Where is our Olympic cultural legacy?

By Esther Tung

SFU study finds few lasting benefits for the arts and culture sector two years after the Olympics

Before I can approach Duncan Low for our interview, a woman steps in to chat with him for several minutes about the research he had just presented on. I learn later that she is Edna dos Santos-Duisenberg, the chief of the Creative Economy Programme with the United Nation’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), who mentioned to him that she had never heard about the cultural component of Vancouver’s Winter Olympics.

“If she didn’t know about our Cultural Olympiad, then maybe it’s not such a crazy idea why the [international] press didn’t turn up for it either,” says Low, who had been invited to speak at the BCreative Conference May 12 on his study of the “cultural legacy” left behind by the Winter Olympics.

Putting in a bid to host the Olympics requires an outline of what will be done to prepare the city for the event, grouped into three main pillars: sports, culture, and environment. While Vancouver did well on the sports front, and at least appeared to fulfill its promises of sustainability, many arts organizations felt as though the $20 million set aside for arts and culture programming were poorly used in creating lasting benefits for the sector. Low’s study confirms some of those suspicions.

Much of his study’s conclusion came from comparing international press coverage of Cultural Olympiads. Vancouver’s coverage was small not only compared to previous hosts, but even upcoming Olympics. Between January 2008 and April 2010, 54 articles in American and international newspapers mentioned the Cultural Olympiad, and over half were categorized as “passing references.”

“For the amount of money we spent, we could have taken Canadian artists around the world and gotten more coverage,” says Low. The study was Low’s master’s thesis under SFU’s urban studies program, which he entered after leaving his role as executive director at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. “Or we could have taken that $20 million, popped it into a bank account, and at a five per cent interest rate, generate $1 million a year that we could call our cultural legacy for the rest of our lives.”

A legacy, cultural or not, isn’t just about worldwide recognition, says Low, it can also be about creating visible and meaningful change within the boundaries of the city as well. Whistler accommodation, built for athletes during the Olympics, was converted into price-controlled housing for people who worked and lived in Whistler as an easy, permanent solution to a social problem. Quebec City celebrated their 400th anniversary by building the world’s largest architectural projection, The Image Mill. Four years later, Quebec Harbour continues to bustle with activity every summer as residents and tourists congregate to watch the nightly free shows.

In Vancouver, $10 million was spent on laying down the tracks for the beloved Olympic streetcars, borrowed from Brussels for the two weeks of celebrations, and security costs ballooned to five times the original $175 million estimate.

“Culture always starts out big, but as things progress, it ended up on the periphery of the Olympic boom,” says Low, alluding to the coincidental timing of large cuts to arts funding and changes in grant eligibilities in the months leading up to the celebrations.

But Low is careful to mention that the Olympics had positive effects. Some productions commissioned with Cultural Olympiad funding have gone on to stages elsewhere. Public art has a greater presence than before, three civic theatres have been renovated, and there is the Canada Line, which isperhaps the only benefit still visible in the city today. But Low is quick to remind that the debate over the construction of the Evergreen Line has been going on since the ‘90s.

Low’s study is not a comprehensive assessment of the Olympics’ effects on professional arts and culture in Vancouver, but it does provide a starting point for understanding them. Harnessing the critical mass that comes with mega-events to implement meaningful, lasting change can be done. “Mega-events have this rolling effect that knocks all sorts of barriers down,” he says.