Cultural programming at Tokyo 2020: the impossible Olympic festival city?

IOC website screenshot | Olympic Agora (Aug 2021)

The Tokyo 2020 Games will be remembered as the Games without a live audience. They will be talked about as the ‘Covid Games’ that were forced to exclude spectators and collective gatherings.

The sporting competition field was protected to the best of the organisers’ ability — and it looked good on the screen — but, what about the cultural exchange field? And what about the Olympic city? Did it manifest?

Nippon Festival

As every previous Olympic edition since 1912, Tokyo had a mandate to present a cultural programme — the Cultural Olympiad — and this was launched straight after Rio in 2016, with ambitions to show 21st Japan beyond outdated clichés. The Olympic Organising Committee presented the Nippon Festival and a four-year ‘participation programme’ — involving contributions from around the country.

Tokyo 2020 Games Website (screenshot from Aug 2021)

Most of the participation programme has been delivered in Japanese exclusively so it is a programme difficult to understand abroad — despite it delivering symbolic value and opportunities for engagement at a local and regional level. The Nippon Festival, however, aimed to make a mark internationally and was designed to address the main Tokyo 2020 bid themes.

The “reconstruction Games” was a key dimension of Tokyo’s vision, using the Olympics as a platform to help rebuild the areas affected by the earthquake disaster of 2011. This translated into the community-conceived giant puppet Mocco, which journeyed symbolically from the devastated Tohoku region into Tokyo in 2021.

Screen shot from the Youtube film introducing ‘Reconstructing the Tohoku Region’

Diversity and Inclusion’ was also a leading concept, in a country where cultural diversity is not as normalised as in other developed countries, with low visibility for disabled and queer communities within mainstream environments. ONE is the segment of the Nippon Festival dedicated to celebrating diversity, bridging the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The above have been strands of a Festival which has remained true to its original vision but has failed to inspire and stand out within the Games narrative, due to limited — or old fashioned — communication strategies, lack of branding integration within the leading Games platforms and insufficient social media output. Despite the beautiful concept behind the Festival’s visual identity (an intelligent variation of the central Tokyo 2020 logo which demonstrates the coherence and quality of Tokyo’s graphic design identity) the Nippon Festival has not stood out sufficiently during Games time.

TokyoTokyo Festival

Beyond the Organising Committee, the Japanese contemporary arts world also wanted to partake in the Cultural Olympiad. The complexities of Olympic branding and approval processes, however, led to what is a common missed opportunity: a separation of Olympic cultural programming strands with little narrative connectors and no joint branding.

Regardless, a new art festival inspired by the Games was put together by the local authority: the Tokyo Tokyo Festival presented the city’s contemporary art scene and, despite its disconnect from Olympic branding, it has been successful attracting arts media coverage and public attention. It is a good example of a Games-time festival celebrating its host city: from buildings, to public baths and gardens.

Olympic Agora

An unprecedented cultural strand in these Games has been the contribution by the International Olympic Committee itself, which for the first time presented its take on how ‘culture meets sport’, showcasing the official version of what is meant by ‘Olympic spirit’ and ‘Olympic art’. The Olympic Agora opened as a large physical site in Tokyo at the end of June 2021 and combined presential and digital spaces for Olympic culture throughout the Games.

What place for culture and the Olympic city during these pandemic Games?

Commentators note that there has been little opportunity for residents and Games delegations to experience the Olympic city in 2021. Interventions such as the intriguing floating head presented by the TokyoTokyo Festival just before the Opening Ceremony raised eyebrows and encouraged conversation; the Olympic Agora presented eye-catching public artworks; finally, the Nippon Festival and participation programme presented locally sensitive works throughout Japan and materialised Tokyo’s Olympic bid vision. However, crowds were not allowed into any of these interventions — and the international Games narrative did not include sufficient reference to the rich diversity of these activities combined.

Masayume, the floating head presented as part of the Tokyo Tokyo Festival

Live Sites were also discouraged — and the popular hospitality houses that many participating nations present at Games time were considerably scaled down. This means that there was little space for shared physical euphoria during Tokyo 2020. With or without art programming, gathering together to celebrate was not feasible.

