I’m fairly sure it’s not actually over yet, but for many of us in the arts world the beginning of the London Olympics came as something as a relief as wall to wall sport took over from one of largest and most intensive arts festivals we’d ever delivered. Officially lasting four years, but not really gearing up until the beginning of this July, with festival 2012, the Cultural Olympiad delivered extraordinary moments, a few disappointments and an intensity to rival the sporting event which has picked up the baton this week.
There is a big danger that after the games and the summer break, we will start the new season both with something of a hangover and severe withdrawal symptoms. We’d been planning for this summer for so long, pushed major projects into this key period, committed and raised substantial sums of money for some truly extraordinary moments that what we’ve just produced seems like a virtually impossible act to follow. It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future we’ll ever again be able to stage anything as ambitious as ten of Pina Bausch’s extraordinary works in the space of a month, or revive Philip Glass’s epic Einstein on the Beach, or bring companies from across the world to the UK to perform the complete works of Shakespeare in their own languages, or take over five sites on the banks of the Thames for the biggest free world music festival we’ve ever seen. It seems likely that we’ll enter a period where arts organisations need to play it safe, revive bankable hits, reduce risk and keep costs down. I’m sure along the way there will be standout new productions, and emerging talent to get excited about, but I don’t doubt that anyone who has been around this festival will acknowledge that it was genuinely a once in a lifetime event.
Nonetheless I see a massive opportunity in the aftermath of all this. Across this festival, and in the last week alone, we have seen some high profile demonstrations of the role the arts can play in society, and people who might not previously have thought the arts have a relevant and useful role to play in their lives have been inspired and directly involved. Most obviously, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony seems to have succeeded in pleasing at least most of the people most of the time, and showed how a big artistic statement can increase awareness of shared values, culture and collective memories to bring large groups of people together. Earlier that day, Martin Creed’s All the Bells did exactly the same thing across the country, with a much simpler (and cheaper), but effective work of art. Within festival 2012 the bouncy inflatable stonehenge did the same job, with added value for fans of Spinal Tap, and, as I write, the enormous sculpture Godiva Awakes is being towed towards Walthamstow by 100 volunteer cyclists where she will be met by a celebration which will bring people from across our community together.
This power to contextualise, transform, unite and inspire any group of people, in any setting, across any boundaries which may be in the way, is one which is almost unique to artists, and one which can be exercised anywhere, anytime, without budgets of Olympian proportions. Those of us trying to follow the biggest artistic statements we are ever likely to see could do well to harness this power, to nurture and support the artists who realise this potential, and to build sustained relationships with those around us who could be directly impacted and involved. The good news is that this is happening across those organisations whose plans I am privy too, and I am sure elsewhere too. That certainly helps me shake of the hangover and look forward to planning a very different type of party.