Mons 2015: the transformation of a city

SSix months after its conclusion, Mons 2015 is starting to assemble the various elements of an appraisal that is highly positive. The European Capital of Culture event can claim to have been exemplary in many respects. Enhanced by the support of its political, economic, social and cultural players and emboldened by the visible transformation of its heritage, it is continuing its metamorphosis, with an initial target set for 2025. A biennial, the first elements of which are beginning to emerge, will be held in autumn 2018.

 On 14 April 2003, the Municipal Council of the City of Mons decided to put Mons forward as a candidate to become European Capital of Culture in 2015, and entrusted to Yves Vasseur the responsibility of making the case for an extremely ambitious project for Mons and its region: the biggest cultural event ever held in Wallonia. Seven years later, on 18 November 2010, Decision No 2010/757/EU of the European Union designating Mons ‘European Capital of Culture 2015 in Belgium’ signalled the beginning of the adventure.

A truly exceptional Capital of Culture

Any plan by a city to become European Capital of Culture (ECoC) – an initiative of the European Commission which, however, is entirely organised by local communities – is a kind of UFO bristling with pitfalls and surprises. Those cities that have managed to make a success of this singular adventure – the likes of Liverpool, Lille, Guimaraes or Riga – have undoubtedly recreated their image. Years later, local people cherish the memory of the vitality that this great upheaval brought with it. As Ariane, a tourist guide in Mons, told us at the time of the closing festivities: ‘Now that you are beginning to know me, you will understand that what I have to say is not to be taken lightly. You have changed forever the face of my city, and to some degree the lives of all of us – and certainly mine in any case.’

Mons now joins the ranks of successful ECoCs, with its exemplary mobilisation of its political, economic, social, academic and cultural stakeholders. Examples that spring to mind include the combination of nearly a thousand small and medium-sized enterprises in the Mons 2015 Enterprises Club starting in 2012. Or the Grand Ouest programme, which from 2014 brought together all the mayors of Mons-Borinage around a common project, or the 48 cities and municipalities that were involved as partners. Or the thousands of ambassadors who were active before, during and after the ECoC, or, of course, the 1,200 artists from Hainaut and the 2,200 from the rest of Belgium who helped make this an exceptional year.

The whole of Europe will remember one of the finest opening celebrations ever witnessed, one of Europe’s most popular exhibitions in 2015, Van Gogh in the Borinage, and the impressive feat of simultaneously opening five new museums. And all of this on a general budget of 71,433,400 euros – well within the average for an ECoC. It is also worth noting that:

  • more than 2.1 million visitors bought a ticket or attended one of the free events of Mons 2015;
  • every €1 invested by the regional authorities in the operational budget of the Mons 2015 Foundation yielded net returns of €5,50 for the Belgian economy.

These results are taken from the study by the research firm KEA, European Affairs, and were presented by its director, Philippe Kern, on 21 June 2016 at a press conference organised by the Mons 2015 Foundation at Rue de Nimy 106, Mons; he added that ‘the main return on investment is not easy to quantify: it is confidence, morale, pride, spirit, attractiveness, an image and a quality of life.’.

Stability and professionalism singled out for comment

The twelve years of preparations for Mons 2015 were filled with great happiness, people reaching out to one another, the reforging of links and ‘newfound pride’, as the headline in Le Monde put it in a headline after the opening celebration.

In a letter to Yves Vasseur on 16 February 2016, the European Commission, in the person of Karel Bartak, Head of the Culture Programme Unit, DG Education and Culture, expressed his desire to ‘highlight the remarkable work that has been done by your Foundation since the nomination of the city of Mons as European Capital of Culture in November 2010. The stability, professionalism and tireless dedication of the management team, combined with the enthusiasm and the involvement of all team members, including the volunteers, have been key elements in the success of 2015.’

From scepticism to ambition

‘We maintained our standards and our objectives all the way through,’ says Yves Vasseur with a smile, without forgetting the difficult periods that were encountered. KEA also singles out in its conclusion the ‘excellent management of the risk of the cultural investment’ and the ‘reconciliation of artistic excellence with prestigious events and grassroots, participatory activities that forged social ties and enjoyed an excellent level of local participation’.

The 15 most successful events

  • Van Gogh exhibition: 180,000 people
  • Opening festivities: 100,000 people
  • Grand Eight: 52,000 people
  • Metamorphosis weekend (new museum openings): 50,000 people
  • City at Play: 50,000 people
  • Doudou Museum: 44,000 people
  • Belfry: 38,000 people
  • Sunflowers: 35,000 people
  • Grand Ouest: 29,000 people
  • Fervent China: 26,000 people
  • Mons Memorial Museum: 22,500 people
  • Literary Guinguette: 22,000 people
  • Van Gogh’s House: 21,000 people
  • Hanging Garden: 20,000 people
  • Café Europa: 15,000 people

NB: the museum cluster sites attracted 476,826 visitors

Moreover – and this has already happened – a number of these initiatives which were born in 2015 are now being taken over by institutions or grassroots movements. Such is the case with the Literary Guinguette, the Roof Garden and the Friends of the Arsonic initiative.

A new relationship with culture has emerged in Mons: ‘Mons 2015 has raised awareness of the economic impact of culture. Today, culture has expanded its scope. It permeates the whole of society, starting with the world of work. It is involved in any and every place where there is a need for creativity, authenticity, originality and innovation,’ Mayor Elio Di Rupo has said. The follow-on from the ECoC is taking shape in a spirit of renewed confidence on the part of the Mons authorities.

For the year 2015 has closed with an overall financial picture that is highly positive. Thanks to rigorous financial management and a determination to secure the legacy of this exceptional event, a sum of more than 5.5 million euros that was part of the initial budget of the ECoC will enable the Fondation Mons 2025 to keep the ball rolling.

Download the balances of Mons 2015

PDF icon Rapport_d'activité_Mons2015.pdf