Some might regard a cash injection of £5.4m into the Olympic Games to be best spent on Britain's competing athletes in preparation for 2012.
But today, the Games’ chairman, Sebastian Coe, Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell and an Arts Council executive announced that the multi-million pound budget would be spent on 12 public art events that will take place across the country as part of the Cultural Olympiad - the cultural side of the Games.
The arts supremos said in spite of the recession, there was no better time than to make such an investment in the arts. The12 as yet, unrealised projects, range from a spinning cloud sculpture visible from hundreds of miles around to a full size football pitch created within Scottish woodlands, an environmentally sustainable watermill and an artist who plans to navigate the coast accompanied by a piece of land from the Arctic to highlight the effects of climate change. They were unveiled as the winners of a major project funded by the Arts Council, which has been dubbed "the most ambitious and wide-ranging art prize in the UK".
The competition, Artists Taking the Lead, was open to artists across the nation and a total of 2,000 applications were received. The winning artists in nine regions of England, as well as Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, will now start working on their pieces, which will come to fruition in time for the Olympics.
Moira Sinclair, executive director of the Arts Council in London, dismissed those who cautioned against spending such a substantial amount of money on community arts projects in the midst of a global economic recession, and said these initiatives offered the promise of something positive in our current, difficult climate.
"We are always looking to the future and 2012 is two-and-a-half years away. By then we will be coming out of the recession and we will be wanting to see things about how confident we are and how creative we are as a nation. This is about our environment and our imagination. I do not think that we can hold back on investing in our artists because this will be saying something special about us and Britain," she said.
Lord Coe, said the winning commissions would be “the catalyst for a truly national showcase of culture inspired by the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games."
Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, added that the Olympiad should be regarded as equal in its importance to the actual games, rather than an after-thought.
"Nobody should be under any illusion that we see the Cultural Olympiad as an equal partner to the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” she said. "You will recognise the sheer excitement, imagination and reverence of all the offerings. Each one of them will make a strong regional statement and remind people about the triple nature of the Olympic identity. Of the 12 pieces - they will lift your spirit and many of them will make you smile."
Ms Sinclair said initially, the artists were tasked with creating an inspirational idea. “We said, ‘give us an idea that will make the hairs on the back of our necks to stand up’,” she said.
All the pieces will be rooted in particular regions and will engage with the public to "redefine what public art will mean in 2012", she added.
Three 30ft hand-crocheted lions will refer to the story of Richard the Lionheart and reflect the textile industry of the East Midlands, while Northern Ireland’s largest ever chorus will assemble in a warehouse made from people’s personal possessions. A giant mechanical puppet of Lady Godiva will grace the streets of Coventry before making its journey to the capital city and LED panels on the roofs of London bus stops will allow commuters to express themselves as they travel.
Among the wackier winners was Alex Hartley’s idea to bring an Arctic island which he discovered in 2004 to the South West of England in an artwork called "nowhereisland". Hartley will navigate the coast accompanied by a travelling embassy, “exploring issues of climate change and land ownership”, according to the Arts Council. In another initiative, Marc Rees will create a silver birdlike structure out of an abandoned DC9 aeroplane, which he will hike around Wales.
This project is just one of ten to be announced as part of the Cultural Olympiad over the next two years.
An Arts Council spokeswoman said the panel had endeavoured to choose a mixture of young emering artists as well as established names. Some, she said, were relatively early into their careers, such as Craig Coulthard, chosen to represent Scotland, while the likes of Anthony McCall (who is creating a spinning column of clouds in the North West) Rees and Hartley, have firm, international reputations.
“We would have been disappointed to have all 12 winners dominated by terribly big names. This was all about encouraging a new generation of artists,” she said.
In separete Cultural Olympiad initiatives, £3m has been set aside for a London festival, and £600,000 for Unlimited, a large arts disability programme.