Much thinking needs to take place about the future of cultural programming at the Games. There should be less fragmentation, more cross-referencing when promoting activities, and more effective ways of adapting brands and visual identities so that it is possible to appreciate the many dimensions of Olympic arts and culture — and help overcome the sense of isolation audiences may experience.

Reconstruction, recovery, inclusion and togetherness were the Tokyo Olympic keywords. They were meaningful at the time of the bid and even more poignant during a pandemic. The Opening and Closing ceremonies presented this message loud and clear. The associated cultural programmes explored these concepts even further but failed to align sufficiently to make as meaningful a mark as they should have.

Future Olympics need to keep opening-up their understanding of what cultural programming can do, not just as an Olympic Charter requirement but as a platform to address difficulties and turning material challenges into inspirational narratives. The official Games cultural programme should be an opportunity for fun and celebration, connected with the unique characteristics of respective Games hosts as well as the diverse centenary heritage of the Olympic movement. The Cultural Olympiads of the future need to keep working towards a clearer interrelation between organising committee mandates, city-led arts expressions and IOC-hosted Agoras.

This article has been published as part of ‘Olympic and Paralympic Analysis 2020‘, a major academic report involving over 100 research contributors from around the world.

Giant inflatables and flying dancers. Olympic art has always turned heads.

In the days before the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, people were treated to the sight of a giant head floating over the city. Entitled Masayume, this oversized balloon installation by Japanese artist collective Me, was part of the Tokyo Tokyo Festival], as an arts response to the Olympic Games. 

Art has long accompanied the arrival of the Olympics in a city. Budgets might vary, but as the largest mega-event out there, local organisations and the Olympic Organising Committee both seek to capitalise on the attention the Games garner by generating extracurricular cultural moments that echo the athletic accomplishments in the stadiums.

In this article, Beatriz García discusses the history of iconic Olympic art interventions and debates the latest experience in Tokyo.

Access this paper via The Conversation

What Future for Festivals? Report

“We need festivals – now more than ever!” declares Salzburg Global report on the current state and what comes next for the beleaguered sector, post-pandemic


Find here access to the Final Report of the 2020 Salzburg Global Seminar , co-curated by our Director, Dr Beatriz Garcia, and dedicated to exploring the question: ‘What Future for Festivals’?

One hundred years ago at Schloss Leopoldskron, Max Reinhardt, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal founded the world-renowned Salzburg Festival as a “Festival of Peace” to transform “the whole town into one stage.” To celebrate this centenary Salzburg Global Seminar originally scheduled the program What Future for Festivals? for March 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was postponed to October and subsequently moved online due to continuing travel restrictions and health regulations.

Little did we know while developing the session in 2019, just how compelling and urgent the question at the center of our program – what future for festivals? – would be. Few sectors have been hit as hard by the pandemic as the cultural sector, with festivals being particularly vulnerable to the fallout from the compounded global crises – not just COVID-19, but also the climate crisis, and worldwide social and economic upheaval.

We know that festivals of all types and sizes have energized communities since time immemorial. Rooted in rituals, stories and faiths, they have embodied local and indigenous cultures and celebrated deep bonds to nature, land and the seasons. Modern festivals range from intimate experiments to gigantic mega-events, showcasing ever more diverse creative practices, from the performing, visual, and traditional arts to photography, film, literature, street arts, food, light, design and ideas-based, future-focused, eco-inspired events.

Whatever their intended focus – creative innovation, activism, city branding, wellbeing, community building, pure entertainment – festivals have always spoken to fundamental human needs. They have allowed us to share in a density and intensity experience, revel in specialness beyond day-to-day routines, and join – as the German word “Festspiele” infers – in “celebration and play.”

What Future for Festivals? Salzburg Global Seminar

What is the future of festivals as we look ahead to continuing travel constraints, unpredictable limitations on public events, and looming economic crises? And, even with COVID-19 vaccines now forthcoming in some parts of the world, how will both the festival landscape and festival goers themselves have changed in the interim? How will festivals adapt and cope with these altered circumstances? These and many other questions were at the center of our online discussions in October and November 2020.

