Cultural Olympiad countdown

One of the city’s largest-ever arts events is being met with high hopes, even as groups worry about what lies beyond

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      For a man at the helm of one of Vancouver’s largest-ever cultural events—which happens to come at the tail end of one of the world’s largest-ever economic downturns—Robert Kerr seems remarkably calm.

      Over the next 60 days, the program director will oversee more than 500 artists from 22 countries, who will put on over 600 performances around Metro Vancouver and Whistler as part of the Cultural Olympiad—the artistic arm of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.

      Among them are legends of the art world, including Robert Lepage, Laurie Anderson, and Lou Reed, as well as an eclectic mix of choreographers, theatre makers, musicians, multimedia artists, street performers, and more from across Canada and around the globe.

      It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. There have been dozens of the inevitable logistical hiccups—things like finding enough rental vans or getting musicians’ gear through the Games’ billion-dollar security machine. Other bumps have not been so small, like the 20-percent cut Kerr had to his $25-million budget late last year as part of Vanoc-wide cutbacks, forcing him to scale back some events and cancel others outright.

      Now, in the final stretch, the former executive director of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival is spending long hours dealing with innumerable last-minute production challenges, schedule changes, contractual issues, marketing plans, and organizational details. He’s getting more than his share of tugs on his sleeve, but everything seems to be on track.

      “It’s like a mass orchestra,” says Kerr, sitting in a glassy Vanoc boardroom. “And I’m just trying to make sure everybody has their parts, knows where they come in and when the various tempo changes are, and trying to keep that entire ensemble—and it’s a massive ensemble—moving forward in the same direction.”

      It is indeed a massive ensemble. This weekend alone, The Fiddle and the Drum, the stellar collaboration between Joni Mitchell and Alberta Ballet’s Jean Grand-Maí®tre, wows audiences at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (see story on page 42); award-winning New York choreographer Elizabeth Streb brings Raw, a piece that has her Extreme Action Company doing high-energy stunts using wild contraptions at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre; revered musicians Steve Earle and Joel Plaskett come to the Orpheum; and the Only Animal invites Whistler audiences into Canada’s first theatre of ice and snow for NiX—a love story that involves a flaming tuba and a snowman death scene.

      In February, legendary producer Hal Wilner brings together Lou Reed, Broken Social Scene, Ron Sexsmith, Iron and Wine, and more for a tribute to Neil Young; the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan combines ancient and modern dance to stunning effect in Moon Water; the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand with more than 400 performers, including Canadian luminaries like soprano Measha Brueggergosman; and Canadian treasure Robert Lepage unveils The Blue Dragon at the new SFU Woodward’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre (see story page 41).

      The contemporary-minded festival also includes a who’s who of homegrown visual art, dance, theatre, and music, including works by Bill Reid, Brian Jungen, Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, and more at the Vancouver Art Gallery; concerts by musicians from Franí§ois Houle to Feist; and performances that range from Boca del Lupo’s Dance Marathon to Vancouver Opera’s star-studded Nixon in China.

      According to Kerr, even Vancouverites who don’t seek out shows will experience the Cultural Olympiad, because there will be free performances in the streets, major artworks on the sides of buildings, and even a light installation by Montreal’s Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that straddles English Bay.

      “The city will be buzzing with energy and activity, and the public space will be animated in quite an extraordinary way, so people will be encountering work intentionally or unintentionally,” he says. “It will be alive and pulsating and vibrating inside and out.”

      It will also be happening in the midst of an extremely difficult time for the arts in the province. Last fall, the B.C. Liberals made drastic cuts to provincial gaming grants—a mainstay of arts funding in the province. Some groups were forced to slash their budgets by 50 percent or more; others had to close up shop altogether.

      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.”

      It’s also a move that was born of experience. Having directed film festivals during both Expo 86 and the Calgary Olympics in 1988, Franey knows that massive events like the Cultural Olympiad offer great potential, but not everyone will come out on top.

      “I learned early on that when there’s a lot happening, there’s a lot happening,” he says. “There will be winners and losers. It’s like a really well-provided banquet: the more fabulous the catering is, the more food that gets wasted at the end of the night—but everyone has a great time.”

