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Where is the money for a Cultural Olympiad ?

John Tusa, The Observer

I have lost count of the meetings I have attended to discuss the Cultural Olympiad, the showcase of British arts and culture planned to run alongside the 2012 Olympic Games. Meetings with the organising committee - LOCOG - with the head of the culture programme, the excellent Bill Morris; with fellow institutions planning joint Olympic projects; with rival institutions guessing if they were about to steal a march and a package of funding from under our noses; meetings with the London Cultural Consortium and many others. The hot air generated would fill the Millennium Dome.

At the end of each meeting - and sometimes at the beginning - the inevitable question comes: 'Is there a budget for the Cultural Olympiad?' To date, the answer has been boringly predictable. 'The existing culture budget is for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the Paralympics. Anything else has to be determined.' With just five years to go, with a year before London 2012 'owns' the Olympic project, the arts world is still waiting for the Cultural Olympiad to be funded.

The pre-Olympic fever has galvanised the arts institutions in east London - Barbican Campus, Whitechapel Gallery, Hackney Empire, Theatre Royal Stratford, the Museum of Childhood - to form the 'East Cultural Quarter', the closest gathering of arts organisations to the Olympic site.

All this is good. But such groupings, and we are by no means the only one, become beset by suspicion and a degree of paranoia. Even once a real budget for the Cultural Olympiad has been identified, who will distribute it? Will the process be open and transparent? Or will it be carved up by a few favoured institutions whose special place in the Olympic bonanza has been granted by processes never subject to scrutiny or the light of day?

It is essential that the leadership and planning for major collaborative projects in the Cultural Olympiad become a lot clearer than at present. Nothing will be gained and much will be lost if any suspicion of private deals gains further ground.

Yet in a sense, such considerations are irrelevant in comparison with the key one, that of funding. Is there money for the Cultural Olympiad on offer? Is it to be new money? And how much?

At this point, we run into a head-on clash. Do sport and culture have anything in common in terms of the Olympics? Last month, at the launch of the Olympic offering from the Museums Libraries and Archives Partnership, a gymnastics gold medallist declared that 'the link between sport and culture has never been stronger!' What planet is she living on?

It is less than two months since the need to fund the Olympics led to a £112m raid on the Arts Council lottery fund, with inevitable damage to the projects funded by that money. Does anyone seriously doubt that if the Olympic budget goes into deficit again, arts funding will be raided once more, accompanied by feeble promises that it will 'all be made good' when Olympic land is sold off after the Games?

Come to that, does anyone believe that if 'culture' and 'sport' had not been lumped together into a single government department, it would have been conceivable to raid the arts budget in such a shameless way? And it is impossible to forget that the raid on arts lottery funding came only days after Tony Blair's 'legacy' speech about the arts when he claimed that 'stop-go' was not a policy the government would impose on the arts?

There is a further perspective to take in. By October, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Arts Council England and the arts world will know if the funding for the arts will remain at a standstill for the next three years or will actually be reduced. What would be the point of even appearing to put money into the Cultural Olympiad against a possible background of a reduction in arts base funding? How joined up is that?

From: A Cultural Olympiad? Great idea - now give us the money, John Tusa, August 5, 2007, The Observer

John Tusa is managing director of the Barbican Centre. His tenure finishes at the end of this month

More at: Observer Review


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