Capital of Culture 2022: Kaunas Wants to Shake the Spirit of a 'Hopeless City'

Virginija Vitkiene heads the Kaunas 2022 project.

Capital of Culture 2022: Kaunas Wants to Shake the Spirit of a ‘Hopeless City’

Kaunas is the second-largest city in Lithuania, but it is not doing too well. The city got stuck pining for the golden age of yore.

How to make Kaunas dynamic and exciting again? A city where the youth would want to stay? And what could Tampere learn from them?

The story of Kaunas is the story of a city that was once something great.

Less than a century ago, Kaunas even served as the capital of Lithuania. Then, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union and Vilnius became the capital. War, the Holocaust – this bleak history weighed on the city for a long time. And Kaunas never really recovered from losing the capital status, even though the city is still notable in many ways, as a university city to name but one.

Kaunas believes that the change for the better will be pulled off no later than in 2022, when Kaunas will become the European Capital of Culture.

Kaunas received this title, because it really needed it. With the help of the title, Kaunas wants to implement its witty slogan: “From temporary to contemporary.”

Kaunas is the twin city of Tampere. This is reason enough for Tampere to pay attention to how Kaunas managed to win its title.

Consultants Unearthing Goals

“We have enough cultural institutions. We have events, theatre, museums. But we had problems with the spirit of the city. Kaunas was a city without hope. We needed change, a shift in atmosphere,” Virginija Vitkiene, the CEO of Kaunas 2022 says.

According to Vitkiene, the secret of their winning bid was good consulting. Kaunas used three consultants from other Capitals of Culture. Vitkiene says that they truly helped in clearing the city’s goals.

“They helped us understand that the only way to win the competition was to first make a detailed analysis of the city’s ‘gaps’, problems that culture could fix.”

“The most deep-rooted issue in Kaunas was a general lack of confidence and feeling of insignificance. The city had everything, but people felt detached from their beautiful city. But once we started to talk about things such as the wonderful tradition of Modernism in the city’s architecture, people have started to feel proud of their city again,” Vitkiene says.

“Be Honest about Your Problems”

Based on her own experience, Vitkiene offers one advice to Tampere for the race:

“Be very honest with who you are and what your problems are and be very clear on why Tampere of all cities needs this title.”

Here, Vitkiene repeats EU’s instructions to the bidding cities: You won’t win the title by telling us what a great and vibrant cultural offering you have, but by telling us why you need this title.

A Beast out of Thin Air

The most peculiar idea of the Kaunas 2022 project is arguably the invented myth of the Beast of Kaunas, a water dragon living in a cave under the city and protecting it. This story has become a platform for various events, from a children’s book to a drawing contest and from graphic design to celebrations. Why come up with something like this?

“It was invented by a team member who studies and teaches myths at the university. For a city to be whole, it needs an integrative mythology. Our only existing myth was a story of an aurochs that was shot at the confluence of the two rivers, which is also featured in our coat of arms. It wasn’t enough.”

“We are constantly developing the character of the Beast. It already has some characteristics and a residence underneath the city. 95% of the feedback for this idea has been positive. Wherever we go in Europe, our Beast is the most interesting part of our programme.”

The Vilnius Failure Still Weighing Heavily

The Kaunas 2022 project was established as early as in 2014. In the very beginning, the project only had two paid employees, but a total of 12 people under various contracts took part in the drafting of the bid. Finally, two writers finalized the application.

The project currently employs approximately 40 persons under various contracts, even though the Capital of Culture year is still two years away. Vitkiene explains that this time will be used for working with the residents of Kaunas in various community programmes.

“People produce the ideas. We shall refurbish the city and paint some murals.”

The budget for Kaunas 2022 will be approximately 30 million euros. According to Vitkiene, the project will be sponsored by the city, the state and European funds. Gaining private funding is particularly difficult, as the sponsors can still recall Vilnius’s unsuccessful year as Capital of Culture in 2009.

“In the throes of the financial crisis, it was a really bad experience. Nothing worked, it was a total failure.”

The Kaunas 2022 project found impressive premises by the main street of the city. Ana Čižauskienė, a co-founder of the project, is posing in front of the offices.