Arts and the Olympics: assessing the meagre legacy of the Cultural Olympiad

Did the 2010 Winter Games Cultural Olympiad bring long-term benefits to Vancouver’s arts and culture infrastructure?

The answer is no, according to research conducted by Duncan Low, former executive director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. His careful assessment, set out in this paper, was submitted in 2010 as part of his Masters of Arts research in the SFU Urban Studies Program.

Low traces the story of Larwill Park from Olympic live site to empty lot to projected location of a new Vancouver Art Gallery as part of the grand “cultural precinct” study launched by Sam Sullivan’s NPA council. (There is much more, but Larwill Park is a key part of the story.)

The site for millions of dollars of “cultural” investment for the live site next to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Larwill Park now sits empty. Sports legacies, in contrast, are obvious at the Richmond Oval, Hillcrest and elsewhere.

Here’s Low’s provocative and thoughtful conclusion at the end of nearly 100 pages of analysis:

This is the crux of the Olympic arts and cultural disconnect: that subsidy for the creation of a cultural precinct and the re-housing of the new VAG to meet the demands of an urban tourism destination is considered prudent government policy.

At the same time, the majority of Vancouver’s professional arts and cultural sector endures increasing hardship with budget cuts and recession. In a Vancouver Foundation report “Weathering the Storm,” published in October 2009, Expectations for 2010 stated,73% of Arts & Culture organizations expect a decrease in their revenue from government sources, higher than any other sector.”

It is true to say that the millions of Olympic dollars invested may not have ended up in a cultural budget. But it is also true to say that having spent the money on the construction and deconstruction of various buildings on Larwill Park those dollars will never provide an artistic legacy.

The same argument could be made in relation to the temporary installation of the Olympic streetcar in relation to transit legacy.

Given the research question and the data collected it is fair, at this point to say, that there is little evidence in the data to support the premise that hosting a Cultural Olympiad provided Vancouver’s professional arts and cultural sector as a whole with increased national and international profile nor sustained material and financial benefits.