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Dorian Celcer: The People Who Built the European Capital of Culture Project Are the Most Valuable Asset Anyone Can Have

Dorian Celcer, a former member of the Rijeka 2020 team, visited Estonia in November to share his experience with the Tartu 2024 team. In a brief interview, he discussed the organisation of Rijeka's title year and the lessons that can be drawn from it.

Dorian Celcer giving a speech.
30. Nov Kaidi-Lisa Kivisalu
Photos: Heigo Teder

What was your position in the Rijeka 2020 team?

Titles of my positions changed throughout the bidding, transition and implementation phases. But one thing remained constant: I was always the go-to person for internationalisation and institutional affairs. Due to necessity, like many European Capital of Culture team members in other countries, I also wore many hats. It had its challenges, but it also allowed me to gain a deep insight into so many topics I would hardly be involved in otherwise. My ECoC experience scarred me, but I think it also changed me for good, for life.

The story of Rijeka 2020 was quite unfortunate due to a world-wide pandemic. Briefly, what was planned and what was later implemented despite all?

It was supposed to be the crown jewel of the largest cultural investment cycle in the history of the city. It was supposed to be the beginning of a new phase in the development of the city, marking the end of the post-industrial transition. Our plan was to bring Europe back to Rijeka, and to bring Rijeka back to Europe. Our vision and our programme may not have been the sexiest in terms of large-scale spectacles that bring in millions of visitors (and Euros), but rather one of capitalising on the potential that we have: bright and ambitions people, bold and edgy ideas, and the desire to do good for the people (in the broadest cosmopolitan sense). In the end, all of it had to be scrapped and re-focused on preserving the cultural scene while providing programmes for local citizens during the pandemic. But, as fate would have it, it played quite a cruel trick on all of us with the pandemic, leaving us sad, confused, angry, scared and, often, isolated in every sense of the word.

According to your experience: what would be the lesson out of this for other future ECoCs?

People that have built and implemented the European Capital of Culture project are the biggest asset anyone can have. Capital investments and infrastructure are great, but humans who make it all “click” are THE most important. In that sense, I would say two things. First, use these people after the European Capital of Culture year. Don’t let that experience go to waste. Secondly, manage everyone’s expectations. Never stop repeating what the project is about, what it will and will not be, and that it is not the panacea that will solve all of everyone’s challenges or problems.

How well do you think the Tartu 2024 team is ready for hosting the biggest cultural project in the history of Tartu?

I can comment on it only as an interested outsider, but I have a feeling that the current team has a great vibe. A combination of young and experienced professionals, dedication towards the project and a sense of pride for bringing such an event to their city. European Capital of Culture Tartu 2024 is a historical project, no doubt. I have felt that comprehension when interacting with team members. Knowing how important it is and being willing to put their best effort into building it, I am confident that the project will have a bright future and, more importantly, a legacy. I don’t think anyone can be truly ready for the sheer size of it, regardless of how many large-scale projects one has under his/her belt. At times it can be daunting, but that’s the beauty of it, and I’m certain that the Tartu 2024 team is up for the task.

What are your emotions from visiting Tartu?

It was my second time there and both times I’ve felt like I was among friends. I have a feeling that, as much as the climate is harsh (comparing it to Croatia), people are as welcoming and as friendly. So, I would say that I will always gladly come for a visit, knowing that even though I might be super-cold on the outside due to weather, friendliness of local people more than compensates with warmth I feel on the inside.