Atlantic Cities
Olympics 2012

How the Games Are Boosting Britain's Arts Scene

How the Games Are Boosting Britain's Arts Scene

With £12 billion spent so far, talk of London’s upcoming summer games as the Recession Olympics has largely died away. There is, however, one area where belt tightening has seen dreams of sky-high budgets shot down: the Cultural Olympiad. A massive arts festival intended to outshine any previous Olympic cultural dabblings, the Cultural Olympiad was created to assert Britain’s cultural richness with a program both diverse and lavish.

Imagining a tickertape parade of falling cash after its announcement in 2005, Britain’s art scene started drooling collectively. Then the recession hit. When the government had sobered up, just under £50 million extra cash was set aside for the Cultural Olympiad, not princely given its plans for over 1,000 events and 10 million free tickets. For many institutions, limited additional funding meant they just provided something like their usual fare with a light coating of Olympic branding.

London gets ready for the Summer Games See full coverage

Despite these lowered expectations, the Cultural Olympiad is – surprisingly – one of Britain’s best arts festival programs for a while. Tight budgets make it (mercifully) difficult to commission splashy statements about Britishness, but the showcase – called the London 2012 Festival – still manages a brilliant representation of Britain’s eclecticism at its best.

Take its keystone World Shakespeare Festival, for example. With productions from as far afield as Iraq and South Sudan (as well as from American avant garde theater veterans the Wooster Group) it could hardly be a more persuasive, less jingoistic demonstration of British culture’s global influence. Visitors will also be reminded that British culture isn’t always venerable and demure at the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern. The Olympic year is likewise ideal for the British Film Institute’s complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective highlighting the director’s early British films – Hitchcock grew up very near the Olympic Park.

The festival doesn’t just bang the British cultural drum, however. London’s main dance venue, Sadlers Wells Theatre, will stage works by great German dance theater pioneer Pina Bausch, while the city’s Serpentine Gallery hosts a look at the work of Yoko Ono. This broader focus makes sense. It may be Britain’s capital, but London is also a global cultural hub, with connections to Lagos or Tokyo often as strong as those to its British hinterland.

This slightly spiky reflection of contemporary Britain might not seem obviously calculated to appeal to Olympic visitors. It is nonetheless a refreshing break from the backward-looking Downton Abbey version of Britain usually reserved for tourists, an imaginary land of pageantry and deference presided over by perma-smiling MCs Kate and Wills. The past still haunts everything here though, and international cultural dialogue in post-imperial Britain is never uncomplicated. Sooner or later someone points out that the power balance of these cultural exchanges has often been lopsided.

Sure enough, this someone is now here, in the form of British writer and TV personality Stephen Fry. Fry suggested recently that Britain’s Olympic year would be an ideal time to return London’s prime piece of cultural booty, the Parthenon Frieze, to Greece, the Olympics’ original home. Housed in the British Museum since 1816, the sculptures’ status as either a world patrimony miraculously saved or just stolen Greek goods has been the subject of lengthy debate ever since. There’s no real chance that the frieze will return to Athens this year, but the controversy is still timely. As London begins a celebration of itself as a cultural crossroads and treasure house, it’s worth remembering that debates about the acquisitive past that gave it this status are still waiting in the wings.

Photo credit: Russell Boyce/Reuters

Keywords: London, Culture, Olympics

Feargus O'Sullivan covers Europe for The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion