cultural offering and consumption of culture. I believe that through the project, there will be many kinds of and varied, large and small cultural offerings that will change Oulu more than we might think at this stage. 

What are you specifically bringing to the Foundation? 

I have a big community behind me from the university, so I am able to help in creating connections with them. We have many good practices place at the university that can be connected and utilised in the Capital of Culture activities. 

How do you spend your spare time?

I spend my spare time exercising in different ways and going around in the nature. I participate in cultural events together with my family every time there is an interesting opportunity. I think as a cultural consumer, I am typical citizen of Oulu.

”Oulu is an inventive city that has the opportunity to be the capital of the whole Northern Finland” Tytti Määttä, Member of the Board of the Oulu Cultural Foundation

Tytti Määttä

Tytti Määttä has a master’s in political science and is the Mayor of Kuhmo. Määttä studied political science, political history and economics at the University of Turku. Additionally, she has studied environmental science and management. She has also acted as the Municipal Manager of Vaala and as Senior Specialist for the Association of Finnish Municipalities. Määttä was named the year 2019 Maaseutukasvo and the same year, Kajaanin Nuorkauppakamari chose her as the most active public officer in Kainuu. Määtä also acts as the chairperson of Metsähallitus the regional advisory board for Kainuu and North Ostrobothnia. 

Is Oulu a familiar city to you? 

“I’m from the Oulujoki riverside by the border of Utajärvi, though from the side of Vaala, so yes, Oulu is a very familiar city to me. Several people from my inner circle live between Vaala and Oulu so I visit that way often. I still remember how big it was for Oulu when Oulun Kärpät rose from I-division to the league. While studying in Turku, I was sat in the sea full of TPS shirts with a Kärpät shirt on, and maybe somewhat provocatively walked around the campus with a Kärpät sweatshirt on.” 

What image do you have of Oulu? 

“I consider Oulu’s reputation to be good, innovative and inventive. The fact that Oulu does not carry the weight of a lengthy history is its strength that is seen in the continual development and regeneration of the city. In Oulu, regardless of the industry, everyone has equal opportunities to succeed in life. Oulu has the opportunity to be the capital of the whole Northern Finland.” 

What are your thoughts about joining the board of the Foundation? 

“This is really interesting and I’m very touched that I was asked to be a part of it. I see it as a good thing that I have wide knowledge of the strengths of the different municipalities in Kainuu and North Ostrobothnia. I believe that the City of Kuhmo’s strong cultural background impacted me being asked to be a part of the Foundation. There will certainly be plenty to do at the beginning, but I am ready for it. It is important that the operations of the foundation are transparent and modern.” 

What do you think, what relevance does the European Capital of Culture title have for Oulu and the Oulu2026 region? 

“The relevance for the whole region is significant and all possible benefits from it should be captured within Finland and internationally. As challenges, I consider the continuum and how to hold on to the development in the future as well. Reaching new audiences in Finland is important, and I hope that during the project, the already long-run cultural work of municipalities would be made visible. The visitor groups of international networks should be engaged with the Capital of Culture and take the advantage the connections from sister and literature cities, among other things. We must be excited and through culture, there is an opportunity to remove short-sightedness.” 

What are you specifically bringing to the Foundation? 

“Wide knowledge on municipalities and a desire to make create permanent action are my strengths. Seeing culture as both the creator of wellbeing and, as an industry has become familiar to me in my current position. I consider the collaboration between public and private sectors significant. I stress social responsibility and I hope that enterprises would join in acquiring art in a form that is suitable for them. As someone who is highly present on social media, I have mastered the skills of writing and communication, and I will continue to bring culture forward in my own channels.” 

How do you spend your spare time? 

“I exercise actively, and nature is close to my heart in all of its diversity. Going around in the nature, picking berries and hunting are preferred by my whole family. Kuhmo’s comprehensive cultural offering serves me with a lot of soul food during my spare time, and I recently began a painting course led by Urho Kähkönen.”