Michael Prodger

Opportunity knocks

Tony Hall tells Michael Prodger about how he transformed the Cultural Olympiad into the London 2012 Festival

Opportunity knocks
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Tony Hall tells Michael Prodger about how he transformed the Cultural Olympiad into the London 2012 Festival

The most obvious gift possessed by Tony Hall, or Baron Hall of Birkenhead to give him his proper title, is for cleaning up an almighty mess. When he joined the Royal Opera House in 2001, after a long career at the BBC where he had been director of News and Current Affairs, the place had just chewed through five chief executives in four years. Under his aegis turnover has more than doubled, the number of new operas performed is up, and he introduced £10 student tickets while lowering its reliance on the government grant. However, when he was asked in 2009 to take over the running of the Cultural Olympiad as well, the mess he faced was of even more Augean proportions.

Here is an event that most people have heard of but few can define and that Sir Christopher Frayling, the former chairman of the Arts Council, branded as ‘comical’ and bedevilled by acronyms: ‘one called LOCOG, one called ODA, one called the IOC, one called DCMS, one called the Mayor’s Office, and one called the Arts Council’. Rather less than comical is the fact that, although you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who was aware of it, the Cultural Olympiad has been running for three years and has already cost £45 million. Some 16 million people are claimed to have taken part so far, wittingly or unwittingly.

The Cultural Olympiad was part of the original vision for the modern Olympics and a commitment to holding a parallel artistic festival is one of the duties that comes with being awarded the games themselves. When Hall agreed to pick up the reins and provide an alternative to the Stratford hop, skip and jumping, the Cultural Olympiad was, in sporting parlance, in danger of failing to qualify.

Hall is far too courteous and practised to describe what he inherited but a flicker behind the eyes eloquently attests that he was not impressed. So what did he do to start to remedy things? ‘What I’ve tried to do is bring everyone together — artistic powerhouses and funders. Previously things were all over the place, money was in various pots and people weren’t talking. Getting everyone together was phenomenally important.’ He recruited a posse of Britain’s biggest cultural beasts to form a board, among them Nicholas Serota of the Tate, Nicholas Kenyon of the Barbican, Vikki Heywood of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC. The most important appointment was that of the theatre tsarina Ruth Mackenzie as the project’s director.

Mackenzie herself has jokingly suggested that part of the reason behind Hall’s own position was so that there will be someone to blame if the whole thing goes wrong. Not that he fancies being a scapegoat: ‘Touch wood it’ll be wonderful,’ he says, though the look on his face suggests he might indeed be half expecting a kicking; ‘anyway, someone’s got to do it.’

The strategy Hall and co. have adopted is a quiet but classical distancing of themselves from the tainted Cultural Olympiad in favour of a rebranding. Out with the CO and in with the shiny London 2012 Festival, a 12-week national culture-romp that will start on Midsummer’s Eve and run through to 9 September and accompany the games and paralympics. A new ‘Cool Britannia’? A bit of sleight of hand? ‘No, the British viscerally “get” the idea of a festival,’ Hall notes.

The full roster of events numbers around 100 and is an amorphous mix of the big and the small, the traditional and the experimental. The festival will span the nation and the whole arts gamut, from the Turner Prize-winning Martin Creed organising a nationwide bell ringing on the opening day of the Olympics to a celebration of Shakespeare that will include performances of 37 plays in 37 different languages to installations along Hadrian’s Wall and a cloud column kilometres tall above the Mersey. ‘We asked artists to take the lead,’ says Hall. ‘The focus is on what creatives want to say.’ That’s a chilling thought to many. Should they be in charge, especially given that the cost is £52 million? ‘Each project has to be in balance with who will want to come and see it.’

Admittedly, son-et-lumière events may be relatively scarce but this is a country that already has an extraordinarily varied and vibrant arts scene — you can hardly shake a tree without an experimental theatre group or street art collective falling out — so what is the purpose of this great agglomeration? It is, says Hall, ‘an amazing chance to showcase what we’re good at — arts, culture, the creative industries. The eyes of the world will be on us. If we can talk up what we’re good at then we should.’

There are of course the oft-stated and indefinable general cultural benefits: ‘building audiences for the future, getting people excited at seeing something for the first time and bringing them into a new art form’. Not forgetting the children, of course, and the desire to demonstrate that ‘the arts can inspire and reach young people in the way other things can’t’.

This is standard arts-patter but Hall is fully aware of the dangers of airiness. He knows that there must be something more substantial than mere feel-goodery about it. ‘The festival should help us quantify what the arts can bring us economically, especially as we search as a nation for what will generate our future wealth. At the moment the creative economy is worth 6 per cent of GDP. We want to be able to measure what we’ve achieved and calculate the multiplier effect. The money being spent is seed money which we hope will grow.’ To illustrate the point he highlights the demonstrable benefits of existing projects: ‘I was at the new Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate recently and spoke to some local shopkeepers. They reported that since the opening they had taken in five months what they’d normally take in a year.’ He also mentions Liverpool, which in 2008 finessed its tenure as European Capital of Culture into nearly £800 million in extra revenue.

If the Stratford games will leave velodromes and swimming-pools behind, is art as an economic commodity the ‘legacy’ of the London 2012 Festival? ‘Not just that. People are talking and collaborating because of the festival. Big meaty organisations are coming together around projects with the excitement needed to make them even bigger — the National Gallery and the Royal Opera House’s Titian collaboration, for example [artists, poets, composers, choreographers all basing work on his paintings] — the legacy we hope for is that such organisations will carry on talking to each other long after the Olympic flame has moved on.’ It is a shame, though, that it takes an Olympics to make them do this. There are also, Hall points out, a staggering 20,000 non-accredited international journalists around sniffing for stories: ‘Get them interested and the effect on tourism will be substantial.’

Hall is not paid for his role but has to fit it in on top of his Covent Garden job (‘I work very long hours and at weekends — I’m excited but 9 September will be a relief when I can get back to a normal life’), which makes him more of an amateur than most of the athletes at the Olympics. Between 1912 and 1948 the Cultural Olympiad handed out medals, just like its sporting counterpart (the Finns were regular table-toppers, apparently). If the festival organisers manage to pull it off, Tony Hall will deserve a specially minted gong as well as a rest.