Four years ago, it was us. As Vancouver was preparing to hold the Winter Olympics at this time, the cultural element to the 2010 Games was already well under way. Robert Kerr was program director of the ambitious three-year, $20-million Cultural Olympiad. Now living in Toronto, where he oversees cultural programming and special events at the Fort York historic site, Mr. Kerr recalls a highly successful program. But he was up against challenges too – including some heartfelt opposition from the arts community, which was dealing with cuts to provincial grants as the Olympic hoopla zoomed into high gear.
What was your early vision for the Cultural Olympiad?
I wanted it to be comprehensive, contemporary, really interesting, exciting, engaging, but also really collaborative. You kind of have a blank slate in a lot of ways. The requirements of the IOC with respect to the Cultural Olympiad are really quite succinct and very open-ended. It's nowhere near as prescriptive as the sporting events.
I won't ask you to pick a favourite, but was there something that really stayed with you?
There were several, for sure. But one that certainly resonated is Anthony Braxton's Sonic Genome, the eight-hour music installation where Braxton brought his 13-piece ensemble and then worked with [about] 80 additional Vancouver-based musicians. And it was like stepping into another world, especially after four or five hours. And by the end of it, it's cliché, but it seemed like the musicians were in another sort of plane of being. I think they found it quite profound.
Another was the Isablle Hayeur installation Fire with Fire. It [looked like a fire] in the windows of a building in the 100 block of West Hastings. We certainly went through the city permitting process, and, of course, informed police and fire. But opening night, the fire marshal showed up and was freaking out – what is this all about? Who authorized this? Of course, it was all documented, but it hadn't made its way through the lines of communication to him, which isn't surprising. But somebody called and said there's a building on fire.
Were there any actual disasters?
You know what? There weren't. We didn't lose a single show throughout that whole period, which is pretty phenomenal. The gods were definitely smiling on us.
How was attendance?
Attendance was really great. I think overall [about] 85 to 90 per cent of the shows either met or exceeded their projections, which were pretty solid. I still remember lots of people saying to me: "You know, I really wasn't all that into the idea of the Olympics or that supportive of the Olympics in Vancouver, but a Cultural Olympiad made it worthwhile for me and was my Olympic experience."
There was some controversy at the time. Did you ever question whether you should be involved or did anyone you respected question your involvement?
We took a bit of heat over a clause in our contract. I can't remember the exact language, but it basically said artists cannot speak poorly or defame the Olympic sponsors and that kind of thing. I had some conversations with a few artists about it. It certainly wasn't our intention to enforce it and we never did. But in retrospect, I should have fought harder with the legal guys to exclude that or to change it, because in the end it wasn't the right message.
Probably the biggest disappointment for me was the way in which the provincial government failed to build on the momentum that we created through the Cultural Olympiad. They, of course, took away the funding through gaming [grants] and there were cuts to the B.C. Arts Council, so it was kind of one big step forward and then a couple steps back. For the sake of probably a few million bucks a year, they could have invested in the arts community and built on the huge momentum and gains that we made. I'm glad they have recently increased the B.C. Arts Council's budget, but it just goes to show you that it was certainly within their capabilities to do that. And if they had done it and come out in 2009 and said, "You know what? We're going to invest for the future," it would have been a much more positive way to build on the achievements of the Cultural Olympiad.
What about positive legacies?
There's a few, like Vancouver Opera's Nixon in China getting picked up by San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. And the Satellite Gallery at 560 Seymour; it's become a really vital cutting edge space for visual art and performance art. And we launched Lunarfest in 2009with the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, and that continues and has expanded to Toronto.
Was there a pinch-me moment?
The Neil Young tribute at the end of the first night, when Lou Reed was totally into it and he made eye contact with Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene and basically said, "Okay, let's go for it," and they just jammed out on a take on White Light/White Heat for probably about seven or eight minutes. Kevin and Brendan were just beside themselves; he's one of their heroes, and they're jamming with him onstage. To watch that was pretty amazing.
You must have been thinking about that when Lou Reed died.
I was. He was a sweet guy. People are always saying what a tough character he was and he had high standards and didn't suffer fools gladly and wanted things a certain way. He certainly kept our artist liaison manager busy, but a couple of days after the gig it was Valentine's Day, and he texted her a Happy Valentine's note. It was so beautiful. She was, of course, blown away.