opinion | Jill Medvedow and Roger Brown

In discussing Olympic bid’s demise, don’t forget arts and culture

AP/file 2012

In all the analysis, debriefing, pontificating, and posturing about the demise of Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, virtually no one has talked about the absence of arts and culture in the public debate.

The Olympics was an opportunity to showcase our music, museums, theaters, and most of all, our local musicians and artists, who together reflect the diversity of arts across the globe. It was a chance to showcase the new art being created in Boston by some of the best talent in the world as well as to involve residents in the arts. And along with strengthening the infrastructure for housing and mass transit, the Olympics would have also strengthened the city’s cultural infrastructure — facilities, funding, partnerships, programs — which would have had a lasting contribution long after the Games were over.

The Olympic Charter states, “Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will, and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal ethical principles.” This notion of individual wellness reflects a holistic vision of mind, body, and spirit.


Today, the Olympics are built upon three similar pillars: sport, culture, and sustainability. Culture is legally embedded in the modern Olympics in the form of a Cultural Olympiad — a required four-year program of arts and culture leading up to an Olympics. Barcelona pioneered the four-year Cultural Olympiad, which culminated in a five-month arts festival of over 200 activities. Sydney hosted four Olympic arts festivals. London organized a nationwide Olympiad, with a series of major commissions, an open source approach to local communities, and the largest ever commission of art by disabled and deaf artists to coincide with the Paralympic Games. Over 170,000 activities, 40,000 artists, and 5,370 new works resulted in 43 million public experiences with the arts during the London Cultural Olympiad. What most of us remember from the Beijing Games was not the athletic competition, but the pageantry and showcasing of Chinese music, art, and dance as well as the world-class architecture of many of the new facilities.

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Might the arts have been an effective organizing tool to engage public interest and investment in Boston 2024 Olympics? Would communities across the Commonwealth have seen the potential for participation and pride through the arts? Would a concept broader than sports have facilitated different conversations about the long-term potential for local/global exchange and impact? Could the power of self-expression and arts activism have helped ignite the public spark Boston lacked in its bid?

This is a moment for learning from our mistakes. We still want the infrastructure in housing, transit, education, and the arts that the Olympics could have provided. Even without the Games, this is an opportunity to raise the bar in Boston.

Jill Medvedow is director of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Roger Brown is president of Berklee College of Music.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the byline was incorrect. The coauthor of the piece is Roger Brown.