The idea that cultural investment can revitalise decaying city centres is an orthodoxy of the new Europe. Think of Glasgow’s makeover during its 1990 reign as European city of culture, or the effect of the Guggenheim on Bilbao’s fortunes.
The ambitions of Germany’s RuhrTriennale are even bigger. The aim of the festival is to breathe new life into the entire area of the Ruhr valley, and it takes place in more than a dozen venues in ten different towns stretching from Duisburg in the west to Dortmund in the east. Once the industrial powerhouse of Germany, the Ruhr is now a vast open-air museum to a vanished age, its landscape littered with disused coal-mines and factories. And it is these very buildings which are providing the focus for the new festival, now in its second year.
Its director, Gerard Mortier, has the estimable ambition to bring culture off its bourgeois pedestal and bring it back into living relationship with the people. That aim got him into trouble when he was artistic director of that most haut-bourgeois of artistic events, the Salzburg festival, where his disrespectful productions of Cos? Fan Tutte and Jenufa caused outrage among its patrons. He gave up, predicting that Salzburg would soon revert to its usual diet of Mozart and Puccini, and took on the job of directing the triennale (the festival actually takes place every year, and is “triennial” only in the sense that the artistic director has a three-year tenure).
What he has created for its second year is a six-month programme of installations, opera, theatre and music which is just as uncompromisingly high minded as his Salzburg programme. There are no pop or world music events, no big-name tenors in open-air stadia. In fact, some of the events seem low key; the Duisburg and Bochum Philharmonics, hardly stars among orchestras, are mainstays of the operatic part of the festival. So you might wonder why it needs such a lavish budget: e41m (?29m) over the three years of Mortier’s reign, of which e8m has come from the EU, and most of the rest from the government of North-Rhine Westphalia.
Mortier believes in high art only when reinterpreted for the times and rooted in its locale. Here, this means creating productions and installations tailored to the extraordinary venues he has available. Take the magnificent gasometer in Oberhausen. It has become a vast circular exhibition area,…