Cultural policy Exhibitions Portugal

Portugal celebrates its history—on a budget

Guimarães, one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture, should serve as a model for future events in cash-strapped countries

A performance in Guimarães's Toural Square told the story of how King Afonso Henriques conquered Portugal in the 12th century

For the opening weekend (21-22 January) celebrating the Portuguese city of Guimarães’s term as the 2012 European Capital of Culture (with Maribor in Slovenia), the organisers set a suitable tone for a country currently struggling under economic woes by not spending vast amounts of money on expensive, flashy projects. Instead, they opted for events that aim to encourage a strong sense of the city’s historical identity.

The president of the European Commission Durão Barraso and Portugal’s prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho visited Guimarães, a Unesco world heritage site, over the weekend but most of the visitors to the opening events were locals. Thousands flocked to see “Meeting Time” by Centro de Criação para o Teatro e Artes de Rua and the Catalan theatrical company La Fura dels Baus, a street performance in Toural Square which told the story of how King Afonso Henriques of Guimarães conquered Portugal in the 12th century. Gigantic sculptures of men and horses moved elegantly through the square accompanied by video lighting and a live orchestra.

Guimarães prides itself as “the birthplace of Portugal”, and most of the local shops and businesses were hung with the European Capital of Culture logos, while Count Henry flags, the first heraldic symbol to be associated with Portugal, could be seen throughout the city.

“By being local, we can become global,” says the director of the campaign, Carlos Martins. “People here are resistant to change, but retain optimism in the face of a crisis. The man in the performance [King Afonso Henriques] represents the strength of our values and it’s the contemporary art world that needs to connect with our historical city, not the other way around. ” With no new structures being built in Guimarães, €70m has been spent on renewing existing buildings to maintain the city’s old architecture. A fire, which broke out on Friday night before rehearsals, didn’t help matters when it destroyed one of the balconies designated for media.

António Magalhaes Silva, the city’s mayor since 1989, feels proud of what Guimarães achieved during the weekend: “I knew it was going to be a good show, but I had no idea we’d have so many people in the city. The excitement around Guimarães was simply extraordinary.”

Many international artists will continue to come to Guimarães throughout the year, including Christian Boltanski, who will unveil a new work in June, but the hope is that these artists will help build on the city’s own artistic knowledge and awareness. “We want [international] artists and creatives to enhance our own artists as well as to reflect upon the city,” says the co-ordinator of art and architecture, Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro.

The weekend’s events may have been modest compared to previous years, but they were far from unambitious and importantly didn’t ignore Guimarães’s precarious financial position. “There would have been anger if lots of money had been spent on international stars,” says Cay Sevón, the chief executive officer for last year’s Capital of Culture, Turku. “I predict a shift to lower budgets for future European Capitals of Culture, especially when the new economic legislation comes about. Guimarães will inspire cities to use international influences to stage community-focused events.”

More from The Art Newspaper


25 Mar 13
18:43 CET


we have been trying to find out if their will be a medieval festival this year, we came to guimaraes by chance in 2012 when it was on and thought it was wonderful and would like to come again this year.we thought that guimaraes and the people were so friendly.please can you let me know any details of the festival it was around the secound weekend in september in 2012.

27 Jan 12
14:35 CET


I believe that Guimarães will have a wonderful 2012 and for a medium size city this is an absolutely amazing opportunity to be known in the world and to attract people to Portugal. Good luck!!!

26 Jan 12
22:54 CET


Is this the European Capital of Culture? Disappointing to say the least! London has more events on any single day that this city has in all year... 70 millions? Probably most go for salaries of the local people, some of them getting the likes of 10,000 euros per month... they do not have lack of money, they simply do not know how to manage money in an efficient way... see, even the programmers have two hats: as a programmer and as a performer programmed by him/herself... enough said...

25 Jan 12
20:42 CET


Very beautiful city.Good food, and Friendly people.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this