Cultural gold? Britain's £100m Olympic jamboree

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As the Cultural Olympiad line-up is confirmed, Nick Clark reports on the wonderful and weird events – and the rifts behind the scenes

What do Jay-Z, a bouncy castle Stonehenge and a circus performance in a cathedral have in common? Answer: they all form part of the London 2012 Festival, along with street art in Bristol, a barge full of comedians, a helicopter-borne string quartet and almost 12,000 other events. The launch of this enormous jamboree, after years of planning, was enough to make even Jeremy Hunt who by anyone's standards is not having a good week – smile.

Although the Tower of London was perhaps an inauspicious place for the embattled Culture Secretary to be yesterday, Mr Hunt was on enthusiastic form as he hailed the festival – the cultural complement to the sporting Olympics – as an "extraordinary" event. He quipped about his delight that "there is so much media interest" in the launch before adding: "This festival is a celebration of the remarkable culture that we have in our country. This festival has been put together so masterfully and encapsulates all that we are proud of. There will be something for everyone, from Beethoven to Jay-Z, from Shakespeare to Mike Leigh, from Stephen Fry to Wallace and Gromit."

The London 2012 Festival is the culmination of the four-year Cultural Olympiad, a programme of events across the UK that began after the end of the Olympic Games in Beijing. So far, 18 million people have attended or participated in performances and events. The festival, which will run from 21 June to 9 September, will include 25,000 artists from all 205 nations participating in the Olympic Games. Ten million free tickets will be available.

Projects include a "river of music" on the Thames, artist Jeremy Deller's Stonehenge rendered as a bouncy castle, the flags project at the Giant's Causeway and a light installation to span the full 73 miles of Hadrian's Wall.

Ruth Mackenzie, the director of the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival, said: "We are going back to the days of ancient Greece, where artists and athletes celebrated together in a festival."

With 55 days to go, the organisers have promised more surprises beyond the official programme. Yet the journey to yesterday's launch has been far from plain sailing. The public has struggled to get to grips with the concept of the Olympiad, according to research last year by the University of Westminster, while some smaller intuitions feel they have unfairly missed out on opportunities for funding. Others have lambasted some of the projects as a waste of money, particularly in an age of austerity.

Works that have drawn controversy include 30ft crocheted lions, a glacier dragged from the Arctic to the south-west coast of England, and a three-mile-high tower of vapour from a dock in the Wirral. The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson's installation Take A Deep Breath, which involved participants breathing on behalf of a "person, movement, or cause" and recording it for a website, was rejected by the Olympic Lottery Distributor, saying it struggled to justify the £1m sought. Things were particularly rocky at the start. Early critics included grandees such as artist Grayson Perry and Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate galleries, while Sir Christopher Frayling, a former chairman of the Arts Council, criticised the Olympiad's organisation for having "too many front doors" and requiring "one ringmaster".

Accusations that the project was rudderless led to Tony Hall, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House, being enlisted in 2009 as chairman of the Cultural Olympiad in order to steady the ship. He brought in Ms Mackenzie, a former director of the Manchester International Festival and artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre, who is generally agreed to have done a good job in turning things around.

Speaking to The Independent, Ms Mackenzie stressed that funding for the £100m Cultural Olympiad had not come from the taxpayer. "It is important to say that. The Cultural Olympiad has been funded by lottery money – that is not taxpayers' money. It is money people choose [to spend] when they buy a ticket for the lottery and they know what the good causes are. They know it is arts and sports and heritage."

Ms Mackenzie, whose schedule has been punishing in the build-up to the launch of the festival, admitted the process was tough. "No one has ever tried to do a festival across an entire nation before," she said. "Normally, festivals are in fields and cities, not four nations. So working with partners to come up with a programme where you can put your postcode into the website and hopefully there will be something within public transport distance of you, has been an incredible challenge."

The committee was yesterday keen to stress its plans to leave a cultural impact. "There will be a legacy that lasts far beyond this summer inspiring a new generation of performers, artists and art lovers," Mr Hall said. "The fruit of these partnerships is going to live on.

"The London Games' Legacy Trust and the Arts Council are using the festival as a springboard for what we hope eventually will be up to 1,000 young unemployed people in the host boroughs to get jobs in the arts in the next few years."

While many events are temporary, a series of artworks built around the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, will be a permanent cultural reminder of the games. Yesterday, Sarah Weir, chief executive of the Legacy List, unveiled the Art in the Park, which comprises more than 30 works including sculptures, a floating cinema and poetry inscribed on walls. "Art has never been done in the Olympic Park in this way before," she said. "Our artists integrated their work into the park." She said she hoped local residents would be inspired by the works long after the Games had finished, and these would also provide a permanent link to the event. "These works either celebrate or commemorate London 2012. A lot will be about memory, and in 20 or 30 years people coming back with their kids," she added.

Ms Mackenzie said she was confident that the festival would be eye-catching enough to avoid being overshadowed by the main sporting events. "We think we will have over 20,000 journalists here this summer who come for London 2012 but don't have passes to go to the sport," she said. "So they are going to be here to cover the cultural events which is a huge opportunity for us.

"Two billion people will be watching us on television and what they are going to see is this country at its most beautiful. They are going to see these amazing artists doing these incredible commissions in places of outstanding beauty."

Mr Hunt was also keen to emphasise the inclusive nature of the project: "In this programme, people won't like everything," he said. "But there will be something everyone does like and that is an incredible achievement."

The minister then left the New Armouries room of the Tower before he could suffer any slings and arrows from inquisitors in the audience.

Olympiad in numbers

12 The number of weeks the festival lasts: from 21 June to 9 September.

18m people have already participated in or attended a variety of performances.

9,000 performances so far and 8,000 workshops.

25,000 artists from all 205 participating Olympic nations.

137 world premieres.

10,000 tickets for one single event, BBC Radio 1's Hackney Weekend.

10m free tickets.

5m expected for the Big Dance.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
health
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
News
Sir Chris Hoy won six Olympic golds - in which four events?
news
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform