In these straitened times, was the idea of lumping the arts community’s spend into a single nationwide festival ever going to be a good one? How could the arts be expected to compete for attention with the biggest sporting event ever held in the UK? With the dust settling, Frame and Reference commissioned arts writer MARK SHEERIN to speak to some of the leading figures involved. And we’re pleasantly surprised by what he discovered…


This Summer one of the less heard stories about the Olympics must be the fact that, in cultural terms at least, the South East ran a very close race with the capital. Occupying 19,000 square kilometres to the North, West and South of Greater London, it has the highest population of any UK region. And early estimates say the games provided opportunities for more than 4 million residents and visitors to engage with an arts event here.


100,000 people alone made a trip to Bexhill-on-Sea to see a vintage coach balanced on the roof of the De La Warr Pavilion. But the metaphor of such a project teetering on the brink was misleading, since funding to the tune of £100k was ably secured for artist Richard Wilson’s installation, Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea: half from the National Lottery and half, remarkably, from local comedian Eddie Izzard. Years in development, what finally propelled this vehicle over the edge was momentum from the biggest ever arts festival in the history of Britain or the Olympic games: the UK’s four year-long Cultural Olympiad.


Hang On A Minute Lads, I've Got A Great Idea... Richard WilsonHang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea… by Richard Wilson, De La Warr Pavilion 2012. A Relay 2012 commission


“When the coach went up I was worried about someone having an accident on the road,” admits Acting Director of the venue, Stewart Drew. “You’ve got people stopping and you’ve got people driving round the car park with their camera phones out.” But health and safety fears aside, the vintage coach fitted in nicely with the season of spectacle the UK has just enjoyed. It was jaw-dropping and fairly patriotic art for a pulse-quickening and certainly patriotic Games.


“I think what’s great about Richard’s project is that you’ve got this very thought provoking engineering by an experimental artist who has produced this piece, which is kind of cartoonesque, and represents a very British piece of pop culture,” says Drew, who goes on to mention the coach is red, white, blue and filled with a payload of gold. All of this brings to mind the medal rush which took place in August. Of course, it also brings to mind a classic 60s film, The Italian Job, which gave De La Warr the chance to stage events such as Mini rallies and a drive-in movie. “We’ve not been in our ivory tower,” says Drew, “We’ve really had some fun and people have engaged with the work.”


Like all those involved in the South East‘s response to the Olympiad, you’d have to say that in fact the contingent from De La Warr deserved a few glasses of wine at a recent wrap up event at the Barbican. “What was really nice about that was having such a dispersed range of arts people in the same room,” says Drew, who goes on to mention artists, dance and theatre producers, and Tate Director Nick Serota amongst attendees. It’s a sign that athletes and sports fans are not the only people who have come together this summer.


Back in 2005 when the UK won its bid to host the 2012 Games, the warm glow of success could not have been foreseen. If anything, it is something of a shock. Marina Norris, Arts Council South East’s regional lead for the Olympiad recalls those early days well: “I think a lot of people within the arts started by potentially being nervous about 2012 and the idea that money might leave the arts and go towards supporting other activity.” They need not have worried. In the event £50 million was found for the Cultural Olympiad and £55 million more for its culmination, the London 2012 Festival.


Photo by Mark SheerinMartin Creed’s Work No.1197 at Fabrica, 2012. Photo Mark Sheerin


Arts Council England, along with Legacy Trust UK, got to deal with these record breaking amounts. So the arts were not immune to the holiday spirit of spending which bucked the trend towards austerity in most parts of life in Britain. (What could be more extravagant than a kinetic bus sculpture on a roof?) “What happened was actually we were able to connect to a national event that everyone in the country was identified with,” says Norris. “Lots of new partners came to the table to fund artwork that lots of new audiences engaged with because it was connected with 2012.”


So from the point of view of Arts Council South East this was money well spent with lasting benefits. The region staged more deaf and disabled art events than any other in the UK, and also funded training for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics. Indeed, the origins of these games are Buckinghamshire village Stoke Mandeville. Norris says: “We can confidently say that people’s perceptions of disability were challenged and became more informed.” You cannot really put a price on that.


