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Are Cultural Olympiads good for the arts?

Members of the Streb extreme dance group abseil down the face of City Hall, with Tower Bridge and the Olympic rings behind them in central London, July 15, 2012.


There are no warm Olympic memories at London's museums and art galleries. Attendance at the British Museum, National Gallery and others in the city's cultural centre plunged during the run-up to the summer games, by as much as 40 per cent.

The museums might have hoped for some of the jam promised during the grand sweets-table of the Cultural Olympiad and its climactic London 2012 Festival, which cost a combined £97-million ($154-million). But even museums that laid on games-related events, such as the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of Olympic photographs, were expecting to take a pasting at the turnstile, and did. They knew their kind of tourist would skip the city this summer. The same no-show problem depressed business in the whole West End, heart of London's arts and entertainment district.

There has to be something wrong with a major and supposedly successful pan-arts festival that guts attendance for a whole class of the host city's arts institutions, and wallops the part of town most associated with culture. But there's a lot wrong with the theory and practice of Cultural Olympiads.

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These four-year jamborees have become a key promotional device for each Olympics, in part because they localize the image of these roving international contests. It's a lot easier to see what's Canadian about performances by kd lang or a native dance troupe than it is to discern a uniquely Canadian approach to, say, shot put.

But when the games begin, the subsidiary nature of the cultural stuff becomes baldly evident. Those who went to London this summer were willing to spend large amounts to see games events, but little or nothing on cultural offerings. Only 15 per cent of the 19.5 million London Festival attendees paid anything for their fun. Most of that paying minority went to museums, galleries and the BBC Proms concerts – as they might have done with no games and no Cultural Olympiad. One of the festival's biggest draws was artist Jeremy Deller's bouncy-castle replica of Stonehenge, which was to British culture as Euro Disney's Jules Verne submarine is to French culture.

"There were parts of the Cultural Olympiad that were fun," says Sophie Cummings, collections manager at the Lydiard House heritage property, "but such a lot of funding was put into one-off events that cannot have a lasting effect." Government funding for arts and heritage institution declined during the run-up to the games, she said, and the Olympics bill and the recession have ruled out a return to previous levels.

Every Cultural Olympiad is launched on a warm gust of talk about how the games can be used to leverage the cultural visibility of the host city. At the party's end, we're left with an equally vaporous idea of what was achieved. There's seldom much to compare to the hard infrastructure left by the games themselves, such as a new stadium or swimming pool, or a wider highway to Whistler.

Vancouver's three-year, $20-million Cultural Olympiad produced dozens of new artworks, including some that might have happened anyway, and a few that have had a second life. A 2011 report on the impact of the Vancouver games, commissioned by the Vancouver Olympic committee, totted up numbers of attendees and budgets of productions, but said not a word about what effect this activity had on the city's cultural sector.

The Vancouver Art Gallery's attendance surged to "record-breaking" levels, says Gallery spokesperson Dana Sullivant, no doubt primed by temporary government funding to make admission free during the games. But the Museum of Vancouver suffered a 47 per cent decline, largely because there were no buses available for school visits.

Some longer-term results were clearly negative. The Cultural Olympiad aggravated a squabble over shrinking public arts funding that grew worse still when the B.C. government announced a few months later that it would spend $30-million over three years in Spirit Festivals designed to commemorate the games. (Some of that money passed back to the B.C. Arts Council after its chair, Jane Danzo, resigned in protest in August, 2010).

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Two years after the games, Vancouver's arts scene is in obvious decline. The Vancouver Playhouse closed in March, artists are leaving the city, and the exuberance of the Olympiad is a fading memory.

"Millions of dollars were funnelled into arts and culture, and we were trucked out proudly as a way of showing the world that Vancouver is indeed a world-class city," actress Laara Sadiq told the Globe's Marsha Lederman when the Playhouse closed. "[But] we were expected to pay for that support out of the other pocket" – the pocket that pays for the ongoing work of making art and building a culture.

London's Cultural Olympiad ran on the rhetoric of the "once in a lifetime" event, with no particular thought for the day after. But the day after produced predictable feelings of euphoria and loss among the organizers, who started musing aloud about making the London Festival an annual or biennial event. That's right: Educated people are floating the idea of an annual £55-million ($87-million) cultural festival for which almost nobody pays from their own pocket.

The same play-it-again mania is driving a £10-million ($15.9-million) plan to turn one part of London's Olympic Park into an Olympic Museum. That's £10-million that won't be going to any of the museums that people will actually want to visit five or 10 years from now.

The next Cultural Olympiad is already under way in Russia, where the 2014 winter games will be held in Sochi, a Black Sea resort town the size of London, Ont. The massive building spree going on there will transform the town beyond recognition, but four years of games-related arts revelry aren't going to turn little Sochi into a cultural centre. As in Vancouver, the Cultural Olympiad will probably turn out to be a Roman candle, flashy for a short time and then forgotten.

If we want a big culture show every year, with a roving spotlight, better to direct the money to something with a more sustained effect. Why not turn the European Capital of Culture program into a global project? We could enhance the world's cultural centres one city at a time, and not as a sideshow to something else. Artists don't needs athletes to justify what they do.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More


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