Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 2011
Greg Richards and Robert Palmer Eventful Cities: Cultural Management and Urban Revitalization St. Louis: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2010. 320 pp. Paper $49.95 (9780750669870)

There are few things as challenging as creating large-scale cultural events for cities. Numerous stakeholders, funding bodies, and public agencies must be counseled, appeased, and included in the process, if not directly in the artistic program. Local audiences and interests should form an integral part of the event’s offering, while media and tourist markets yearn for the high-end, world-exclusive tier of cultural engagement. Add to these factors the mystical quest to create a “something for everyone” program to please all of the above, and one begins to understand the complications at hand. It is therefore admirable that someone should step forward with a publication that attempts to address and navigate the complexities of organizing and staging such events. Eventful Cities: Cultural Management and Urban Revitalization by Greg Richards and Robert Palmer aims to do just that.

The idea of large-scale events as vehicles to generate pride in local audiences, differentiate the city globally, and attract short-term tourist spending and long-term urban investment is certainly not new. From historical examples such as the impact World Fairs and Expos had on cities such as Montreal and Chicago, to the more recent instance of Barcelona’s transformation by hosting the Olympics, successful events can be powerful catalysts for a city’s development. Over the last two decades, city events and festivals have grown almost exponentially in numbers internationally, and cities are increasingly waging hefty chunks of public spending on the role of events to differentiate or regenerate areas or the entirety of the city.

Drawing on their shared experience as directors, consultants, and analysts for a wide variety of city and regional events, Richards and Palmer write with authority, navigating the difficult terrain of event strategy, planning, administration, marketing, and all points in between. Their book works with a wide definition of these events, using lessons learned from various cities’ Olympic bid campaigns and Olympic host cities; numerous literature, food, heritage, art, and performance festivals; and a rigorous study of cities that have been designated European City of Culture (ECOC). Of the various examples, the European City of Culture is dominant throughout the book, owing equally to the direct experience of the authors on many of those campaigns and also to the fact that the ECOC possesses perhaps the largest body of quantitative measurement and economic data to allow correlative comparison and learning across a number of cities.

A balance of optimism and pragmatism is essential when considering such large city undertakings, and the book maintains this well. Iconic city-specific events such as the Edinburgh Fringe have become something of a holy grail to city officials worldwide in terms of what large-scale cultural events can do for a city locally and its reputation internationally. Yet in the same way that the Guggenheim Bilbao spawned dozens of “starchitect” cultural building projects around the world for each city to chase the dream of rebirth through culture, iconic events such as the Edinburgh Fringe, the Venice Biennale, Cannes Film Festival, and so on have become something of event Bilbaos. Many chase the dream of Bilbao through either buildings or events. A handful come close; many others fall woefully short.

In the same way cities have flocked to be considered a “creative city,” a new term is being sought in similar numbers—the quest to be seen as an “eventful city.” Some question whether the motivation for using either term is for a sort of instant rebirth or re-branding that would allow for a city to quickly differentiate itself by those terms alone. It is never that simple, and without a substantial foundation of existing energy, activity, and support, looking to city events as a sole driver of change or a new brand will not be enough. As Richards and Palmer caution, “the best way to improve your brand is to improve your reality.”

It is therefore rewarding to see the book first explore key questions cities must ask themselves when debating whether to create or host an event, recommendations for policy planners, insights into “populist pressures” during the programming of an event, and the sage-like advice to not overestimate attendance figures. (In short: inflated estimated figures provide an easy sell to gain approval and a very short rope from which to be hung when they do not come true.)

Another driver of the growth and popularity of city events is an extension of cities embracing a more entrepreneurial model. Richards and Palmer cite research showing that, “cities have tried to adjust themselves to complex new economic and social circumstances by shifting their policies from urban managerialism to urban entrepreneurialism. . . . Cultural funding became more directly linked to the ‘products’ or ‘outputs’ of cultural institutions now ‘measured’ by using a variety of ‘performance indicators’” (11). Later, they cite further studies revealing that previously traditional cultural funding policies for museums and theaters “thus widened its scope to pop-music, film, web-design, ethnic culture, entertainment, etc. And it searched for new means of distribution that were more accessible than the traditional theatres and museums. Consequently, festivals appeared to be the panacea” (29).