It does however seem that as a result of the Olympiad we have got better at quantifying the value of the arts in Britain. “In the South East we prioritised supporting outdoor activity,” says Norris. And this has at least given councils and local authorities a taste for the benefits of art. As she points out: “Animating our city centres; giving us our sense of identity: now that’s an ongoing desire that people have.”


Exercise (Djibouti) 2012, Modern Art OxfordExercise (Djibouti) 2012, Modern Art Oxford. A Relay 2012 commission


Certain figures back this up. The South East’s major new commission, The Boat Project, was expected to draw an audience of 50,000. In the event 100,000 turned out to see the 30ft sailing yacht fashioned from the wooden erstwhile possessions of the general public. This had a major impact on the portfolio of production company Lone Twin. So artist Gary Winters explains how their commission, part of a strand of Olympiad programming called Artists Taking the Lead, called for a “blue sky” project, allowing him and his creative partner Gregg Whelan to dust off an idea that had been on their shelf for 12 years in one form of another. Commissions in other regions did not fare so well in the press and, in the case of Antony McCall’s column of mist in Merseyside, are yet to see the light of day.


But it no doubt helped that the South East duo had a track record with inclusive works that tell stories on behalf of members of the public. “Definitely for our project they feel they had a sense of ownership and connection, and a sense of value and worth in their lives, and the stories they tell, who they are, the places they live and the communities they live in,” relates an on-message Winters. Some 1,200 people came forward with items made of wood and corresponding tales, and the boat now looks to have a busy afterlife attending regattas and art festivals. This ticks a legacy box as well as an engagement box.


Such checklists, which characterise public funding, would indeed have circulated in the office of Ruth Mackenzie, Director of the Cultural Olympiad. But speaking to her Creative Producer Jenny Waldman, it was a surprise to hear that sport was never part of the artistic brief. “We were very clear to artists when speaking about the festival that we weren’t expecting particularly for them to make that connection,” she says. Instead she suggests the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of the games is what provided much of the inspiration.


A Hundred Seas Rising by Suki Chan, Aspex Gallery and Quay Arts, 2012. A Relay 2012 commission.A Hundred Seas Rising by Suki Chan, Aspex Gallery and Quay Arts, 2012. A Relay 2012 commission


As a good example, she cites Martin Creed’s Work No.1197. She describes the outbreak of nationwide bell ringing as “a delightful, bonkers participatory event,” and confirms a “phenomenal” 2.9 million of us took part. “A lot of people in the country by that point were eager to join in the celebrations,” she adds. Waldman’s team set out to provide 10 million ’opportunities’ for the public to get involved and she now says they have way exceeded that number. (Evaluation is ongoing at time of writing.)


Not all the numbers are so stellar. Some artworks in the South East appeared to struggle to compete to find an audience in amongst all the Olympic noise. Anecdotally at least, numbers for Artichoke’s magical Peace Camp installation at Cuckmere Haven (one of eight locations nationwide) appear to have been low.


The Boat Project and Work No.1197 were feelgood hits, but some might think them too celebratory. In the wider South East and East Arts Council Area meanwhile, a project reminded that “Art is meant to disturb“, as Georges Braque once suggested. This was by former artist in residence at Stoke Mandeville stadium Rachel Gadsden, who staged a Cambridge show with a group of critically ill people with HIV from South Africa. Gadsden, herself disabled with a lung condition and partial sight loss, claims her work is about the “joy” of surviving, but it surely troubled a few of the 200 odd visitors it drew on a daily basis.


Gadsden’s show sounds like a different kind of success: popular without being mass participatory; invigorating without being spectacular; the kind of success that defies cynicism. But despite calling herself a “born optimist”, the artist has concerns for the future of disability arts: “I think there’s been a huge hangover and I think there’s going to be.” The funding bonanza is over, she reflects, and: “The reality is that there isn’t necessarily that amount of money to go round for the next few years . . . and there are many disabled practitioners who are very concerned about it.”


