The Cultural Olympiad
Take your seats for the Cultural Olympiad
Featuring 12,000 cultural activities across the whole of the UK, the London 2012 Festival marks the culmination of the four-year Cultural Olympiad. As a Premier Partner of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival, BP is supporting a number of high-profile events with its four arts and culture partner institutions – the British Museum, Tate Britain, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery.
The company’s relationship with these institutions stretches back more than 30 years and the theme of BP’s involvement has been bringing the nation’s cultural excellence and diversity to as wide an audience as possible. “When London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we knew the accompanying Cultural Olympiad would be a great opportunity to celebrate UK arts with a much larger audience,” says Des Violaris, BP’s director of UK arts and culture.
So, after BP was appointed a Premier Partner, Violaris immediately began talks with BP’s four arts and culture partners to develop a programme of activities that now ranges from art lessons for teens to free opera screenings in open-air locations.
The concept of a Cultural Olympiad was established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement in 1896. He believed, like the Ancient Greeks, that mind, body and spirit should be celebrated and between 1912 and 1948, the Games included arts competitions, with the winners awarded gold, silver and bronze medals. In 1952, a series of cultural events was launched and, when the Games arrived in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, the Cultural Olympiad became the four-year event that we know now.
London’s own Cultural Olympiad claims to be the largest arts celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic movements and has been designed to give everyone in the UK a chance to be part of London 2012 and to inspire creativity, especially among young people.
BP’s involvement first began in 2009, with the launch of the annual London 2012 Open Weekend event. This three-day, UKwide festival also ran in 2010 and 2011 and has been the Cultural Olympiad’s main annual event. Featuring everything from art and dance, to film and sports events, around 3.5 million people have taken part in almost 3,700 events during its three years.
BP got involved in another early programme, thanks to its longstanding relationship with the National Portrait Gallery. For the past 23 years, the company has supported the annual BP Portrait Award and in 2010, extended its involvement, with the development of the BP Portrait Award: Next Generation project. Now in its third year, the programme offers opportunities for 14-19 year-olds to find out more about portraiture through free taster sessions and three-day summer schools. Budding young artists make their own artwork, as well as meeting and gaining insights from BP Portrait Award artists. By 2011, the project included digital online content, with more than 60,000 people visiting the website.
Meanwhile, at Tate Britain, BP has supported the Tate Movie Project. “The goal was to make the firstever movie by children and for children,” says Violaris. Youngsters aged 5-13 years participated online, attended gallery workshops around the UK, or visited the mobile animation studio that toured the country.
One of the aims was to involve children who would not usually join in an arts event and a total of 35,000 children actively participated, helping to create The Itch of the Golden Nit. The film was given pride of place in Trafalgar Square during London Open Weekend 2011 and has won eight awards, including a Guinness World Record for the most individual contributions to an animated film and a Children’s BAFTA 2011 for best interactive project.
While all this was going on, plans were being made for the 12-week London 2012 Festival. It opened on 21 June and runs until the 9 September, the final day of the Paralympic Games. It’s believed to be the UK’s biggest-ever festival, and will feature 25,000 artists, 12,000 events, 900 venues and 10 million free opportunities to get involved.
BP’s involvement in the programme is extensive. Highlights include Shakespeare: staging the world – a major exhibition at the British Museum that also makes up part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) World Shakespeare Festival; the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, plus BP Portrait Award: Next Generation at the National Portrait Gallery; The Olympic Journey: the Story of the Games at the Royal Opera House; and the Tate Movie Project, with The Itch of the Golden Nit being screened on British Airways flights and in Picturehouse Cinemas Kids’ Clubs.
Shakespeare: staging the world is a fascinating exhibition, offering fresh insight into how London emerged as a world city in playwright William Shakespeare’s time – opening up to cosmopolitan influences through travel and trade. This process is reflected in Shakespeare’s plays with their range of international locations and references. London, as it was 400 years ago, is brought to life through objects drawn from the British Museum collection and other institutions, as well as contemporary performances by the RSC.
Dora Thornton, curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum and exhibition curator, talks eloquently about the links between exhibition artefacts and Shakespeare’s plays. Asked to pick just one notable object, she selects, “a gruesome relic: the right eye of the Jesuit priest, Blessed Father Edward Oldcorne.” The priest was executed in public for his faith and wrongly perceived part in the gunpowder plot against King James I. A sympathiser in the crowd retrieved the eye and placed it in a silver reliquary.
“The spectacle of brutality was real for people in those times. Indeed, the Duke of Cornwall’s relish in plucking out the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear – ‘Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?’ – owes its force to the experience of torture. Shakespeare shows us how life was lived.”
As founding presenting partner of the World Shakespeare Festival, BP is supporting a number of RSC productions, including the What Country Friends Is This? trilogy of The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. BP is also supporting myShakespeare, a new, interactive website created by the theatre company. The site aims to attract audiences from around the world who may not be able to attend live events but who wish to participate in the festival. People can share their thoughts, experiences and interpretations of Shakespeare and his work from a 21st-century perspective and join in global, online conversations.
At the Royal Opera House (pictured below), a completely different experience is set to take place. The Olympic Journey: the Story of the Games is a unique, free exhibition run in collaboration with The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. The history of the Olympic Games is told through the endeavours of ancient and modern Olympians. Artefacts include all the summer Olympic medals since 1896 and summer Olympic torches since 1936. It was BP’s suggestion to host the exhibition at the Royal Opera House, considering it an ideal location.
“We wanted the Royal Opera House to be a venue that people could enjoy during the Games,” says Tony Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera House and also chairman of the Cultural Olympiad. “This specially created experience gives us the perfect opportunity to welcome many thousands of people to our building.”
Meanwhile, this year’s BP Portrait Award is also part of the festival and features 55 brand new portraits. The top prize was announced in June and awarded to the Brooklyn based artist, Aleah Chapin for her portrait, Auntie. Her painting is of a close friend of the family and Chapin comments, “Her body is a map of her journey through life.”
It is estimated that some 14 million people have already experienced some aspect of the four-year Cultural Olympiad, and millions more are expected to enjoy this summer’s festival. The programme has helped BP strengthen existing partnerships, says Violaris, as well as develop new, innovative ideas for encouraging more and more people to get involved in something creative, such as the Tate Movie Project. “We’re reaching a greater number of people, including younger audiences,” she says. “For instance, within a week of its launch, myShakespeare reached 500,000 people.”
The legacy extends to every participant in the Cultural Olympiad, some of whose lives have been transformed. Bryan, a student who had never visited the National Portrait Gallery, heard about the BP Portrait Award: Next Generation project and went to a taster session, followed by a summer school. Its impact has been significant. “It’s encouraged me to enter next year’s BP Portrait Award and also pursue a career in the creative industries, both of which I’m very excited about,” he says.
While some projects, such as the BP Portrait Award: Next Generation, were created for the Cultural Olympiad, their impact has been substantial and will continue to develop long after the athletes have returned home. In fact, BP’s commitment to UK arts and culture was reiterated in December 2011, when the company announced it would invest almost £10 million over the next five years in its four partner institutions – representing one of the most significant long-term corporate investments in UK arts and culture.
“Most of all, the Cultural Olympiad has given BP and its partners the opportunity to connect with a far greater number of people, especially young people,” says Violaris. “They now know there’s a world of arts and culture out there that they can tap in to – and many of them will.”