Grunts for the Arts

Culture, the 2012 Whitewash
September 19, 2010, 11:13 am
Filed under: The Olympics!
Workers forcibly displaced from Carpenters Road in Stratford to make way for the Olympic Park pose in one of the luxury apartments of the Olympic Village. Photomontage, from the series Olympian Visions by Alessandra Chilá

Workers forcibly displaced from Carpenters Road in Stratford to make way for the Olympic Park pose in one of the luxury apartments of the Olympic Village. Photomontage, from the series Olympian Visions by Alessandra Chilá

An essay from Critical Network

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, described as ‘four years of cultural celebration, excellence and participation’, emerged amongst widespread contention in Spring 2007, when contrary to the promises of Tony Blair’s government in June 2005 – that not a penny would come from the public purse to help fund the Olympics and only £1.5 million would be raised from the National Lottery – it started to become clear that national arts funding would bear the brunt of cuts, with £2.2 billion of Lottery Good Cause money being diverted from national initiatives[1] and an estimated £137.6 million from the Arts Council England.[2] More worryingly, Peter Hewitt, Chief Executive of the Arts Council England (ACE) expressed his concern that the cuts were ‘likely to be felt disproportionately by smaller arts organisations, local projects and individual artists… precisely the sorts of people who may be asked to contribute to the Cultural Olympiad.’[3]

We are currently witnessing an insidious shift in gallery programmes, public projects and new commissions around the country as artists and organisations compete to win back a slice of their slashed budgets and the agendas of the Cultural Olympiad are imposed through the conditions of its funding, which range from the mildly nauseating ‘celebrating London and the whole of the UK welcoming the world’ to the vaguely sinister ‘honouring and sharing the values of the Olympic Games’.[4] There is nothing new about funding bodies specifying engagement with certain publics, locations or media, but the shift towards dictating the content and ideologies of art projects on such a widespread level has worrying implications for UK art activity; no funding criteria should stipulate conformity to particular values or propagate emotions such as celebration, this is cultural tyranny.

Cleaning up after BP
The prescriptive nature of this funding criteria clearly erodes the autonomy needed to voice counter opinions and present alternatives, in other words it is a form of imposed censorship. This censorship extends to the Olympic sponsors which would appear to be exempt from the critique of anyone who wishes to be eligible for Olympiad funding, a fact that is particularly alarming when considering the contentious list of corporate partners which includes global players such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola, known for their well documented environmental and human rights abuses. Petroleum giant BP is set to contribute £50 million of fuel towards the Olympics’ inevitably astronomical consumption in return for “top-tier” sponsorship status, furthering the company’s push to green-wash its crimes in the Gulf of Mexico and sitting somewhat uncomfortably with the core theme of “environmentalism and sustainability” to which Olympiad projects must aspire.[5] This of course ties in with the wider role of the Cultural Olympiad, essentially to white-wash the crimes of the Olympics by creating an illusion of national grass-roots inclusion in the London 2012 charade.

Boycott the Inspire mark
Another highly questionable element of the Cultural Olympiad rhetoric is the emphasis on mass participation; ‘the Cultural Olympiad is for everyone’, we are assured. Those who don’t make it in to the main strand of events are invited to apply for the privilege of stamping their project with the Inspire mark branding, providing it meets all three ‘core values’ of the Cultural Olympiad and at least three of its seven themes. On closer inspection, however, this scheme appears to function primarily as free advertising for the Cultural Olympiad, with recipients receiving no actual funding yet consenting to promote the scheme across all of their associated marketing material. More worryingly, the Inspire mark recipient also becomes contracted to submit all related artwork for approval, facilitating a system of recuperation and control that stretches far beyond the major Olympiad projects.

2012: Helping the rich get richer and the poor get poorer
The exploitation of free labour also extends across the whole of the Games, with 70,000 volunteers currently being recruited to fulfil roles from event stewards to trained medics. In sickening contrast to this are the eye-watering wages received by members of the eighteen-strong LOCOG (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) Board, which includes several multimillionaires and HRH Princess Anne, who enjoys a £500 hourly wage for her attendance at planning meetings. The salaries of LOCOG Chair Lord Coe and Chief Executive Paul Deighton were revealed in 2008 as £357,000 and £638,000 respectively, with former Goldman Sachs banker Deighton, who holds an estimated personal fortune of over £100 million, reportedly set to receive around £1 million in bonuses if the Games are deemed to have been a success.[6]

In March 2010 the designs of Anish Kapoor’s £19 million structure for the Olympic Park were unveiled by Boris Johnson. This came just two months after Kapoor was included in the Sunday Times Rich List, revealing that he is now in the top 1,000 richest people in the country.[7] Analysis of this list reveals that the collective wealth of Britain’s 1,000 richest people has increased by almost a third when compared with the previous year despite the uncertain economy. Put in to context, this £19 million commission is equivalent to more than a third of the annual budget for the Arts Council England’s national Grants for the Arts which in 2008/09 was just £53 million, shared between 2,500 of the country’s smaller arts organisations, local projects and individual artists.[8] This epitomises the inequalities that exist in the UK which is still one of the most unequal countries in the developed world.[9]

The London Olympics is manifestly about benefiting the rich, it is a way of strengthening and exporting the British Empire’s ‘soft’ power, a showcase of global posturing; it is about creating a new London borough of prime real estate. The worst thing is that we, the artists of the UK, are undeniably implicit. The Cultural Olympiad is the folly, the decoy; it is the all-too-familiar instrumentalisation of culture aimed at generating a decentralised image of acceptability for London’s Olympic plunder, it is a cheap distraction. By taking our funding away from us and then redistributing it to us under the umbrella of the Cultural Olympiad, it prays on our financial precarity as artists and the employees of art organisations already faced with significant funding deficits and imposes a whole new set of Olympic hoops through which they can be assured the artists will obligingly jump.

As criticalnetwork we have remained in opposition to the London 2012 Olympics and have aimed to channel our energy in to supporting projects that do not form part of the Cultural Olympiad programme; this position has been intended not to reprimand artists but to bring the Olympiad in to an arena for critical discussion, something that it is conspicuously lacking. So far, however, this seemingly radical position has been of little real significance in terms of affecting the outcomes of our collective decision making; we are yet to receive information on a Cultural Olympiad project fit for publication in any self-respecting arts listing.

2 Like many others researching the London Olympics we have encountered many conflicting accounts of the distribution of money, this has been felt by many to be underhand and has lead to repeated requests from campaigners for increased transparency.



5 Whilst the consumption of £50 million of fuel is vast, it is dwarfed by the amount spilled in to the Gulf of Mexico by BP, this is currently estimated at £450 million worth (90 million gallons ); still just a fraction of their £253 billion annual turnover (


7 According to Companies House, the main activity of Kapoor’s company, White Dark, is “the creation and sale of fine art”. Its 2008 accounts show an operating profit of £17.2m, up from £8.4m the previous year. Kapoor’s assets include a £2.7m newly built home in Chelsea, a £4m townhouse in central London and a £2m property in the Bahamas. He is also understood to be in the market for Ashdown House, a 17th-century National Trust property in the Berkshire downs which is available as a 41-year lease for £4.5m. (

8 Grants for the Arts was cut by almost a third in April 2007 from £83 to £54 million to help fund the Cultural Olympiad (

9 According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, cited in

A version of this text first appeared in Arts Professional magazine, September 2009.


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