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Georges Mischo - Mayor of Europe – September ’22 -  Culture

Culture is considered the 4th pillar of sustainable development in Esch
- along with the economic, social and environmental pillars.

Georges Mischo became the mayor of Esch-sur-Alzette in 2017 and one of his first acts was to start working on the city’s cultural strategy spanning the following decade. The strategy was adopted in 2017 and has been the backbone of many policies, such as the local bid for the European Capital of Culture label.

Now, as the Esch2022 project is in full swing and the cultural plan is at its halfway point, local authorities can see how a pandemic-struck sector rises back and starts operating to capacity and beyond.

Mr Mischo, a key focus area of your administration has been to develop the local cultural sector with the Development Plan for Culture 2017 – 2027. Why did you decide to focus on this sector in particular?

Putting culture and creativity at the heart of Esch's plans is not new, because since the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the steel industry and the arrival of many immigrant workers, culture has had an undisputed place in the historical development of our city.

The new communities — who arrived to work in the steel industry, making up the new working class — founded brass bands, theatre groups or choirs in their free time, participating actively as musicians or passively as spectators to the cultural life of Esch.

In their beginnings, these groups mainly offered amateur activities but over time several professional projects were born from these initiatives. This practice had a unifying effect and help with the inclusion of all these new communities in the social life of the city.

With this in mind, at the dawn of the First World War, the politicians of Esch wanted to react to the requests for an artistic education from the local population and decided to create a library and a music school. Esch-sur-Alzette has long been a place of culture(s).

In 2017, at a decisive period of change for Europe, Luxembourg, and for Esch, the need arose to propose a municipal plan for culture, to define a strategy for the next 10 years.

Culture is now considered the 4th pillar of sustainable development in Esch-sur-Alzette, along with the economic, social and environmental pillars.  

This year marks the halfway point of the cultural plan, with Esch2022 as the main event. The document itself also puts several milestones for 2022. How would you evaluate the progress so far?

The European Capital of Culture label is not an end in itself, but a tool to achieve long-term goals. On the other hand, this title was a tremendous accelerator for achieving the objectives of the cultural strategy.

At the time of the vote on our cultural development plan, the city had not yet obtained the title of European Capital of Culture, and no one could imagine the impact that this plan would have later, during the years 2018-2021.

The work carried out within the cultural structures of Esch and our Culture Department has already made it possible to achieve a lot of our objectives.

First, in 2021, the results of the self-assessment set up by Agenda 21 for Culture (the cultural strategy) in 2017 and 2021 showed a good evolution in all areas, but especially in equity and inclusion (+48%), governance (+46%) and cultural rights (+29%).

The evaluation shows that, out of 21 objectives or sub-objectives (3 of the 18 objectives were split into two for analysis), set in 2017 for the next 10 years:

  • 15 objectives have already been fully achieved;
  • 3 are in progress;
  • 2 have an undetermined status;
  • 1 is not yet reached.

As things stand, the results of certain actions still need to be concretely assessed, and above all, the effects observed must be consolidated. It is a question of ensuring the legacy, and not only the effects of Esch 2022.

The pandemic has derailed so many plans for both people and institutions, with the cultural sector being particularly affected. What are the local effects in Esch? Have professionals been able to recover?

The health crisis has not made implementing the cultural strategy any easier. However, I am convinced that the efforts made so far are not in vain. All the creatives with the Esch2022 team have shown great flexibility and ingenuity in adapting their cultural offers to the situation facing the world.

It is worth mentioning that the cultural sector in Esch, and more broadly in Luxembourg, has been less affected than in many other countries. The government made it possible to reopen institutions and venues at the start of the cultural season in October 2020. Since then, they have not been forced to close completely.

Admittedly, for almost two years, they did work at a much smaller capacity than before but were able to continue to work.

Faced with the health crisis, we have also tried to promote new possibilities of cultural practices for the inhabitants of the city as much as possible: in summer, outdoors and with reduced capacities. It was also about supporting local artists by ordering creations from them. The implementation of the "cultural summer" and then the "cultural return" in October 2020 has provided a modest breath during this difficult period for the public and professionals alike.

Despite the many difficulties, our cultural sector has also been able to draw positive lessons, and those responsible have realized that culture can play an important role in the mental health and well-being of residents.