The book includes a vast number of charts and graphs from numerous city events and festivals that add statistical weight to its analytical narrative. While the wide array of numbers shows a trend of (mostly) increasing returns on a city’s investments in events, Richards and Palmer maintain a healthy perspective when exploring the lure of becoming a wildly successful eventful city. They issue caution to cities that may chase a continuous expansion of their events calendar. One risk they note is “event fatigue”; the other end of the spectrum is reached when an eventful city becomes consumed by “festivilisation,” in which “events and event spaces come to dominate the public life of a city” (28).

Some consider Montreal to have succumbed to festivilization, with almost four hundred “festival days” a year. While this may be a statistic of pride for city officials, the book quotes the “Spacing Toronto” blog’s interview with a Montreal resident and his thought toward the city’s festival calendar: “Whenever I want to feel like a HUMAN BEING I flee Montreal because it has become a nightmare in the [peak festival period] summertime. . . . Journalists at Le Devoir newspaper coined the ‘hyper festivity’ term to describe the phenomenon. My own definition is: ‘crack cocaine for the masses’” (395).

As the desire for new cultural experiences increases as part of the post-consumerist “experience economy,” it is common to look to the cities to provide these experiences. After all, cities have always been the backdrop for great experiences in people’s lives. The difference, Richards and Palmer note, is that “rather than simply functioning as a backdrop for a wide array of events, cities now actively seek to develop, manage, and market events as a key part of their cultural life, social fabric and economic dynamism. Festivalisation has become used as a means of countering a wide range of cultural, social and economic problems. In turn, the justification for developing cultural festivals or sports events has focused increasingly on the economic or social potential of such events and enabling the city to compete more effectively in the global arena” (30). It is this last mixture of expectations that provides the greatest challenge for the majority of events and festivals—to maximize the economic potential and global impact of the city’s offering, while at the same time accommodating and pleasing the local community. Even if the focus may be on attracting outside attention, the votes and taxes are being tallied at the local level.

Though exceedingly rich in advice and lessons learned, Eventful Cities—to its credit—does not profess to know the secret to an all-purpose successful event, nor does it shy away from confronting the complexity of the task at hand for most cities, admitting that “no one method works in all places.”

For an incredibly detailed and thorough book exploring such an intensely complex issue as the creating and managing of city events, the same general statement could be applied to the book as a whole—not every area of the book will feed each reader’s field of interest. Those interested or working in the marketing and branding of cities will find the corresponding sections particularly rewarding and rich with examples, ideas, and case studies from urban branding success stories such as Barcelona’s hosting of the Olympics or Glasgow receiving European City of Culture status. Similarly, those with a vested interest in the finance and funding of events will find a detailed and thorough overview in that section. Only the most dedicated of event administrators may read from cover to cover with interest, but all involved at any stage of the event process will find relevant sections.

For its considerable strengths, there are weaknesses in the book’s forward-casting or looking outside the conventional event models for lessons. It pays little attention to temporary public art installations as effective city events, despite providing the example of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates (2005) in New York City’s Central Park, which generated tourism and economic metrics that dwarf many traditional city events and festivals. It similarly gives little attention to the newer generation of festivals such as Burning Man, which could provide insight into next generation thinking for cities everywhere.

It is unavoidable that an exhaustive book covering such a complex topic should share the same tendencies as that of its subject matter. There are some highs in its offering and delivery, as well as some areas that are of selective interest. Yet on the whole, Eventful Cities is a long-overdue authoritative survey and guide to the complicated navigation of city events.

Scott Burnham
Creator and Director of Urban Play public design festival, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Strategist for Montreal Biennale, Montreal, Canada; Director of Urbis Centre for Urban Culture, Manchester UK