London 2012 Cultural Olympiad: A Good Use Of Arts Money?

With the preparations for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics in London underway, arguments have erupted over construction, ticket sales, venue selection and just about everything else. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) may have lauded London's preparations, but the state of the economy has left ordinary citizens to question the massive spending.

In recent weeks, these arguments have extended to the series of IOC-mandated arts events known as the Cultural Olympiad. Ross Clark at the Daily Mail stormed out of the gate Monday with an article titled "Gold medal for lunacy! Brace yourself for the 'cultural Olympics' an orgy of politically correct and expensive nonsense."

In the article, Clark goes through the list of commissions pointing out perceived inefficiencies, extravagances and pretensions in the program. He goes on to argue for a more concrete cultural contribution from the Games:

Surely the biggest cultural legacy of the Olympics ought to be a new arts venue or two for exhibitions and concerts in an area of London without such a facility.
Yet so far, the Olympic Legacy Company -- which oversees the future of the Games' facilities -- has no firm plans to reuse any of the Olympic venues for the arts.

Tony Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera House and chairman of the Cultural Olympiad, acknowledged the cost in a recent op-ed in the Telegraph, but insisted that London wouldn't regret his grand vision:

What I can say is that we are offering value for this money. We are creating seven million opportunities across the country to be part of the London 2012 Festival for free, and I think we'll have created even more by the time it arrives. We want to make sure that this will be the biggest show in our lifetime. It has to be good, it has to be accessible, it has to be worth it.

Elsewhere, the Financial Times reported on the bread-and-circuses mentality among some UK politicians, noting that the various festivities of London 2012 could prove to be very politically beneficial:

The Conservatives have the most to gain from a successful games. Hugh Robertson, sports minister, told the Financial Times that great national celebrations were worth having because "they take people's minds off what's happening" elsewhere.

While Robertson and Clark are undoubtedly right that the Cultural Olympiad doesn't quite represent art for art's sake, it's not true that all the events and commissions will be as lightweight as some might expect. The works of David Hockney, Olafur Eliasson, Philip Glass and the late Lucian Freud will illuminate the festivities, and many of the events will be free to attend. With all the attention devoted to the other aspects of the Games, the Cultural Olympiad's organizers will be expecting scrutiny.