Umbrellas, Incubators, Mothers and Killers in the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad
An artistic or cultural component has accompanied the Olympic Games in some form for over 100 years (García 2017). However, despite this longevity and notable examples of cities that promoted the Cultural Olympiad such as Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games and the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympic Games (Pappalepore 2016; Stevenson 1997), few host cities have framed the Cultural Olympiad as a key element in their delivery of the Games. London especially highlighted the Cultural Olympiad within their original bid and expanded the event to a four-year programme. A total of £126.6 million was invested across the four years, both in London and across the UK in an estimated 180,000 activities involving up to 43 million participants. The case of London is therefore a notable example for any future Olympic host city to study and better understand the potential of the Cultural Olympiad programme.
The London 2012 Summer Olympic Games were hosted solely by London, whereas the Cultural Olympiad was carried out across the entire UK—culminating in the London 2012 Festival held in the lead up to the Games themselves. To effectively carry out the programme, regional leaders were appointed to coordinate cultural activities in their region during the 4-year period leading up to the Games. A key element in this approach was the unified branding scheme that helped to connect a quite wide-ranging programme (Garcia 2012). This clear imaging linked to the iconic 2012 logo helped to bring recognition to and knowledge of the Cultural Olympiad which was not previously as well understood. In addition, there is a stronger socio-cultural interpretation of the role of such set of events. They can serve in generating a sense of unity and belonging in very different places that may not be directly connected (e.g., through physical infrastructure) to the Olympic venues. However, some issues of disconnection emerged as individual activities were managed quite separately one from another (Gilmore 2010).
London’s approach to spreading the cultural programme at a national scale is not entirely unique but rather reflects to a degree the approach of several city/region hosts of the European Capital of Culture (ECoC). Notably, Essen for the Ruhr 2010 ECoC and the Matera-Basilicata 2019 ECoC both took a regional approach to hosting their year of celebration by spreading events across a wider region—bringing greater attention to often overlooked areas and benefitting the overall programme through using existing resources. However, it is worth highlighting the experience of London and other host cities where the Olympic Games actually kept away visitors looking to avoid higher costs and complications from the Games, leading to a reduced number of tourists during the mega-event itself (Vlachos 2016). As a counter point, the Cultural Olympiad can instead serve to attract visitors in the period leading up to the Games themselves to areas they might not otherwise visit. In this way, it helps to spread the benefits of the Games across a wider region without over-burdening any one single place. The following sections will examine different aspects of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad through the lens of the four types to reflect upon the varying effects and impacts which at times coalesced and aligned, while in other ways diverged with negative consequences.
London 2012 Cultural Olympiad as a spreading Mother with and Incubator
As sport and cultural mega-events increasingly come to use existing spaces and venues in cities or across regions as opposed to strictly constructing new facilities and infrastructure, there is the greater potential for the use of urban and historic spaces. While the London 2012 Olympic Games was primarily implemented as an anchored platform in East London, made up of newly created venues and spaces, the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad took great efforts to use existing widespread spaces, from the alternative to the iconic as well as the historic. In this way, the Cultural Olympiad was used to develop not only new events, but also spread those events across the city and region in new locations. The One Extraordinary Day event saw unique dance performances taking place across the city of London in iconic locations like the Millennium Bridge and City Hall building, both designed by Foster + Partners. These performances were suspended from the structures themselves, turning them into an active component rather than just a static backdrop. Olympic cities have long used the Games to show dramatic images of the city for promotion, and these cultural events can use sites not adapted for sporting venues while yet activating them in new and innovative ways. Beyond London, several historic sites such as Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall amongst others served as cultural event locations (García and Cox 2013).
The 2012 London Cultural Olympiad also developed an entire strain of events located in so-called ‘unusual places’ focused on new or innovative event locations. While these included the iconic ones mentioned above, many lesser known or otherwise overlooked spaces also were activated within this programme.
Most sport mega-events have long struggled or not bothered to include public participation processes in meaningful ways in the bidding or planning phases (French and Disher 1997; Haxton 2000; Lenskyj 1992). As an Incubator, the cultural programme was highlighted as one of the main elements to benefit a wide range of parties and local communities within the original bid, with diversity and inclusion a key aspect to this approach (García and Cox 2013). The quality of events was improved through this more open approach that embraced both grassroot groups as well as internationally recognized artists. In particular, artists who are deaf and with other disabilities were significantly featured and noted as an important step in making arts and cultural policy more inclusive and accessible (Abrams and Parker-Starbuck 2013). Yet Abrams and Parker-Starbuck also question the relevance of the cultural programme to supporting the local communities negatively impacted by the Olympic Games, particularly those in East London who were relocated to make way for the construction of new venues (ibid.). As with many cultural mega-events, there was also the debate between the building up of local cultural resources versus the displaying of invited international talent along with the divide between so called ‘high’ and ‘low’ artforms (Pappalepore 2016).