This report and the accompanying series of thought-pieces authored by several program participants share reflections on the past year and insights on the challenging path ahead for festivals. While we identified even more questions than answers during our conversations, one thing is certain: we need festivals now more than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief that festivals are not just “nice to have” – we must have them to thrive and not just survive.

Human beings need to gather, to celebrate, they need their spirits to soar, to witness artistic genius, to feel chills and goosebumps run down their spines, to revel in the thrill of live performance and shared experience, to clap and be applauded, to amaze and be amazed, to laugh, shout, and be joyful together.

Without such experiences we may function, but we will not be truly alive.

What Future for Festivals? Salzburg Global Seminar

The Culture and Education District, London

The Institute of Cultural Capital conducted this scoping study for the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2017.

The study assessed the value of the emerging Culture and Education District (CED, rebranded as East Bank since 2018) in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. This is a case study of a ‘creative clustering’ in the making.

The study involved ten months of expert observation and analysis by a multidisciplinary research team led by Dr Beatriz Garcia, with Dr Michael Atkins as lead research support and Stephen Crone as report editing assistant.

In conducting this research, the Institute of Cultural Capital & the University of Liverpool (Image and Governance strand) worked in collaboration with the What Works Research Centre & the London School of Economics (Economic strand), City University (Creative strand) and Loughbourough University (Social strand).

Find below access to the main reports produced as part of this research.

Areas of assessment: Potential impact areas

Background material

Cultureshock | Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games Cultural Programme

As the UK prepares for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, it is worth revisiting this detailed study on Cultureshock, the North West cultural programme for the Machester 2002 Commonwealth Games. This work was the first detailed evaluation of a Commonwealth Games cultural programme and it set precedent for future Games editions, as well as providing Manchester cultural stakeholders with key arguments, data and recommendations that informed the establishment and successful launch of the Manchester International Festival.

This Study was commissioned by the main partners of Cultureshock, including the Arts Council of England and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The project was undertaken within the Centre for Cultural Policy Research, University of Glasgow. It was directed by Dr Beatriz Garcia (CCPR lead Research Fellow at the time), with contributions from Christine Hamilton (CCPR Director) and Carmen Bota (CCPR researcher).

Access the final report and summary reports here.

The main research strands and final outcomes are outlined below.

Research Framework

The Study involved an evaluation of Cultureshock, the Commonwealth Games North West Cultural Programme as well as the assessment of the eleven individual projects making up the cultural strand of the Spirit of Friendship Festival (SoF).

The main purpose of this project was to inform partners about:

  • appropriate mechanisms for future investment in International Arts and Cultural Programming
  • benefits/pitfalls of hosting a cultural programme across a region/city
  • the value of investment into research and development
  • future templates/models for the other major arts and sports events in this region or elsewhere in the UK

This work was separated in two main areas:

Strand 1: Study of Cultureshock and Spirit of Friendship structures of management and design rationale:

This involved the assessment of the suitability of the programmes’ working agendas (mission statements, programme design and contents) and an assessment of the effectiveness of the structures established to manage and implement them (team work, funding abilities, relationships).

Strand objectives:

  1. To assess the suitability of the programmes’ design format (ie. ‘strengths and weaknesses of the programme itself’ – mission statements and main contents)
  2. To assess the effectiveness of the programmes’ management and promotional structures (ie. ‘strengths and weaknesses of Cultureshock/SoF as a delivery mechanisms for an arts programme’)
  3. To assess the effectiveness of the programme’s community relations structure in relation to social inclusion (ie. ‘ Cultureshock/SoF’s ability to work with the arts as a tool for social inclusion’)

Strand 2: Study of Cultureshock and SoF immediate impacts and potential legacies:

This involved a measurement of how the programmes have affected their environment: from individual audiences to existing partners, the arts community and respective host locations in a broader sense. Here, it is of particular interest to consider the context in which Cultureshock and the Spirit of Friendship festival are located, that is, the celebration of a major international sporting event.

