Mobilizing Leicester for the Olympics
A strategy to mobilise the UK through culture and creativity

Walking in The Cultural Quarter in Leicester, with its venues, one realizes that it’s the perfect atmosphere to hold the Cultural Olympiad: young, creative and participating. When the countdown for the Olympic Games London 2012 started in 2005, a variety of projects and initiatives came up related to the games. Among these ideas, The Cultural Olympiad emerged, a programme to promote cultural events over the Olympiad’s four year period which it included not only London, but the entire country. Leicester is one of the cities where the Cultural Olympiad is taking place.

The countdown for the Olympic Games in Trafalgar Square.

Arts Council England (ACE), located in London, is in charge of organizing the Cultural Olympiad projects and decides where to invest the money. Leonie Sakey, the Director of ACE’s programme for the Cultural Olympiad, explains previous Cultural Olympiads were more like three-, four- or five-week festivals, only focused on the city. “Our programme is much bigger and needs dialogue with communities throughout the country,” she says. Their investment in the Cultural Olympiad programme is divided between investing in national projects from their head office, and responding to opportunities around the country from their regional offices. The total national investment to date has been £16.620 million. On top of this, they arrange grants for the arts to support the artists’ own ideas and projects to celebrate 2012 around the country. To date, this investment stands at over £6.5 million.


Phoenix Square in Leicester.

With regard to the Creative Programmers, there are 13 – one per nation and region in the UK – that have been appointed to develop a vision for their areas and to delegate tasks and the results are already visible. Over 11 million people have participated in the Cultural Olympiad so far, over 67,000 people have attended 6,500 workshops like film making or singing and thousands more have enjoyed over 6,000 public performances and programmes inspired by 2012.

Leicester and Phoenix Square, part of the Cultural Olympiad

One of these commissions is The East Midlands creative programme and Leicester is part of this. Phoenix Square Film & Digital Media Centre, in the Cultural Quarter in Leicester has been chosen as the location for the Community Media Centre 2012, which means that during the Olympics and Paralympics, the Phoenix location will become the largest independent media centre operating in the UK. Having professional media covering the games in Leicester for a couple months will be an exciting experience for the residents. As a result, greater provisions for culture and art are expected, such as the Community News-Museum that will open in the Cultural Quarter in September 2012. This museum is going to collect every piece of news written between the Special Olympics in 2009 and Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. A community legacy of London 2012, these events are seen as an opportunity to put Phoenix and Leicester at the front of UK culture.

Difficult start

Like this, it seems that everything is very easy. But the truth is developing the Cultural Quarter hasn’t been a bed of roses. In 2002, a programme to regenerate the city was planned. The Cultural Quarter is a central area of the city that has been regenerated through a series of public and private sector developments including Leicester Creative Business Depot, Curve and Phoenix Square. But the starts were difficult. As Jennifer Jones, a PhD researcher working on citizen-led legacies for the games, explains “the Cultural Quarter and Phoenix Square has not had great attention from the media at the start.”


Workshop in Phoenix Square.

In fact, the Phoenix Square received extra funding from the public authorities because it wasn’t making money. Opened to the public on 19 November, 2009 as part of the strategy to develop Leicester’s cultural offer, Phoenix Square was designed to welcome media production and creative technology companies. With a cost of £22.5 millions, it houses three cinema screens, a digital and new technology gallery, 22 managed workplaces, eight media production facilities, seven two-storey office / studios, 63 high quality designed homes and a café bar.

The thing is, Leicester’s cultural scene has always been on the other side of town but when a new shopping centre was built, everything moved to the new Cultural Quarter. “It is taking time but they are getting better”. One of the things that Jones thinks is going to help to rebuild some of the cities connections to the cultural scene is The Community Media Centre 2012 in Phoenix Square, a project that couldn’t be carried out without the Cultural Olympiad.

Does everybody support it?

But, is everybody happy with the Cultural Olympiad? According to Jones, some of the inhabitants claim that holding the Community Media Centre 2012 will require too much money, money that could be invested in other social works like housing or city facilities. However, Jones doesn’t agree with this. “It is a very low investment because the activities will happen even without funding,” she says. The grassroots engagement allows for Community Media Centre to facilitate relationships between official bodies and the communities concerned. Any money they do receive goes back into the system.

The organisers of the Community Media for London 2012 are hoping that the event will help the Cultural Quarter and Phoenix Square improve their image and their cultural offerings. It serves as a purpose to attract more people to go the building and the area. The Olympics is a catalyst to open doors and give a manageable context that people are aware about. What they end up doing ends up being so different. Jones thinks that “the informal ‘unofficial’ activities will be just as important – as the only way it will work is for people to ‘own’ it as their own, regardless of what they think about the Olympic movement themselves.”


Big screen for the Olympic Games in the centre of Leicester.

Leicester is just one of the hundreds of examples of places where London 2012 Cultural Olympiad is taking place. It’s a project that shows that aside from this massive and exorbitant expenditure, hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games is also place for promoting cultural and creative activities and places. The games will end one day in September 2012, but the legacy will last for years.


About Ane Fernandez

Ane was born 22 years ago in San Sebastian, The Basque Country. She is completing a degree in Audiovisual Communication in Bilbao, and she is in her last year of university. Her dream is to work in something related to culture, arts or the media. → About us