      Ask almost any Calgary arts group whether the city’s Games benefited them, and you’ll get a resounding yes. Blake Brooker, cofounder of the renowned Calgary theatre company One Yellow Rabbit, remembers meeting out-of-town artists, being inspired by the high-calibre works, and enjoying the thrill of seeing his associate Denise Clarke’s dance piece become a major hit. The Cultural Olympiad also expanded the city’s volunteer base and gave organizers the confidence that they could pull off a major international event. And while some feared that the sports events would overshadow the cultural offerings, Brooker says, the line between the two was quickly blurred.

      “It all felt seamless. There were parties at all the different pavilions, and I remember one night the Jamaican bobsled team had a fundraiser in the restaurant right next to my house, and we all went. So it didn’t feel like the Cultural Olympiad was separate from the sporting Olympiad. It felt like everything was of a piece,” says Brooker, who is quick to point out that they weren’t facing dramatic government cutbacks or post–9/11 Olympic security, as Vancouver is now. “So looking through the misty 20-year lens, I actually believe it was a positive thing.”

      Heather Redfern hopes she will be able to say the same thing in 20 years’ time—but her optimism is cautious. The Cultch executive director intentionally programmed shows that are likely to draw targeted audiences—including the award-winning BASH’d: A Gay Rock Opera and Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s Fear of Flight. She also made sure the company’s budget predictions weren’t particularly rosy.

      With so many shows happening, media coverage is likely to be slim, so her staff are getting the word out through their existing e-mail networks and sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Redfern also isn’t expecting big crowds of international Olympic visitors—most won’t venture that far from downtown—but she hopes locals take advantage of the theatre’s offerings rather than spend all of their spare time watching Olympic sports on the tube.

      On a personal level, the former Edmontonian is looking forward to reconnecting with old colleagues, making new connections, and watching the city come to life. But facing a 50-percent reduction in programming once the Cultural Olympiad funds disappear, as well as cuts from government and corporate sponsors, she says that it’s still impossible to tell whether the Games will help or hinder arts and culture in the province.

      “To me, the opportunity is really about what comes after. If that is handled well, if out of it comes some really good corporate support and a recognition from the province that they made a big investment in the Cultural Olympiad, and now they need to sustain it, that’s what is important—because having a big party isn’t really the point,” she says. “And if it all disappears after the party’s over, boy oh boy, are we in trouble.”

      Starting tomorrow, the party begins. Robert Kerr hopes the cultural events will help generate excitement for the fast-approaching Olympic Games, and that the broad range of Cultural Olympiad offerings—which were intentionally spread over two months—will give everyone in Vancouver the opportunity to enjoy the Olympics, even if they plan to hightail it out of the city when the rest of the world arrives.

      And while Kerr isn’t sure what his future holds after the Olympics machine leaves town—although vacation plans are already in the works—he, too, hopes that the Cultural Olympiad’s benefits don’t end there.

      But for now, the moment he has worked toward for three years is just one short sleep away.

      “I am so thrilled to be at this point. It’s been an awful lot of work—very exciting and interesting and sometimes infuriating work, but really engaging and challenging,” he says with a smile. “But when it starts, that’s the beautiful part. The ship is launched and you’re just there for the journey.”



      davey g

      Jan 21, 2010 at 6:56am

      buddy; is that your tax bill burning in your hand ?

      Larry Jung

      Jan 22, 2010 at 12:20pm

      The new theatre in the Woodwards building, is a plus for the area. Also for cultural events and concerts. Suggestion for a concert there-Melanie Doane, is a Canadian singer, musician and song writer, would be much entertaining and interesting her doing a concert there!.


      Jan 22, 2010 at 12:40pm

      I can't wait. We've been starving for world class cultural events and now is our opportunity to see them, after the drastic cuts the province has made to our local art scene! Bring on the Games! Bring on the Cultural Olympiad! BC is on the world stage and I'm thrilled! Well done Mr Kerr and your hard working team!


      Jan 25, 2010 at 9:50am

      What happens when this thing is over ? I'd rather see a long term plan over five years rather than a 2 month splurge - sure lots of concerts [that would probably happen anyway] under the guise of the cultural olympiad - its all a tad "bread & circuses" don't ya think ?