The Cultural Olympian
While everyone is intent on Usain Bolt’s ten seconds of glory, collector and philanthropist Anita Zabludowicz is looking generations past the Games to their artistic and educational legacy. By Josh Spero
Read more from Spear’s about the Olympics
THE TIME-LAPSE photos in the temporary reception at the Olympic Park in Stratford start with a dispiriting view, the site in its pre-renovation dereliction — dirty factories, muddy landscape and an ugly, dull river — and by annual return its increasing complexity as shack-like buildings are cleared, the ground flattened, footprints of stadiums appear and rise and culminate. Seven years of work for Usain Bolt to dispatch 100 metres in nine and a half seconds.
Not quite. As Ken Livingstone in his sly-proud manner boasted, ‘I didn’t bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport. I bid for the Olympics because it’s the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the government to develop the East End. It’s exactly how I played it to ensnare the government to put money into an area it has neglected for 30 years.’ Counterintuitive as it may seem when we’re spending billions on them and tying London up in knots for weeks, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are a catalyst for long-desired change, not an end-point in themselves.
Art collector and philanthropist Anita Zabludowicz said as much in the last issue of Spear’s, in our Giver and the Gift column, when she talked about her role as chair of the Legacy List, the charity set up to keep art and culture in the Queen Elizabeth Park long after the International Olympic Committee’s luxurious caravan has rolled on: ‘I wanted to get involved for London, not the Olympics. To be honest, I know this is the Olympics, but this has been a springboard opportunity to do something great for London and I know that a lot of the funding that has gone into the park will gradually benefit London, and to me that’s very important.’
One of Zabludowicz’s chief tasks has been fundraising — so far the charity has raised £1.4 million from a total of £7 million — and the animating spirit of donors has been a belief in regenerating East London, she says. She brings to London a zeal for regeneration which she picked up in Newcastle, where she was born and whose accent slips in when she talks about her childhood. ‘One of the most fascinating aspects of being brought up there,’ she says as we tour the unfinished Olympic Park in the back of a Mercedes people carrier, ‘was watching the city change before your eyes and every time a motorway or a new library, or anything of concrete was built, there was such excitement.’
Those Brutalist improvements were succeeded in a Nineties and Noughties regeneration scheme by the stainless-steel shell of Foster and Partners’ Sage Gateshead, the harp-like Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the renaissance of Grainger Town in the centre of Newcastle. If it’s been done successfully and on such a grand scale there, why can’t it work in London? ‘I’m delighted to be presented with the same challenge now, and in fact it does have many similarities — it does feel in a way like I’m going back to my childhood, back to Newcastle. It’s very moving — every time I come here it’s very emotional.’ Her eyes brighten and crinkle.
It isn’t hard to share Zabludowicz’s enthusiasm. During our visit, the main buildings in the Park were ready: the Olympic stadium, Zaha Hadid’s jellyfish-ish aquatics centre, the velodrome with its red cedar roof, the pale balconied mid-height tower blocks of the athletes’ village, the odd ArcelorMittal Orbit viewing platform, which looks like DNA’s double helix run riot. Even though most of the landscaping still remained to be done, so the park felt rather more like a series of isolated points of interest connected by tarmac or dusty roads, you got a sense of the promise of the place. There’s an aim for all this work. Something’s coming.
There are subtleties in this excitement, though. Most people are very focused on the Games, but some people are looking beyond — past the Olympics — with a different kind of enthusiasm, not the fizz-bang kind for the sporting palaver but perhaps a broader, further enthusiasm. Anita has this, as does Sarah Weir, CEO of the Legacy List and our companion in the car. It’s almost as if they see the park differently: not filled with half a million daily visitors during the Games, but with the playgrounds, community projects and art installations funded by the Legacy List and the homes, schools and health centre which will be developed over the next 25 years.
ZABLUDOWICZ WAS APPROACHED to help with the Olympics’ cultural side after she told Boris Johnson his plans for the park were ‘rubbish. And he was very shocked!’ She set up the competition which resulted in the Orbit and afterwards was asked by the mayor to be chairman of a charity to give the park those things the legacy development company wouldn’t — in brief, fun educational, cultural and recreational projects. Because no one will have access to the park for two years after the Paralympics have finished, while the athletes’ village is turned into flats and the park made suitable for a community, projects have already begun beyond the park, such as the Three Mills Playspace: ‘It will be a place where the imagination is sparked: where the natural meets the artificial and unexpected, a place where nature and play conjoin,’ says its website. (In English, a playground.) Sarah Weir talks about starting schemes outside and moving them inside.
