Does anyone know what a Cultural Olympiad will look like? Does anyone want one? London's winning bid to host the Olympics included a programme for a Cultural Olympiad. So, we will get one. The first of 10 big projects planned for the Cultural Olympiad (it would be helpful if this title was less pompous) has already been announced, with some fanfare, but not much clarity. The project is called Artists Taking the Lead, and essentially offers £500,000 for 12 commissions to artists, who are invited to use the nation as their blank canvas.
There are several issues here: in straitened economic times, when sponsorship deals for major institutions are under threat of drying up, there is an argument that it seems absurd to be investing government money - £5m pounds to be precise - in new work, at the expense of keeping what is truly great about culture in the UK, going. The vagueness of the idea is another problem: the "nation as blank canvas" must have sounded OK in a committee discussion, but that is where it should have stayed. Remember the Dome - creative suicide because there was no single clear idea or vision.
There is something oddly official about this particular idea. If an artist wants to create something really negative about a commercial sponsor of the games, will it pass the committee? It is also quite worrying that after the Artists Taking the Lead was launched, the Culture Minister Barbara Follet pronounced that now people will finally stop asking her what the Cultural Olympiad is. Was she not able to articulate it before the first of the 10 projects was launched? There seems to be a gap in thinking here.
There has undoubtedly been a golden age in the arts in the last 10 years. The diversity and calibre of arts and culture offered in the capital and beyond is second to none. In short, the cultural sector has been thriving. Why isn't more being made of what we already have and attempts to make it available to a larger audience, through television, which is where the games will be showcased for the largest possible audience? Instead, with only three years to go, we have what still feels like woolly, vague ideas, precisely the things which give culture a bad reputation and put people off altogether.