Events range from a street art festival in Bristol to a massive participatory light installation on Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat, created by hundreds of runners wearing specially designed light suits jogging a series of intricate paths. At the Olympics themselves, few visitors or television viewers would have missed Monica Bonvicini’s “RUN” sculpture, a spectacularly garish example of word art that features the three big letters in mirrors and LED lights. Then there’s Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, a sadly ugly steel contraption that harkens back to the constructions of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but with none of kingdom’s functionalist beauty.
There’s a lot of talk about “legacy” in the rhetoric surrounding these Games, and the cultural program is said to be a big part of that. But organisers always say that. The truth is that most of the cultural events at the London Festival are, like the Games themselves, inherently temporary and transitory. When the Games end, so will most of the cultural programming, and British citizens will be left with little but the warm inner glow of Olympic hospitality.
There is a lively debate in the policy literature about the lasting value of mega-events such as the Olympics, and most of it is pretty sceptical. Fairfax’s Jess Irvine wrote a good article a few weeks back in which she describes visiting the decaying white elephants of Barcelona’s Olympic village:
“An ever-mounting pile of studies reveals that, in hindsight, playing host rarely, if ever, delivers lasting benefits for cities. Instead, the Games impose billions of dollars in upfront infrastructure costs, cause transport chaos and have no lasting health benefits by inspiring cities to get more active.”
Time and again, academics that have studied the lasting legacy of the Games for host cities find they deliver little in the way of permanent improvements or even temporary economic impact. Yes, there are some benefits, because they spur policymakers to invest in critical infrastructure that might not have been built without the impetus of hosting the event. But providing the motivation for building stuff that should have been built anyway is not a particularly high standard of public policy making. At worst, of course, Games also deliver white elephants in the form of empty sports stadiums.
If the Olympic economic impact is largely nonsense, then the value of the cultural programs that surround them is nonsense on stilts. There isn’t a lot of hard thinking associated with this big public celebration. If they happen at all, it is for no other reason than because host cities have always included big cultural programs in their bids.
Of course, cultural events attached to mega-events do have some benefits: they employ artists, raise awareness of cultural activities and are (sometimes) intrinsically interesting and beautiful in and of themselves. They sometimes lead to artistic activities occurring that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred.
But it’s hard to argue that cultural programs are particularly meaningful or lasting. Can anyone now remember any of the things that went on in the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival? Or any of the things that occurred during Festival Melbourne 2006, the cultural celebration of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games?
A glance at the programs for these old events shows why. Most of them are not particularly interesting or unique as examples of the curatorial art. Many of the events — the symphonies, the plays, the art installations — would have happened anyway, somewhere else in the country, a year before or a year later. Yes, some works are commissioned, and some artists find audiences they wouldn’t have otherwise, but the emphasis is generally not on the art itself but rather on the celebratory nature of cultural participation in a time of civic excitement.
It’s hard to argue that mega-events lead to lasting uplifts in cultural funding, or change the attitudes of the public towards cultural activity for the better. Is Barcelona a more cultural city because it hosted the Games? Is Athens? Is Beijing?
There are inevitably costs associated with big cultural jamborees, too. Some cultural activities are postponed or moved to avoid clashing with the big show. Normal cultural activity that does keep going as usual has to compete with the mega-event for audiences. Mega-events also compete for sponsors, for media attention and for government funding. And mega-events are costly. If the price tag of the Games to British taxpayers means funding for culture is cut in future budgets to help balance the books, it might even lead to less cultural and artistic activity.
Of course, if you like art and culture then logically you should like the fact mega-events cause more of it to be funded and programmed. But you don’t have to host an Olympics to fund more cultural activity or encourage more creativity among ordinary people. Any city can do these things right away.
London’s Olympic culture festivities, as bright and sparkly as they are now, will surely fade from memory like previous events. Londoners will enjoy a legacy of big public artworks and some warm and fuzzy memories of wonderful concerts and ceremonies. But they won’t be any more cultural or creative, or more athletic, or healthier.