Strand objectives:

  1. To determine the impact of presenting a major arts programme alongside an international sporting event  
    • on event audiences: impacts on experience, perceptions, values
    • on key investors and local hosts: economic impacts
    • on arts groups and institutions: impacts on art form development
  2. To determine whether Cultureshock has changed people’s perceptions of the Commonwealth
  3. To determine the value and sustainability of the programmes’ International Partnerships
  4. To identify other potential legacies in the short, medium and/or long term

Research Outcomes

This study allowed identification of appropriate mechanisms for future investment in International Arts and Cultural Programming by assessing the effectiveness of the programme’s management and promotion structures, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the programme as a delivery mechanisms for the arts.

The benefits/pitfalls of hosting a cultural programme across a region/city emerged from the study of the opportunities and constraints presented to the programme and the measurement of resulting impacts on audiences, investors, the arts community and the host city and region in general. Relevant information also emerged from studying the ability of the programme to utilise the arts as a tool for social inclusion.

Evidence of the value of investment in research and development was provided throughout the process to undertake this project. The final report specifies the key benefits and challenges of the study and suggests alternative ways of undertaking research to gather information about aspects that have not been explored in this study

Information and recommendations about future templates/models for major arts and sports events in the North West or elsewhere in the UK were provided by a combination of all findings associated with the programme rationale, management and promotion structures and potential legacies

European Capitals of Culture Legacies

Final Project Publication

European Capitals of Culture: Success Strategies and Long-Term Effects


The European City/Capital of Culture Programme was launched in 1985  and the ECoC title has been awarded to nearly 60 cities in 30 countries.  The Programme has become a key platform for city positioning and a catalyst for economic and cultural regeneration. Immediate cultural,  social and economic impacts are common and the capacity to secure  long-term effects, though harder to evidence, has grown in key areas  such as urban image change and tourism development.

The latter is  evidence of the stronger commitment towards sustainable legacy  planning and ever more defined and locally sensitive vision statements.  This report documents common approaches and success strategies,  highlights the strongest claims of long-term effect and analyses recurrent challenges that limit the Programme’s ability to reach its full  potential.

Key recommendations are the establishment of a standardised  evaluation framework, greater emphasis on comparative research and  the creation of a formal knowledge transfer programme so that future  hosts can better benefit from the wealth of experience developed in the  last three decades.

Study Background

This study, conducted over a period of seven months in 2013, is a response to the  European Parliament 2012 call for a comprehensive assessment of the long-term effects of  hosting the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) Programme, and the potential organisational and policy implications of these findings.

Research questions

The main aim of the study is to examine and interrogate the wealth of published material produced about respective ECoC host cities, in order to: identify the most common  strategies for success; collate and review evidence of impacts and long-term effects from a cultural, economic, social and policy point of view; and understand the main recurrent  challenges.

The study addresses six main research questions:

  1. How did the “European Capital of Culture” initiative come into being, what changes has it undergone, and what are its constitutive elements?
  2. What trends and common patterns, if any, can be discerned with regard to successful applicant cities since 1985?
  3. What different strategies and concepts have been developed and used to make the ECoC a success for the individual cities both in the short and long term?
  4. What are the discernible long-term effects connected with ECoC status in terms of cultural, economic, social, and political aspects?
  5. What are the main obstacles ECoC hosts faced in the past, and what similarities and differences can be identified?
  6. What recommendations can be given to exploit the potential of the ECoC initiative more efficiently and tackle challenges more effectively, both at the level of programming and organisation?

In addition, the study reflects on a series of more specific questions which point at two of  the most pervasive challenges for ECoC hosts since the inception of the Programme in  1985: the Programme’s capacity to develop a meaningful European Dimension; and the  capacity for hosts to extract lessons from previous experience and maximise knowledge  transfer.

The Study has considered evidence available for the three first decades of the ECoC  Programme, as articulated by published material on 48 host cities between 1985 and 2013,  and the proposals of 10 upcoming hosts between 2014 and 2019. This has been complemented by selected expert reflections across the Programme.

Access full report here

Access summary powerpoint presentation  here

Access appendices here