London 2012 Cultural Olympiad as a medium-term Killer
A critical aspect of the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad was the focus on legacy within the event governance. A common shortcoming in mega-event governance is a lack of learning from the process and retaining the capacity building that has occurred (Jones 2022). Within the LOCOG (London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games) there was a Cultural Olympiad Board and specific Culture Delivery Team. These were supported by 13 additional programmers working in the regions across the UK along with several existing entities serving as delivery partners as well as public funding bodies. On one hand, this extensive governance network was needed for the proper delivery of the event programme while, on the other hand, it served to establish greater connections across the cultural sector to endure beyond the 2012 event (Garcia 2012). The post-event report confirms that nearly half of the cultural activities that took place would not have occurred, at least not in their final form, had the Cultural Olympiad not taken place (García and Cox 2013). At first glance this might suggest classifying the Cultural Olympiad as a Mother type. However, this document also reports that only half of the programmed events intended to continue beyond 2012, making it difficult to decipher how many events newly generated by the Cultural Olympiad extended to the medium- and long-term following the conclusion of the 2012 Olympic Games. Most reported the lack of continued funding as one of the significant hurdles to continuing cultural events—the usual problem facing operations following cultural mega-events. Without more precise data it is difficult to determine whether the events that continued post-2012 were those pre-existing ones or newly created ones. However, it is most likely that not only the newly created ones, but also part of the pre-existing events ended following 2012. In this sense the Cultural Olympiad could also be classified, in part and for the medium term, as a Killer for cultural events.
Generally speaking, local cultural actors and operators involved claimed to benefit from the presence of the Cultural Olympiad by providing new opportunities, work and networks that they might not otherwise have developed (Pappalepore 2016). Despite legacy being a highly discussed and promoted aspect of the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad, there is not a clear, definite continuation of the programme in terms of ongoing activities or even presence of a governance body. While a legacy paper was produced (Cultural Olympiad Board 2011), the document focuses on establishing an evaluation framework to be carried out following the event rather than a set of policy guidelines or practice to continue post-2012. Instead, the main interpretation of legacy seems to have focused on exporting a London 2012 model to future organisers of the Cultural Olympiad in other countries (McDowell 2015). While this approach has helped to secure a positive reputation for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad as an exemplar to be followed it does little to ensure the continuation of cultural programmes established in the years leading up to 2012. For sure, one effect of the Cultural Olympiad was improving the governance of two subsequent mega-events in other parts of the UK: the Derry-Londonderry 2013 UK City of Culture and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games (Cox et al. 2014).
Mega-events in Milan’s culture: from the 2015 Expo to the 2026 Olympic Games
Prior to hosting the 2015 Expo, Milan had a burgeoning cultural scene that since the 2000s had largely developed through the efforts of individual key players (Ponzini et al. 2014). Despite the richness and potential for the cultural sector in Milan, in the 2000s and early 2010s the city lacked a medium-long term vision shared by multiple actors that could allow the city to achieve a higher level of cultural production. The lack of political leadership in addressing the metropolitan scale and in establishing stronger connections with the periphery and hinterland led actors to organize cultural events and activities independently. Throughout the years, the Fuorisalone Design Week and the Fashion Weeks have grown over time and spread in the metropolitan space, regenerating and giving new identities to several former industrial neighbourhoods of Milan (Armondi and Bruzzese 2017), though without a common strategy. Within these wider processes of cultural development, the Expo 2015 came to play a critical role—particularly in terms of capacity building, as well as spatial strategies and cultural policy (Bolocan Goldstein 2015; Pasqui 2015).