As Weir said in the Giver and the Gift, the charity’s work ‘is built into the park rather than plopped on to the park. The projects will be interactive, and that’s one of the things we’ve already put in. For example, Jason Bruges has done a bridge that’s 100 metres long; you set off a beacon and as you run across it a ticker is paced at the pace Usain Bolt would run at, so it goes ahead of you! Some will be installations which are interactive and others will be programmes. You’ll see things which are artistic; it’ll be about the feel of the park, you’ll be able to do things, and take part in things. Those two together will be the cultural legacy.’ There will be poems by local children in the shape of Olympic venues, an Art Camp for kids, a floating cinema.
Legacy List does not have an easy task: it has to combat the low expectations of excluded locals and meet the high expectations of its transformative promises. The Olympic Park invited accusations of exclusion when it threw up a tall blue barrier around its 2.5 square kilometres to prepare for the redevelopment. On our first loop around the park, as we passed the press centre, we drove by a branch of the River Lea along which a pair of rowers heaved their way; a spiky metal fence suggested to the council estates opposite that they wouldn’t be welcome inside. While it was a natural security precaution, it couldn’t help but distance the Olympics from the community, the park from the people. Legacy List is hoping to bring down the physical and perceived barriers — over time.
When Boris cycled up to Anita, she was at the Zabludowicz Collection at 176, a converted church in Chalk Farm where she and her husband Poju, a Finnish financier, exhibit their art. This is no delicate collection of blandly tasteful work, but a ballsy and omnivorous ‘monster’, as Zabludowicz affectionately calls it. ‘It has a mind of its own!’ With 2,000 pieces and growing, the collection is a new centre of gravity for young artists: ‘I feel it’s got to be nurtured and fed and the most important fire to stoke is emerging art. When an artist leaves art school it’s very hard, and if they’re very talented we really want to be there for them and help them achieve what they want to achieve.’
Newcastle was a fine place for an art-lover to grow up, she says, despite its dearth of galleries (now well rectified). She was taught both art history and fine art, but it was not until a marital trip to New York in 1990 that she decided to collect. Anita and Poju had gone to High and Low at MoMA, which explored how Modern art had appropriated and transformed popular culture, and vice versa: Picasso’s collages, Duchamp’s readymades, Jeff Koons (obviously).
Dealers did not make it easy for the Zabludowiczes: ‘In those days the art world was very “insidery”, which was a big handicap to the collection because I didn’t take a huge amount of advice so I was really on my own. There were a lot of closed doors and I lost some great pieces because of this. They didn’t take me seriously — they were very scathing and suspicious. The art world was even more guarded than it is now.
‘When we started collecting it was modern British — I wanted to collect Bacons, Freuds, Auerbachs. My husband is Finnish and somewhat avant-garde — he one day bought a Matthew Barney photograph and I thought, “Oh, I like this!” and just like that the philosophy of the collection turned to Contemporary, emerging art, and it’s been like that ever since.’
Finland has been important to their collection because they have founded an art centre and artists’ retreat on the island of Sarvisalo, launching this summer, where they have ‘a little wooden house’. There are site-specific works, such as Matthew Day Jackson’s underground bunker, and ‘art barns’ for works from the collection. (A gallery on Times Square in New York is a second outpost.)
HOSTING AN APPOINTMENT-only retreat on a Finnish island may seem like the sort of arts insiderism Zabludowicz encountered when she first started collecting, but this is atypical of her approach. Since the church opened in 2007, it has welcomed 30,000 visitors a year, including thousands of schoolchildren and locals for classes, lectures and activities. I remember enjoyable evenings there, seeing work like Matt Stokes’ Gainsborough Packet, a video set in the nineteenth century accompanied by folk songs, and eating popcorn from an ice cream van designed by the Chapman Brothers.
On her blog, Zabludowicz posts candid snaps of artworks and artists, and you get the sense in person that she would happily tell you about every piece in her collection, so bubbly is her enthusiasm. Her responses are unmediated through the art-world laconism which discourages genuine emotions. In a collection which ranges from Francis Alÿs to Toby Ziegler, Zabludowicz’s own favourite piece ‘is probably Large Field Array by Keith Tyson — in fact, he’s my favourite artist in the collection. When he creates art he’s sucking in every single element of the world around him.’
As we come to the end of our second loop around the park, I try to draw her on Damien Hirst, then being pilloried by every critic in town for his Tate Modern show. She says that ‘it’s a bit unfair to judge him during this period of his life. This is a mid-career retrospective,’ which presents the alarming prospect of 25 more years of Hirst.
So has Zabludowicz been able to bring anything from the art world to the Legacy List? First, she has been buying art to pass down to her children, she says, rather than to flip, which has given her a sense of the longue durée. There is a more important aspect, too: ‘I learnt through my collecting that I can go a long way and that as a human being you can make yourself go further than is expected of you. If you really want something and work very hard to achieve it you can get there — a good Olympic motto!’
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Portrait by David Bebber