Cultural Olympiad countdown
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So while local artists and presenters say the Cultural Olympiad will allow them to expose their work to larger audiences, interact with creators from around the globe, and enjoy the benefits of having the Olympic machine behind them, many worry that even deeper cuts lie ahead, when the Olympic bills start rolling into government offices.
“It feels like a weird party on the edge of a cliff,” says Amiel Gladstone, producer of Hive 3—an event that will see 15 of Vancouver’s top independent theatre companies perform short pieces at the Centre for Digital Media. “We’re inviting the world to come, and that’s really exciting. And the programmers of the Cultural Olympiad have done an excellent job; it feels like a really great cross-section of art. But at the same time, our provincial government is saying, ”˜We’re cutting everything.’
“So on one hand, everyone is going, ”˜We want art. It’s the second pillar of the Games, and it’s a big part of the city and province and country.’ And then we have the provincial government, who fought really hard for the Games, saying, ”˜We’re in a financial crisis and can’t afford art.’ So it’s a very strange feeling.”
Among the Cultural Olympiad’s vast cross-section of arts (clockwise from top): the ice-bound NiX; Laurie Anderson; the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan; and soprano Measha Brueggergosman with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
A central feature of the Olympics in ancient Greece, the Cultural Olympiad was reborn in 1894, when the modern Games’ founding father, Pierre de Coubertin, declared culture one of their main pillars, believing that sports and art could come together to help foster understanding and peace among nations. Starting in 1912, artists competed for medals just as the athletes did, vying for gold in categories such as architecture, painting, literature, and music. (At the London Games in 1948, Canadian composer Jean Weinzweig won silver for Divertimenti for Solo Flute and Strings—a piece that will be performed by the VSO as part of this year’s Olympiad.)
It wasn’t until 1956 in Melbourne that the Cultural Olympiad was transformed into a festival-like event; and in 1992, Barcelona became the first city to host a multiyear Cultural Olympiad. Vancouver is the first Winter Olympics host city to do the same, opting for three years of festivals and events leading up to the 2010 Games.
According to Duncan Low—a former executive director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre who is writing a master’s thesis on Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad—tomes have been written about the historical, sporting, and business sides of the Games, but there’s been precious little research on the modern Cultural Olympiad and its short- and long-term impacts on host cities.
Low, who is collecting media mentions of the Olympiad and interviewing members of the local arts community, believes the event can provide unique opportunities, from widening audiences to creating new community programs. But only time will show whether Vancouver sees lasting benefits.
“It’s much too early to tell what the final outcome will be. But it’s fair to say that the Olympics provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capture the world’s attention, and to dramatically alter the artistic landscape in Vancouver,” says Low, who plans to complete his report this summer, then follow up in five years. “The opportunity is there—and by August, we’ll see whether the opportunity was grasped or not grasped.”
For many, it will not be grasped. The film industry will slow to a crawl, leaving hundreds out of work, and some theatres, including the Firehall Arts Centre, will sit idle during most of the Games. Some artists didn’t make the cut when curators announced the lineup; others, such as Vancouver New Music’s Giorgio Magnanensi, are fundamentally opposed to the Games and chose not to participate; still others, such as Vancouver International Film Festival director Alan Franey, decided to opt out of this year’s event for strategic reasons.
Franey had originally planned to offer a special program of films during the Olympics, but then he was given the opportunity to rent out the Vancouver International Film Centre to Slovakia, and he took it. So while he’s rubbing elbows at the Berlin International Film Festival, the film centre will be transformed into the Slovakian pavilion—home to the country’s athletes, including its entire hockey team, as well as a hub for those who want to experience Slovakian culture.
“They are paying a pretty healthy rent, and that will really help us get through the year in these tough times,” says Franey. “So we thought that in the large picture, strategically, it was the smart thing to do.”