London 2012: Legacy Report

The Long Read

Just published on the Arts Council England website: Reflections on the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival, which combines a summary of the Cultural Olympiad‘s achievements and legacy by its director Ruth Mackenzie (Manchester International Festival‘s first General Director) with an executive summary of the evaluation report conducted by Dr Beatriz García of the Institute of Cultural Capital, a Liverpool-based research centre that builds on the Impacts 08 evaluation model.

It’s a great read, packed with evocative descriptions of artistic creations and plenty of facts and figures. The introduction by the Chair of the Cultural Olympiad Board, Tony Hall, sums up nicely the ambition of the project: not art for art’s sake, but art for the sake of more art for more people.

We all hope that the legacy will be more chances to enjoy the fruit of that infrequent marriage of ample budget and unbounded imagination.
– Tony Hall, CBE

Ruth Mackenzie’s “summary of learning points” surveys a wide range of categories, from artistic innovation to cultural tourism legacy.  I have summarised the summary below:

  • National scope: the Cultural Olympiad engaged communities across the UK for 4 years and it has now handed off the cultural torch to both Derry-Londonderry 2013 City of Culture (Northern Ireland) and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games (Scotland).
  • Participation: mass participation projects, such as Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege, and large-scale learning programmes, such as Tate Movie, a collaboration with Aardman Animations engaging 25,000 offline and 9,000 online, helped raise the participant numbers to nearly 6 million.
  • Skills development: informal and formal learning opportunities were built into the programme, with for example a Creative Jobs Programme managed by the Royal Opera House offering 40 paid apprenticeships to unemployed young people in London.
  • Diversity
    • Cultural diversity: an inter-nation event such as the Olympic Games is a good pretext to present culturally diverse artistic creation, whether it is by bringing together UK-based artists of diverse origins, inviting projects such as Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of musicians from Israel, Palestine, and other Arab countries, or giving a new twist to the Africa Express collective of western and African acts by putting them all on train for a national tour.
    • Ability diversity: the London 2012 Festival created the world’s largest ever commissioning fund for disabled and Deaf artists, which culminated in the Unlimited festival-within-a-festival at the Southbank Centre, featuring 29 new works, some of which are now touring internationally. The excellent Liverpool-based DaDaFest – Disability and Deaf Arts Agency and Festival – have a few videos on their website about their Unlimited commissions.
  • Large scale innovation: with a strapline promising ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences, innovation was highly encouraged. Amongst other feats, the festival managed to get Big Ben to divert from schedule and West Midlands Police to tweet about  Stockhausen’s World premiere opera, which involves 4 helicopters and a dancing camel.
  • Free: admission to National Museums is free in the UK, and many Cultural Olympiad events and experiences were also free of charge. As the report states, “Audiences are more generous with their time and more willing to experiment with unfamiliar art, if they are not paying to attend.” This was also a bonus for international visitors.
  • Unusual venues: whereas “The use of the public realm, parks, streets, squares, shopping centres, has long been a traditional audience development policy especially for local authorities”, London 2012 Festival also invested natural and heritage sites, such as Britain’s coasts for Peacecamp.
  • Cultural tourism partnerships: the overt goal was to not only encourage domestic and international tourism in 2012, but also in further years. Visit Britain – the national tourism board – and Arts Council England are stated to carry on working together on joint initiatives.
  • International partnerships: co-commissioning with international partners is both a way to diversify and enhance the national cultural offer by bringing together British and international artists – and to showcase featured British artists in partner countries.
  • Digital: finally, under the Digital heading are filed diverse initiative such as digital marketing (with successful use of social media), digital communications (i.e. broadcast) and digital arts (such as Yoko Ono’s Serpentine programming and North-West-based Abandon Normal Devices festival). A free, on-demand digital archive of all the works created in 2012 called The Space, a partnership between Arts Council England and the BBC, which paves the way for the Digital Public Space currently developed by the BBC.

The second part of ‘Reflections’ is the executive summary of the evaluation report, which full version is available on the Institute of Cultural Capital website, with additional insights in the appendixes and case studies on Arts and Disabilities, Youth Projects, Stories of the World, Creative Jobs, Tourism and Social Media Analysis.

Cultural Olympiad: A Primer


Elegantly chaotic”; “bloody brilliant”; “at once subversive and sublime”; “a people’s ceremony”: this is what the world thought of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony (source: BBC). For the Guardian’s art critic, Charlotte Higgins, it was the “cultural highlight of 2012”.

An estimated audience of one billion viewers worldwide tuned in to watch Danny Boyle’s spectacular celebration of everything British, from free healthcare to art, music and fashion.

It felt like a culmination; and it was indeed only the tip of the iceberg compared to what went on in the country over the previous 4 years.

In 2008, as London won the bid, the BBC retraced the history of the cultural wing of the world’s biggest sports event, recalling that the founder of the modern Olympics, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, had a vision of celebrating the union of the mind, body and spirit.

“The games between 1912-48 held arts competitions with the victors awarded gold, silver and bronze medals. Spoils were up for grabs in architecture, painting, literature and music, usually with sport as inspiration. (…) From 1952, a series of cultural events to complement the sporting action was launched. (…) It was in 1992 in Barcelona that the Cultural Olympiad became a four-year event, marking the city’s entire tenure as games host and promoted local gems including the Picasso Museum. In 2000, the Sydney Olympics cultural component paid close attention to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples through an arts festival which began three years before the sporting action. The organisers of the Beijing Olympics put on a huge show for the Cultural Olympiad, with five festivals – one for each year of their tenure as games hosts.” (Source: BBC).

The official website for the Olympic Movement states its commitment to creating sustainable legacies, and a factsheet available for download gives details of improvements observed in host cities since 1992, with the Summer Games in Barcelona and the Winter Games in Albertville.

And then came London, logically the biggest Cultural Olympiad of all times – as often with festivals, growth is the only viable option.

There’s a lot to say about the objectives and outcomes of cultural planning on such a grand scale, and its mid- and long-term effects will be fascinating to study, but for now here are a few facts and figures taken from the official London 2012 Cultural Olympiad website.

Between 2008 and 2012:

– More than 16 million people across the UK took part in or attended performances;

– More than 3.7 million people took part in nearly 3,700 Open Weekend events [a nationwide series of sports and culture events taking place on the last weekend of July in 2009, 2010 and 2011, to mark the countdown to 2012];

– Some 2,500 cultural projects have been awarded the London 2012 Inspire Mark [an accreditation awarded to projects that have embraced the inspiration of London 2012 and the values of the Olympic movement, assessed by London 2012 and the International Olympic Committee].

The Cultural Olympiad was made of different strands and programmes:

– The official London 2012 Festival, a UK-wide 12 week-celebration from 21st June to 9th September, bringing together more than 25,000 artists in over 12,000 events all over the UK and drawing a total of 19.5 million attendances, including 16.5 million participating in free events;

Unlimited, a festival of 29 major commissions celebrating arts and culture by Deaf and disabled artists, of which an online archive is available on the Southbank Centre website;

– A £40 million national and regional legacy programme supported by Legacy Trust UK, a dedicated funding body managing national and regional projects “to ensure that the benefits of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games were felt by diverse communities across the entire UK.”

And beyond numbers, what about the art? Here’s a quick round-up by the Guardian, with the best, the worst, what will stay and what’s still available to watch online.

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I am interested in the research around London 2012 and cultural events of a similar scale and will be posting follow-up articles on evaluation methodologies, regional impact, programming for large and diverse audiences and digital outreach.