According to the regulations set out by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the main 2015 Expo site was established as a single satellite platform between the Municipalities of Milan and Rho, within the Metropolitan City of Milan, 14 km from the centre. For the event celebration, the problem of physical and intangible disconnection between the Expo site and the rest of the city was addressed in multiple ways, in terms of infrastructure and mobility, as well as communication (Di Vita and Morandi 2018). Accordingly, the ExpoinCittà platform and cultural programme launched by the Municipality and the Chamber of Commerce collected 1015 event locations across the Milan region, that included already existing event venues, alternative sites and open-air spaces. The Milan Municipal Administration’s Sportello Unico Eventi (SUEV) was created in order to ease the process of authorizing and monitoring events. A total of 46,310 events were recorded in 2015, with the main goal being to activate the entire city on the occasion of the Expo and attract attention to the city itself along with the Expo site (Di Vita 2022). A total of 11 million visitors were recorded by ExpoinCittà, representing more than half of the total 21.5 million visitors to the Expo itself. Events were held in museums along with industrial sites, libraries, historic farmhouse cascinas and villas, leading to a substantial boost in the guidance of cultural events. Despite this spreading of potential event locations, there was a clear concentration of events, with 45% of the programme taking place in the historic city centre and only 10% occurring outside the municipal area (Di Vita and Ponzini 2020). Unlike the experiences of many other cities hosting mega-events, the close of the Expo did not bring about the end of the ExpoinCittà programme, but rather its continuation and rebranding as YES!Milano. The YES!Milano agency continued to organise thousands of events per year following 2015 up until the pandemic shuttered public events in 2020. Many of these events are organised according to thematic weeks and continue to take place across different but specific city districts (ibid.). In this sense, there is little doubt about the successful role as an Incubator of ExpoinCittà.
Cities can often struggle to learn from the experience of hosting a mega-event and retaining the expertise gained (Jones 2019), but the case of the 2015 Milan Expo stands out as an exemplar in this specific regard. In fact, when compared to the problematic legacy of the Expo site itself, which remains yet undeveloped and unused as of the end of 2021, the accompanying cultural programme of the ExpoinCittà stands out as one of the immediate successful legacies of the 2015 Expo (Di Vita 2022). It has demonstrated the possibility of a mega-event to activate various resources including not only funding and local expertise, but also the cultural activation of spaces across the city and wider metropolitan region over the long term. One of the key elements in Milan’s approach back in the early 2010s was its development of the innovative open-data collection that encouraged thousands of collateral events to take place across the metropolitan region. This additional programme was not requested nor required by the BIE, and it was not extended to the post-event phase, but it is one of the more innovative elements to be suggested for future host cities, based on the positive experience in the case of Milan (ibid.).
The bidding for and awarding of the 2026 Milano-Cortina Winter Olympic Games confirms an enduring positive perception of the 2015 Expo (Bruzzese and Di Vita 2016), despite various shortcomings and reactions against the event (Casaglia 2016; Basso 2017) and the problematic legacy of the event site (Gaeta and Di Vita 2021). The regional spread of the sporting events, across a distance of 400 km, presents the need for a new thinking in terms of scale, organisation and planning—not only for the main sport events, but also for the Cultural Olympiad programme. The original idea of re-using the existing infrastructure of the 2006 Turin Olympics would have made this spatial system broader (Milano-Torino-Cortina), but it proved to be politically unmanageable in the bidding phase.
Throughout the Milano-Cortina 2026 Bidding Dossier, the local, the regional Alpine and the broader Italian culture play a strategic role in supporting the 2026 Olympic Games and contributing to the overall experience, typically in relation to tourism growth and mentioned alongside heritage, nature, art and fashion. However, only a brief overview of the Cultural Olympiad has been provided until now, envisioning cultural activities taking place exclusively in February and March of 2026 (Milano Cortina 2026 2019 ). According to the analysis of the Bidding Dossier (and still waiting for the definitive Games Delivery Plan and Legacy Plan), only some of Milan’s most visible cultural centres are mentioned (such as the Pinacoteca di Brera, La Scala Theatre and the Triennale) to host a series of events organized around six themes: art/photography; music/opera; theatre; cinema; fashion/design/creativity; food. In this early document, no clear connections were made to the ongoing cultural offerings of the city of Milan or connecting to the legacy of the 2015 Expo in growing the city’s cultural capacity for planning and organising events. The document also fails to specifically note how events might be spread across the vast region involved in hosting the Olympic Games. With the upcoming event now only several years away, it is worth considering in greater detail the potential role of the Cultural Olympiad programme. Specifically, it is worth considering how the Cultural Olympiad programme might be able to respond to local and regional needs within the current period of transition of mega-events like the Olympics, also due to the increased uncertainty introduced by the global pandemic in already uncertain planning processes.
The spatial plans of the Milan Municipality and the Milan Metropolitan City were approved after the awarding of Milano-Cortina 2026 (respectively, in late 2019 and in 2021). However, these visions only implicitly shift from large redevelopments to widespread regeneration and branding of peripheral areas, with goals of socio-spatial equity (Pasqui 2018). At the same time, the Bidding Dossier lacks clear input for spatial visions pertaining to both the urban core and region. More detailed plans may yet be revealed in the Games Delivery Plan and the Games Legacy Plan, both expected only in 2022. While Milan clearly has a successful history of maintaining an ongoing cultural programme, it is worthwhile to examine other examples of the Cultural Olympiad to frame its potential for the Milano-Cortina context in this phase of transition and beyond the 2026 event.