Nevertheless, she also reports that conversations are taking place about the future of both her Unlimited Global Alchemy project and the Unlimited strand of deaf and disabled arts, a showpiece of Olympiad programming which commissioned 29 new works. And she believes that, together with the Paralympic Games, the festival has had a major impact on public perceptions. “I think it’s been unprecedented, I think it’s brought a completely different awareness to issues around disability, cultural issues, societal issues,” says the artist.


So paradoxically, given the discomforting nature of the work, that is cause for celebration. Disability arts, community arts, Turner Prize winner art: clearly the Olympiad had room for them all. In London, worth mentioning as that small town which fits so snugly within the South East, they even found room for blue-chip-art-fair art. For the London 2012 Festival, Frieze curator Sarah McCrory was invited to curate half a dozen public art commissions in the Olympic site’s six host boroughs.


“There are lots of different art worlds,” she states. “The art world that Frieze inhabits is, I suppose, an international one and a very particular one, but of course in every country, and London included, you have a very different community of artists who are working on another level, often linked to education,” she says, adding “There’s room for all of it.”


But McCrory is not afraid to make a judgement call on some of the work produced in the run up to the games. “I think there was a lot of pretty bad art produced in my own opinion,” she says. “But then I think there’s always a lot of pretty bad art produced, whether it’s the Olympiad or not. I suppose the difference is that some of it got foregrounded because of the festival.” Before any other artists get too upset by that, it is worth bearing in mind that the Frieze brand is not renowned for being egalitarian.


But the Olympiad had something for everyone, even Frieze readers, thanks in part to the Relay project in the South East. Amanda King, regional co-ordinator for Turning Point’s network of public galleries, explains why this programme was never likely to result in a bland endorsement of sporting values. She recall earlier attitudes towards the London Games: “There was a very strong feeling that came through from the arts community that our job, if you like, was to critique . . . the corporate nature of something like the Olympics.”


Peace Camp, Artichoke 2012, Photo by SelmestonPeace Camp at Cuckmere Haven, Sussex, Artichoke 2012. Photo by Selmeston


As it turned out, however, “All the commissions to a certain extent were slightly leftfield to the idea of sport and the Olympics.” And without acting as a censor, Relay developed a mission to highlight that: “in the South East we have such fantastic organisations that can put a bloody coach on the roof of a building . . . We are the region that can really rise to this occasion.”


“It’s not all about London,“ King adds for good measure, while expressing amazement there were no other projects like Relay to hook up networks of public space around the UK. This was an ambitious programme and, along with The Boat Project, outdoor arts and disability arts can be seen as part of a successful Olympiad in the region. And this really is as much of a surprise as the success of the games themselves.


Still, Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian) by John Smith at Turner Contemporary 2012Still, Horizon (Five Pounds and a Belgian) by John Smith at Turner Contemporary 2012. A Relay 2012 Commission


It seems that in the run up to all the running, jumping, cycling, rowing and swimming etc, there was a consensus that the stories told by the UK’s arts institutions would all be positive: tales of community, survival and regional brilliance. Given a spirit of generous funding, it is unlikely this could have been any different. And given the way the games captivated the public, a programme of critical art events aimed at art afficionados would have come across as possibly churlish, certainly elitist, and potentially damaging for the sector as a whole.


Instead, we have net gains: some freshly brokered relationships, some learnings, some new audiences, and some talk of ongoing funded programmes. Oh, and a sense of relief that a coach on top of De La Warr Pavilion claimed no unsuspecting lives. The most skeptical people in the art world may well be rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Our focus might have been on London, and sporting metaphors may be pernicious, but the South East is definitely in with a shout for Silver. What that means for the next four years remains to be seen.



See also:
Review: Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian)
Richard Wilson: “I looked at the site and I thought… My God! The Italian Job”
Stian Ådlandsvik: ‘We take what we have and make it work’
‘There’s no curator to RELAY…’ A new way to programme art?