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B.C.'s arts legacy a year after the Games: good memories, mixed feelings

The Alberta Ballet dances to Joni Mitchell at the Cultural Olympiad at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics last year.

The Globe and Mail

A year after the 2010 Games, the program director of Vancouver's Cultural Olympiad says funding cuts by the provincial government during the Olympic period were a lost opportunity.

"They really didn't understand the opportunity that was at hand to capitalize on the great strides that we made through the Cultural Olympiad and through the community's work," says Robert Kerr, emphasizing that he was speaking as a private citizen (he is currently producing artistic director for the Vancouver 125 celebrations).

"It was the perfect moment, if not to maintain investment then to increase investment, because we demonstrated what was possible."

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But Kerr says despite the tension over funding, the Cultural Olympiad - which presented hundreds of works over three annual instalments - created a strong legacy, ranging from commissions to international exposure to a significant boost in confidence for local artists.

"I see people taking risks and undertaking new projects and understanding what it takes to deliver those projects in a way I haven't seen before."

Cultural legacies aren't always easy to assess, but in Vancouver a year after the Olympics, some are evident. City-owned theatres have been renovated; there's more public art. Some commissions have already found life elsewhere, and some may yet.

Just a few examples:

The Arts Club Theatre opened its 2010-2011 season with the Electric Company's Tear the Curtain!, commissioned with Cultural Olympiad money. There's interest in the work from other companies, according to Arts Club artistic managing director Bill Millerd.

Vancouver Opera has reached deals with two U.S. opera companies to stage its production of Nixon in China, which had its world premiere during the Cultural Olympiad.

You can draw a direct line from the Cultural Olympiad to this year's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, which just wrapped up. PuSh commissioned the Berlin-based collective Rimini Protokoll to create the show Best Before for last year's Olympiad. One of the highlights of this year's PuSh was 100 per cent Vancouver, directly inspired by Rimini Protokoll's groundbreaking 100 Percent Berlin.

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Sarah McLachlan gave Alberta Ballet's Jean Grand-Maitre the green light to choreograph a ballet using her music after seeing The Fiddle and The Drum, his Joni Mitchell ballet at last year's Cultural Olympiad. At the dress rehearsal for the opening ceremonies (she was performing; he was chief choreographer), McLachlan told him: "I would be honoured; go for it," according to Grand-Maitre. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy will have its world premiere in Calgary in May.

At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, a catalogue is in the works based on Ron Hamilton's monumental Cultural Olympiad show, Backstory: Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ki-Ke-In. "That will have a long reverberation," says the Belkin's director/curator Scott Watson.

There are personal stories from artists too.

Jared Miller, 22, had his interview with the Juilliard School the day after the closing ceremonies. He figures mentioning his Olympic-related VSO commission, 2010 Traffic Jam, helped tip the scales. "Saying you got a commission from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to perform a piece inspired by the Olympics the day after Canada wins the hockey medal, it puts you out there, it puts you on the map, they remember you," Miller said from his dorm room at Julliard, where he's doing his master's degree.

Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Christina Martin, 31, believes her Olympic performances - at the New Songs, New Faces showcase and Atlantic Canada House - may have been responsible for her next gig: opening for Matt Mays at the Canada Winter Games in Halifax next Thursday.

Not everyone is convinced of the Olympics' lasting impact on culture.

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"We spent 25 million on the Cultural Olympiad and we got 24 articles in the U.S. press," says Duncan Low, former executive director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (now The Cultch), who wrote a thesis on the topic for Simon Fraser University. (The Cultural Olympiad budget was in fact $20-million and it should be noted that he did not include radio or TV in his study.)

In interviews with a number of organizations, Low found mostly minimal - or negative - impacts. The Contemporary Art Gallery, for example, noticed a slight increase in traffic, but wasn't sure if those people wanted to see the art or use the washroom.

As for overall funding, he found a definite spike in 2010, followed by a drop in 2011.

It's impossible, says the Belkin's Watson, to have a discussion about cultural legacies without discussing the funding issue.

A year after the Games, the Vancouver arts community remains in its pitched battle for provincial funding and a perception - unproven - lingers that the provincial cuts resulted from money going to the Olympics.

A 2010 Sports and Arts Legacy fund, announced in the provincial budget two days after the closing ceremonies with no details, has not done much to quell the anger. Some of the money is supporting B.C. Spirit Festivals - mostly community, street-type celebrations, to mark the one-year anniversary of the Games. In Vancouver on Saturday, they'll light the cauldron, sing O Canada, offer free ice skating and concerts. "The attitude that we ought to spend money a year later to celebrate the legacy of the Olympics is berserk," says Watson, adding: "Has someone commissioned an opera? Has someone commissioned a play? Is someone organizing an art exhibition? Or are they just street festivals?"

His comments echo the arts community vitriol that became familiar after the provincial cuts to the B.C. Arts Council and gaming grants.

But even Vancouver poet laureate Brad Cran - who made headlines just before the Games when he announced he would not participate for reasons that included those funding cuts - feels having the Cultural Olympiad here at a difficult period galvanized the arts community, and made it stronger.

What's clear is that a year later, there are good memories as well as mixed ones. Sandy Garrissino, with the Alliance for Arts and Culture's advocacy task force, who is busy these days fighting a proposed casino project in Vancouver, says her Olympic memories "are so good" - of Robert LePage's The Blue Dragon, free concerts, people lining up around the block waiting to get into the Vancouver Art Gallery.

"For just two short weeks, we lived a vision of what a tiny investment in talent can produce, if we would 'just believe.' Then it was over," she says.

"Legacy?" she continues. "Wistfulness."

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