- The Urban Art Gallery project has filled the city with striking large-scale street art
- Lisbon has acquired the reputation for being the place in Europe to live and work as a freelance artist or creative entrepreneur
- The new MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) has created a big impact on the city’s waterfront
Lisbon is one of Europe’s oldest cities, whose position on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula has not only shaped the history of the city itself, but also that of Portugal and as well as being the base for imperial adventures in Africa, South America and the far East. One of Lisbon’s most famous cultural exports is Fado – a national music genre that was previously considered transgressive and marginal, but is now protected through inscription on the UNESCO’s World Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The city is considered to be an architectural gem (with a reputation especially for tiling and tile-making), and is currently enjoying something of a renaissance among young entrepreneurs and creatives who are coming to the city to take advantage of its affordability and ancient charms.
The City of Lisbon itself is just one element in the wider Greater Lisbon Area: a regional administrative body that is comprised of 18 districts (each with their own local administrations). In 2011, culture-related economic activities represented 8% of employment in the territory.
The city responded to Portugal’s 2010 financial crisis by cultivating artists, technologists and other creatives. As a result, the city is home to a burgeoning start-up industry, with artists, artisans and entrepreneurs recolonising parts of the city that had been slowly abandoned since the 1980s. The fact that a good deal of the property in the downtown area is owned by the city government means that rampant speculation and gentrification can be avoided with smart planning and leasing decisions.
Administratively, the City Council of Lisbon is a key player in the cultural ecosystem of the city responsible for almost 6% of the city council’s total budget. The current vision for Lisbon is that of a city that “THINKS, CREATES AND SHARES CULTURE”: Thinks strategically with the aim of contributing to establish Lisbon as a cosmopolitan, contemporary, creative and inter-cultural city. A City that Creates cultural programmes through its institutions and services and enables cultural agents to develop their activity, protecting the city’s cultural identity and by facilitating and articulating the city’s cultural dynamics. A City that shares knowledge and communicates with all audiences.
The Lisbon City Council discharges its responsibilities via two equally important branches: The Municipal Department for Culture (DMC) and the cultural municipal company EGEAC (Empresa de Gestão de Equipamentos e Animação Cultural). The DMC makes grants totalling 3M euros to around 120 organizations. Its development roles extend to the city’s Libraries network, and preservation and promotion of its Cultural Heritage. EGEAC is responsible for the management of 22 cultural venues and events in public spaces.
Major revitalisation projects have been implemented in the waterfront area to establish a new relation between the city and the River Tagus, including substantial investment in its cultural infrastructure. The new MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) has created a big impact on the banks of the River and is a landmark building for Lisbon’s cultural reputation internationally. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is headquartered in the city and its museum is home to art and artefacts from around the world. However, the cultural scene in Lisbon is predominantly made up of small companies and individual artists. Most operate on a non-profit basis and many have informal contracts, meaning they are often supported by national or city government, but they are also vulnerable to changes in their income. In addition to giving grants, the city government provides buildings and space for studios, storage and rehearsal.
Lisbon districts have their own specific characters. Alfama is known for its restaurants and tourist attractions; Bairro Alto and Cais do Sodré are home to many bustling bars and nightlife, as well as arts venues; Avenida da Liberdade is full of luxury retail outlets and Martim Moniz, Intendente and Anjos are each home to specific ethnicities and nationalities.
Led by Lisbon’s Department of Cultural Heritage, the Urban Art Gallery (GAU) project began in Bairro Alto – a historic but run-down district in the centre of Lisbon. It’s a scheme that uses the exterior walls of buildings for large-scale street art. This has created a visually striking built environment across the neighbourhood as well as establishing a wider appreciation for heritage preservation. It was such a success it was rolled out across the city.
The success of Lisbon as a base for the European nomad creative freelancer community has come with some costs for established locals and incumbent businesses. AirBnB and similar outfits have been used to exploit much of the available accommodation in the centre of the city. The signs of redevelopment like cheap cafes closing to be replaced by expensive restaurants are visible in many central neighbourhoods. The opinion of Lisbon’s inhabitants is divided; while some acknowledge the economic benefits of tourism, others are unhappy with what they see as the proliferation of infrastructure almost exclusively directed to serve foreign demand. The City Council is seriously tackling this issue with several initiatives, such as the ‘Historical Shops’ policy, which recognises the historical value of traditional businesses and protect them from real estate speculation.
The DMC have worked to generate cultural policies and strategies that help establish Lisbon as “a cosmopolitan city, a contemporary city, a creative city and an inter-cultural city”. A fine balance is needed to encourage a contemporary cosmopolitanism which does not come at the expense of long-standing local needs. The city administration has actively cultivated cultural spaces (such as the Carpintarias de São Lázaro or Gaivotas 6), and the revitalisation of the city’s library network, the Museum of “Aljube”, the redevelopment of the Lisbon Museum and the setting up of the Lisboa Film Commission. Many of these are directly aimed at supporting the cultural lives of local citizens, and culture is continually used to promote participatory and conscientious citizenship to give people an active role in shaping wider urban policy and the future of Lisbon more generally.