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.
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