David Lister: We don't need a Cultural Olympiad

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The Independent Online

This week I received a letter from some of the biggest worthies in the arts – the likes of Nicholas Hytner of the National Theatre, Kevin Spacey of the Old Vic, Michael Boyd of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Grandage of the Donmar, and Mike Attenborough of the Almeida. They wanted to share their concern that in the present climate the arts were under real threat of losing much of their private sponsorship. Artistic output is likely to be affected. These are fast becoming financially difficult times for the arts.

They must have been as surprised as I was, then, to read an announcement the next day of a massive sum of money being given by the Government to artists, writers and composers to come up with sculptures, symphonies, plays and other works for the Cultural Olympiad. Literally £5m, £500,000 each for 10 artists, is being promised for these as yet unspecified works. And that's only a fraction of what has already been promised for the Cultural Olympiad.

Cultural Olympiad. It's a grand name, certainly. A touch pompous, even. It's hardly comparable to the Olympics as no other nation is competing. But it must have seemed a good idea at the time, when it was dreamt up in some civil servant's office or among a committee of bored arts administrators. But what does it actually mean? I can't pretend that I'm very clear about that. I can recall that when it was launched, it involved a weird scheme to have a Culture Ship set sail from Britain to collect arty artefacts or something from across the world. Thankfully, that idea has been quietly buried. Now we're into splashing the money around on unknown artists coming up with unknown projects.

And money there certainly is. About £50m is likely to come from the public purse for projects as diverse and at present as vague as "Sounds: bringing together different organisations, musicians and communities through a range of musical genres" or "Somewhereto: empowering young people to find ways to access the spaces they need for sport, dance, music, making art or films".

But as the financial climate worsens and the arts begin to suffer, perhaps it is the moment to stand back and ask why exactly we need a Cultural Olympiad. I didn't vote for it, as they say. The thinking behind it is fairly obvious. The Olympics put Britain on show to the world. There will be many visitors to London, and millions more watching on TV. OK, but are those visitors really coming to see expensive one-off artworks and arts events? They are coming to see sport. It's a real bonus if they encounter a thriving city with efficient transport and, yes, a thriving cultural sector. But London already has a thriving cultural sector, as do many other leading cities in Britain. There is more than enough in what we already have, provided it is properly maintained and funded, to showcase Britain's arts to a TV audience around the world.

As has been often said over the past couple of years, the standard of art, theatre, dance and music has rarely been higher. Visitors to the Olympics can take the tube a few stops and see Tate Modern, the National Theatre, Shakespeare's Globe, the O2 and other rock venues, cinemas and opera houses. Television could also beam the work of these institutions across the globe.

What can possibly be the point of allowing this wealth of culture to run down in the recession, while showering tens of millions of pounds on art for a one-off event? Does anybody actually want a Cultural Olympiad in London? Surely, what we want is culture.

Tiny touch on a grand canvas

Is there anything new to say about Picasso? I doubted it, and turned on BBC2's The Culture Show special on the artist a little warily on Tuesday, ready to turn off again pretty quickly. But, as it turned out, the programme, written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, was riveting.

One of the interviewees was the grandson of Picasso and his muse Marie-Thérèse Walter. He told how his mother would be woken by a breathless Picasso in the middle of the night when she was nine, so that he could show her his latest work. He also said that his mother, as a child, saw Picasso's most famous work Guernica as it was completed, and recognised her own mother as one of the figures in it. The child touched it and apparently left a hand print on the wet paint, which can still be seen on the canvas.

I was itching to go straight to Madrid to verify this remarkable revelation.

Who's that? It is a leading light in theatre

The new Theatre and Performance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum opened on Wednesday, replacing the now defunct Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. Among the highlights of the new display commemorating the nation's theatre history are: Mick Jagger's jumpsuit; a tableau of a dressing room used by Kylie Minogue, pictured left, complete with 25 scattered pairs of Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks; a smashed guitar from the guitar smasher in chief, The Who's Pete Townshend, something from Brian Eno, something from Pink Floyd.

It's theatre, but not as we know it. I never realised when I saw The Who on stage that I was going to the theatre. I suspect that Pete Townshend never realised he was a thespian either. He never really hung out in the green room with Mick and Kylie.

If the V&A really has so little confidence in the power of theatre to attract the public that it feels the need to add the word "Performance" and have rock artefacts masquerading as theatre, then maybe the art form should be commemorated somewhere else.