Last week a second Scottish city – Perth – declared its bid to be the next UK City of Culture in 2021, the other being Paisley.
If successful, Perth would become the third UK City of Culture, following Derry in 2013 and incumbent Hull, since the award’s inception in 2009. Winning the accolade would mean a bumper calendar for the year, with potential for the likes of the Turner Prize, the Man Booker and other major events to take place in the city.
Oh, and the Olympics have started.
On the surface, the Olympics and City of Culture scheme share little in common. While the latter hopes to decentralise cultural activity away from the giant metropolises whose outputs are so often a synecdoche for culture as a whole, it is those very centres the former wishes to highlight; a national centre of attention is transformed, every four years, into the global centre. Essentially, one is about how we wish others to see us, the other about how we wish to see ourselves.
But despite all their differences, both (as well as any city-orientated initiative) can be seen in relation to globalisation. For the Olympics, as a logical response to the growing interconnectivity of the world, and a desire to help ease that connection; in other words, as the founder of the modern of the Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, once said: “May the Olympic torch pursue its way through the ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations”. For the UK City of Culture, as a reaction to the bland universality modern globalisation often demands, to remind us of the value of esoteric culture and community.
Another thing both share in common is a propensity towards the benefits of legacy. Legacy is spoken about as a more valuable currency than conventional economic indicators and one with incalculable gains. But beyond rhetoric, what is the true impact of such events?
When the European City of Culture scheme (forebear of the UK equivalent) began in the 1980s, the initial hosts seemed obvious choices: Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris; all major hubs of European cultural endeavour and achievement for centuries. Then, in 1990, came an altogether unexpected choice: Glasgow.
Although once a city of huge significance, Glasgow had in the preceding decades fallen into a severe economic malaise. Deindustrialisation had left much of the city destitute. The 1980s saw efforts to curb this, with the opening of the Burrell Collection and the SECC among them, culminating in that City of Culture title, bringing in nearly a thousand exhibitions, theatre and sporting events as well as the opening of the Royal Concert Hall.
Today Glasgow has one of the largest concentrations of the creative economy outside London – but how much this rests on the European City of Culture designation is uncertain.
Alasdair Gray, whose first novel Lanark was published in 1981, was sceptical of the impact the title made on Glasgow. “The idea that a country’s economy depends on visitors coming here for a bit of fun… strikes me as horrible,” he said in an interview with Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4. “There was nothing of Glasgow culture presented. Joan Eardley, JD Ferguson… No Glasgow painter’s work was exhibited. As far as drama was concerned, nothing by Bridie, CP Taylor, McLellan…”
Like Perth, where the council has given the go ahead to a refurbishment of the city’s theatre, much of the redevelopment in Glasgow went on regardless of the title. In this sense City of Culture status for Glasgow was more a step along the way to, rather than a catalyst for, change.
If opinion on Glasgow’s tenure as European City of Culture (renamed ‘Capital of Culture’ in 1999) was mixed, recent efforts have been generally more positive. As the UK’s first City of Culture, Derry was an experiment that, although not without difficulties, was widely regarded as a success. And, unlike the dearth of home-grown talent seen in Glasgow, Derry’s calendar included the likes of Brian Friel, Seumas Heaney and the Undertones alongside bigger pan-Irish and British events like the Turner Prize and the Fleadh. Economic investment and return for Derry was always going to be far more modest than in the likes of Liverpool during its European Capital of Culture period. But when dealing with legacy, that all elusive currency, changing attitudes is always a far greater indicator of success than insurmountable riches.
If the impact of the City of Culture initiative is already baring fruit, then the Olympics should provide more than enough evidence; but it is not quite so rosy. Studies have shown that no Olympics have ever substantially increased GDP, tourism or – more crucially – the number of people participating in sport. Stadiums across the world are empty, the most infamous case being in Athens after the 2004 games, where 21 out of 22 Olympic structures now lie derelict. The false benefits the Olympics bring to local communities has become so apparent that Hamburg and Boston withdrew their bids to host the games in 2024.
Legacy schemes fail when they fail to take into account the effect such schemes have on the local populace – the people who, once the bunting and jamboree have gone, must carry on living there. For the Olympics, mired in recent decades by corruption, human rights abuses and increasingly dubious economic turnover, factoring in any meaningful legacy in itself becomes a white elephant. In the face of all this, why do the Olympics carry on as they always have and – if once successful, even desirable – what has changed in the world to make them so incompatible?
Back in the 1990s, when the saturation of mass media seemed at its peak, Australian art critic Robert Hughes argued the changing pattern of world culture meant the idea of a single, global centre for the arts had become obsolete. No longer did the artist have to up sticks and mingle face to face with contemporaries in New York or Paris. The artist could go and be whomever s/he wanted, anywhere s/he wanted.
However, Hughes may have underestimated the tyranny of distance. A consequence of mass social media today is not only the growing prevalence of ‘elsewhere’ – that elusive place where everything seems to happen – but also the enormous pressure to ‘be elsewhere’. Not only just aware of what is happening elsewhere, we know (and often on a personal level) who exactly is there, too.
In many ways, the Olympics represent an old-fashioned method of reconciling with globalisation, in an era when a lack of communication was a bigger issue than having too much. Greater connectivity has brought forward new questions. Does modern globalisation lead to more voices being heard, or does it simply offer greater ubiquity to a chosen few? In searching for universal appeal, do we ignore locality, with all the unique benefits and problems that arise from it, in favour of a catch-all solution?
Of course, the Olympics are not going to disappear anytime soon, but they risk becoming unsustainable in a world facing climate change, rising inequality, corporate corruption and growing anger among those left behind by globalisation. And until that day comes, we are perhaps best investing our legacy in smaller pots. Like Perth.