Vision and priority objectives

An analysis of cultural programming choices and priority objectives by Olympic organising committees since Sydney 20001 suggests that the vision behind most Cultural Olympiad editions falls within one or several of these four broadly defined typologies:

  • 1 Politics and identity;
  • 2 Economic regeneration;
  • 3 Entertainment, ‘look and feel’;
  • 4 Cultural and social change.

Next follows a brief commentary over the ways in which these four typologies have materialised.

Politics and identity: growing or reigniting national pride

This typology includes Cultural Olympiad programmes that prioritise a local or national target audience and focus on direct live participation opportunities rather than media coverage. The two most dominant approaches are a focus on folklore and popular traditions, or a focus on celebrating classic national cultural icons:

• Folklore and/or popular traditions: Cultural Olympiads with this kind of focus tend to be embraced by host communities and perceived as meaningful at grassroots levels; however, such programming is often of little appeal to visitors and the international media. Recent examples include nationwide choral singing and folklore dances presented in the lead to Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2010. In both cases, these showcases were celebrated as an ‘unprecedented’ attempt at a nationwide cultural programme open to exploring the diversity of Chinese and Russian cultures respectively.

• Celebration of classic national icons: This approach can be a source of pride for local communities but, if not carefully curated taking into account community sensitivities, it can be perceived as tokenistic or seen to target international audiences over host citizens. Recent examples include Athens 2004 with its extensive programming of classic Greek theatre in iconic ancient venues, London 2012 s programming of an International Shakespeare Festival and Sochi 2014’s ‘world-class’ Russian ballet galas.

Economic regeneration: city reimaging and tourism projection

Securing an economic return has become a common priority for Olympic cultural programming since the 1990s, particularly for cities that view the Games as a platform to join the league of so-called ‘world cities’ or globally successful cities. The main approaches are:

  • Focus on classic and internationally renowned cultural icons: This tends to be popular with international audiences but it may be viewed as tokenistic or lacking in innovation by local communities if it is not appropriately complemented by traditional or modern cultural expressions. Beyond the examples presented in the previous section, it is worth noting a line of programming in London 2012 which was dedicated to celebrating and pushing forward the tourist appeal of well-known British heritage sites such as Stonehenge, Hadrian Wall, the Tower of London, etc. (see Garcia and Cox, 2013).
  • Projection of modern cultural icons and emerging creative industries: This is aimed at both local and international audiences and tends to prioritise a ‘connoisseur’ audience rather than the general public. Cultural programmes with this kind of focus appeal to high-spending cultural tourists and can be very effective in the positioning of host cities as world-class cultural and creative centres. Recent examples include the final Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney 2000, which presented all of its performing arts programme at the iconic Sydney Opera House (Garcia, 2012); as well as the London 2012 Festival, which presented itself as a distinct component of the London Cultural Olympiad, dedicated to celebrating the most excellent and advanced cultural expressions in the UK (Garcia and Cox, 2013).

Entertainment, 'look and feet': crowd management, city animation and city dressing

This typology tends to be the least ambitious from a cultural policy and long-term urban strategy point of view but is useful as part of the Games hosting process as it helps address short-term needs regarding crowd control and city dressing to create a festive atmosphere outside the sporting venues. The two main programming formats could be labelled as:

  • Entertainment: I.e. a focus on open-air activity to entertain and divert the crowds. This was championed by Sydney 2000, which launched the now firmly established tradition of‘Live Sites’ as hubs for free activity and entertainment during Games time;
  • Look and feel: I.e. a focus on visual and graphic design interventions to dress the city as well as sporting venues in a recognisable, unifying look.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were some excellent examples of Cultural Olympiad integration within what we now understand as the ‘look and feel’ of the Games. As suggested earlier, Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972 developed cultural iconography components that were, simultaneously: (1) innovative from an aesthetic point of view; (2) unique to the local host; and (3) useful as a Games dressing tool and entertainment aid. However, in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the approach to city and Games venue dressing has shown a lowering of cultural ambition in favour of easily replicable (thus increasingly standardised) formats. This is a trend that may change in the wake of London 2012, where graphic design was once more aligned with place-specific cultural narratives, in particular, the interest in projecting the UK as a world-leading and youth-oriented creative industries centre (see Garcia, 2015; Garcia and Cox, 2013).

Cultural and social change: creative innovation and community empowerment

This is the most ambitious of all Cultural Olympiad typologies and the one with greater potential to deliver sustainable and meaningful legacies. It is, however, also the hardest to achieve, as it requires long-term planning to enable adequate linkages between widely diverse stakeholders. If associated with Olympic values and understood as a Games-related opportunity and outcome, it can provide a key platform to add credibility to the Games experience amongst often hard-to-reach communities of interest. The main approaches are as follows:

  • A catalyst for cultural advancements: This occurs when the Cultural Olympiad acts primarily as a catalyst for artistic and creative innovation, pushing forward a cultural agenda that may have stagnated before the Games were awarded. This has commonly involved dedicated investment on public art during Games time (e.g. Barcelona 1992 ‘Art in the Street’, Sydney 2000 ‘Sculpture by the Sea’, Torino 2006 ‘Luce di Artista’); the use of unusual spaces to present arts activities for the first time (e.g. London 2012 artistic interventions in remote iconic sites such as Stonehenge); working with new technologies or promoting emerging habits (e.g. Vancouver 2010 ‘Cultural Olympiad Digital Edition’, London 2012 ‘Pop-up’ events, reliant on social media).
  • Social transformation: This occurs when the programme is used to advance specific or multiple social agendas in line with Olympic and Paralympic Games values such as: empowering youth (e.g. Beijing and Sochi: country-wide youth singing programmes; London2012: youth-oriented programme presenting the work of over 6,000 young or emerging artists), expanding opportunities to engage with or show the work of disabled artists (e.g. Sydney 2000: Invincible Summer; London 2012: Unlimited), working with marginal communities (Sydney 2000: Festival of the Dreaming, led by contemporary Aboriginal artists; London 2012: collaborations with homeless communities and the unemployed).

Delivery formats

Despite the ongoing development of cultural programme objectives and thematic priorities, the underlying challenges in terms of visibility and linkage between artistic programming and other Games activity have remained practically the same throughout one century. As argued by Masterton (1973), Garcia (2012) and Miah and Garcia (2012), these problems have been accentuated by the absence of an international cultural organisation comparable to the international sports federations in its ability to coordinate and support Olympic arts initiatives. Subsequent attempts to address this gap (such as the proposal to establish a permanent Cultural Olympiad foundation in Greece) have lacked sufficient international backing to become viable models. Instead, as is the case with other cultural event networks, transfer of knowledge regarding operational issues has relied on personal connections and informal word-of-mouth rather than being a thoroughly documented and transparent process. As a result, to date, there is no standard model of delivery for the Cultural Olympiad.

As noted previously, up to 1992, the duration of a Cultural Olympiad would vary considerably. Other key variations that affect consistency and easy identification of the programme are its geographical spread and the approach to branding and communications. This is briefly discussed next.

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