With the pandemic, depressive and anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress have increased throughout the population — particularly among young people and among the most vulnerable populations. Cultural actors are not spared either. The World Health Organization indicates that to remedy this, creativity and art are tools that should not be overlooked. Following this observation, we have reworked our cultural strategy by adding specific objectives in this area.

Cross-border cohesion is a big focus of Esch2022, as it involves a tight-knit collaboration with neighbouring municipalities in France. What were the main challenges and benefits of that decision?

First of all, it is important to understand why the whole border region is a European Capital of Culture. It shares a common industrial history around ore mining and steel production, which still has an impact on coexistence here. Thousands of people cross borders every day, borders are fluid, and through this, we live ‘Europe’ every day.

But many of the people who are commuting from France to work in Luxembourg often return to their homes after work and don’t really participate in the social life – same for those Luxembourgers who normally don’t cross the borders towards France in their free time.

The project Esch2022, and its wide cultural offer on both sides, aims to bring people together. The municipalities on both sides invite everyone to discover their homeland, their culture and their people. That`s the biggest potential benefit.

How do you think it affects the local cultural sphere, as well as the one across the border?

The European Capital of Culture is an opportunity to invite citizens to revisit their memory, to reflect on the changes underway and - especially for the French part - to strengthen the positive capital of a territory too often, and partially unfairly, associated with decline.

The projects of the French municipalities contribute to the dynamism of the territory by reinforcing Franco-Luxembourgish synergies in the cultural, educational and tourist fields.

Thanks to Esch2022, not only French and Luxembourgish but also many other European and international cultural players and actors are working together here and hopefully far beyond Esch2022.

Creative industries need space to grow and to experiment, as work is often irregular and pay is unreliable. Many cities that have developed into cultural powerhouses have, for instance, often done this on the back of low-cost, low-barrier living spaces and studio spaces.

Does Esch have the right infrastructure to support a diverse and lively artistic community, considering the high prices of housing?

Promoting creation in the city is not only based on financial assistance to project leaders, even if in recent years the subsidies allocated to the cultural sector in Esch have experienced an incomparable increase.

First, we strengthened the agreements with the “historic” actors of the City, that is to say those who had already received support. In addition, we have worked to establish agreements, partnerships and leases to attract and support new creatives in Esch.

We also ensure that the agreements signed with all these partners allow suitable remuneration for creative people, allowing them to cope with the high living costs in Luxembourg.

The problem of the high prices of housing does not only concern creative people but a large number of inhabitants, among whom are especially young people.

It is in this sense that the city ensures to keep a large number of affordable housing units in existing neighbourhoods and in the new neighbourhoods that are planned for the next ten years. In the two new districts, it is planned to build specific spaces for creative people at affordable prices.

Since 2018, during our exchanges with creative people and a study on the needs in terms of spaces in the city, we have notably identified a lack of available and accessible spaces for creation. From this observation, but also thanks to opportunities, we have developed two new institutional projects.

The Bridderhaus project, which offers artistic residencies to national and international mid-career artists since June 2022, is one of these. Creatives can benefit from artist residencies ranging from one month to an entire year. Not only are they housed for free, but their work is also remunerated.

The second one is Bâtiment4. The developed project also enabled financing to the tune of 400,000 euros by the National Relief Work of Grand Duchess Charlotte. This makes it possible to provide, free of charge, more than 3000m2 of surface area to creative people.

With five years of the plan to go, what do you think the cultural sector will look like in your city by 2027?

In just five years, we managed to achieve much of the objectives planned in our 10-year strategy. This is, to an extent, thanks to the accelerating effect of the European Capital of Culture and despite a global health crisis.

2022 is an exceptional year for the city of Esch-sur-Alzette and its inhabitants: 5 years of preparation, already 6 months of achievements. Many visitors have come to explore the town, many artists from all over the world have developed their creativity there, municipal services have put themselves at the service of the project, cultural facilities have turned their activity upside down and residents have discovered new forms of art.

This year is unique - we are all aware of it.

Personally, I am convinced that our cultural sector will be able to continue to do excellent work for the next 5 years. In 2027, Esch-sur-Alzette will be a creative cultural centre, recognised nationally and internationally, for the diversity of its culture and its capacity for innovation and creation at the service of ecological and social transitions.

Author: Denis Balgaranov

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