The Olympic Legacy List has less to do with the Olympics than its name suggests. True, it is responsible for the long-term cultural programme in the 618-acre Olympic Park but, as one insider put it, the real work begins when the circus leaves town.
The word on every Olympic panjandrum’s or British politician’s lips is legacy. There’s a lot that’s disingenuous about this. If regenerating the East End were all that mattered, a direct investment of £9 billion into infrastructure would have done very nicely, thank you. Still, just because the money could have gone further if it had been invested differently doesn’t mean that we have to gnash our teeth too much. After all, the Games are turning out to be quite fun and lots of people seem happy enough paying eye-watering sums on football season tickets, so why not spend some taxpayer’s money on athletics?
And once the rubbish has all been swept away there will be a legacy. It won’t be the Barcelona bump, where the Olympics is credited with helping the city turn itself into one of the great tourist destinations of the world, because London is already a great tourist destination and, besides, most visitors to London will still want to see Westminster and Buckingham Palace. But neither will it be the Greek catastrophe where, within four years of Athens 2004, 21 of 22 Olympic venues had been abandoned. The immense pressure on London housing means that the creep east is already well advanced, with a mass of recent development along the river. The athletes’ village, which will become social housing, will sit alongside plush towers of luxury apartments with soaring views. And if the right balance is struck, and the infrastructure works and the environment is pleasant, then we can all look forward to this being a major new area for London.
If the future of the park does unfold in that optimistic way, rather than it descending into a sink estate bristling with needles and breeding the next generation of BNP voters and disenfranchised potential terrorist recruits, then a lot of the credit will be due to Sarah Weir. Sarah is in charge of the Legacy List and combines admirable qualities of enthusiasm, intelligence and patience. She has been involved with the Olympic cultural programme since 2004 when the bid itself was embryonic, and before the recent creation of the List she worked at the Olympic Delivery Authority as head of arts.
Thanks to her ability to negotiate a mind-bogglingly complicated administrative terrain she, with the support of the great cultural octopus Sir Nicholas Serota in his capacity as ODA trustee, has somehow kept culture at the heart of the Olympic Park, if not always its budgets. Thanks to Sarah, it is neither peppered with dreary sculptures of Olympians nor, I would argue (although I know that my 70-year-old father would disagree with me on this), is it filled with confusing and inappropriate contemporary art. Rather, everything is considered and selected with great sensitivity to the occasion and to the area.
There are two sculptures in the park that I particularly admire. One is the immense postbox-red tower called the ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’, paid for by Indian Lakshmi Mittal and designed and built by Indian artist Anish Kapoor and Sri Lankan engineer Cecil Balmond. Not being a fan of Anish Kapoor, I expected to dislike it but I found its sinuous Meccano-like loops seductive. Intended to evoke entrails, it kept me in mind of the engineering of the living and competing bodies next door. As an engineering feat it also refers to the park’s most significant piece of history. Running under the park, and marked by the ‘Greenway’ path, is the Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette’s great sewer (London’s hidden entrails), leading to the Abbey Mills pumping station just outside, which matches Kapoor for exuberance with its Byzantine gothic style. I doubt the tower will become the destination that it is supposed to but its omnipresence will provide a new identity for the area and a day trip walking from the ‘Orbit’ to the pumping station will be a deserving staple for hordes of schoolchildren of the future.
The other sculpture that appeals to me is also a cosmopolitan choice. The Italian artist Monica Bonvicini has created a sculpture somewhat austerely made of three chunky, mirrored 9m tall letters forming the word ‘RUN’. At night they are lit up by thousands of white LEDs that transform the slightly Soviet nature of the daytime typeface into a curvy Vegas-style script. Not everyone will like it but it tickles me. I was heartened to learn that inspiration for the word comes from songs by the Velvet Underground and Neil Young that refer to drugs and so the oblique relationship to the Olympics is even more wry than I had realised.
There are a host of other projects. And the versatility of the approach to culture runs far beyond sculpture, stretching from commissioned poetry evoking the history of the area to a cinema floating in the canal that largely surrounds the park. Generally what the different projects have in common is sensitivity to the local area and cost-effectiveness. Inevitably not everything appeals to me. I am sad at plans to replace the zesty graffiti from the canals that surround the park with (I would say insipid) urban art. But it is not always possible to square the two pinnacles of public commissioning, social inclusion and artistic excellence, and it would be as counterproductive to ignore the former as it would be dreary not to aim for the latter.
Not that either is going to happen with Sarah Weir at the helm of the operation, a position she will remain in for some time to come. Probably at least until 2016, which is the earliest it will be possible to see how successfully the park is managing to engage the wider public with its landscape and architecture.
And this is where a call to arms comes in because what can be achieved will depend on the money there is to spend and this largely has to be raised. Officially the List is looking for various levels of patron who would donate an annual amount from the expensive £2,000 to the eye-watering £25,000. This seems slightly at odds with the otherwise inclusive message of the List. However, Anita Zabludowicz, the co-chair of trustees, a noted collector of contemporary art and a formidable fundraiser, says come one, come all. If all you have to offer is a strong right arm and a few hours on a Saturday afternoon get in touch through the Legacy List and you will be put to work. Testing this proposition I am directed to the Yard Theatre, a List project, where a kind soul might be usefully employed sweeping a striking new theatre tucked away in a warehouse. Anita, a Geordie by birth who witnessed first hand the effect of Antony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’, shares Sarah Weir’s infectious enthusiasm for the park and feels the opportunity is there to make a major difference to the East End. It is certainly difficult to disagree that it is a noble project deserving of help.