Olympic legacy: money for nothing

I am not happy again. We have become used to hearing weekly wails of distress from the Arts Council about how broke they are followed by melodramatic predictions of the cultural desert awaiting as punishment for state parsimony. It is their belief they should be exempted from the austerity allegedly endured elsewhere. Their moans receive sympathetic hearings from a press many of whose specialist commentators are reliant on the Council for an assortment of free trips, home and abroad, and other thinly veiled junketry and blackmail.

Last month the Council announced quietly that one of their long-delayed projects for the Olympics – a jet of air fired up over the Mersey estuary off Birkenhead – was not going to happen after all, despite having already spent £535,000; that is, £35,000 more than the original budget intended for the finished, installed work. This sum included £40,000 as a personal fee plus £15,000 expenses for the artist, one Anthony McCall. He promised something he couldn’t deliver but won’t be sued or expected to repay any of the money. Apart from low-key reporting of the failure, papers omitted to comment on its wider significance. And it goes without saying that no one at the Arts Council will carry the can for this entirely avoidable fiasco.

In fact, this was only part of a story concerning the disgraceful waste of £5.4 million which the Council allocated for commissioning special works during Olympic year. Now, a year on from the Olympics, we can evaluate more clearly what we received – the ‘legacy’ if you insist – for a sum approaching the Council’s entire annual visual arts budget. The short answer is nothing; nothing memorable or of any enduring artistic merit, for it was frittered away on ‘community’ trivia. Not a single painting, print, sculpture or ceramic in any gallery or museum. Not a single mural or stained glass window in any civic building. No public sculpture of genuine worth. No, not even a sprawling installation or a soporific video destined for the gallery warehouse. Where anything at all concrete remains from this project it is entirely frivolous. The sum total is three crocheted lions at Twycroft Zoo and a boat made from 1,200 donated wooden objects currently moored … well you tell me.

In January 2010 the Arts Council announced that as its contribution to the Cultural Olympics it would earmark £5.4 million for 12 works, one each in nine regions of England (£500,000 each) and one each for Scotland (£460,000), Wales (£230,000) and Northern Ireland (£190,000). The object of these commissions, which were collectively dubbed ‘Artists Taking the Lead’ (the Piss, more like), was “to surprise and delight the world with their extraordinary artistic vision”.

Scotland’s wedge bought them a temporary football pitch in the middle of a forest near Selkirk, on which were played two matches in kits designed by local children – a site now overgrown. (God only knows how they managed to get through half a million on that.) Wales got the fuselage of a DC9 which was towed to four locations; present whereabouts unknown. Northern Ireland got Nest, a warehouse full of donated objects labelled with personal reminiscences. Eastern England got a community event called Home. In Yorkshire they bent the regulations so that those choosing the winner were themselves the recipients of the cash. Their excuse? “It would have been impossible to appoint regional arts experts that did not have these relationships.” You didn’t try hard enough you corrupt bastards! The result was some sort of street happening in Leeds. The north west got its half-million’s-worth of nowt, not even the promised hot air. The south west got Nowhereisland, some soil from the arctic circle towed by boat around the West Country. The West Midlands marched a big puppet of Godiva (now clothed owing to political correctness) down to London. The south east got the wooden boat. The East Midlands is now the proud owner of some knitted lions. The north east got the best piece, ‘Flow’ by Ed Carter, a pontoon on the Tyne complete with original electronic music.

There is not an atom of visual art in any of this rubbish. It is money which should have been better spent on permanent serious commissions. Why are the Arts Council allowed continually to get away with such shocking waste whilst constantly pleading poverty?

David Lee

The Jackdaw, July/Aug 2013