Scotland’s dazzling Cultural Olympiad aims to leave lasting legacy

CULTURAL Olympiad director Ruth Mackenzie talks to Jackie McGlone about how the arts world is playing such a medal-winning role this summer

RUTH Mackenzie unties her plimsolls and slips on a pair of black patent leather, dizzyingly high wedges. As she fastens the ankle straps and does a twirl to reveal a stripe of white leather running up the heels, she says: “These are my Speed of Light shoes.”

Surely she is not going to clamber up Arthur’s Seat for NVA’s Speed of Light performance wearing her Melissas?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“No, no, no,” replies the stylish, black-clad director of the Cultural Olympiad. “That’s what Jonathan Mills [director of the Edinburgh 
International Festival] calls my glamorous wedges. I’m actually climbing up Arthur’s Seat tonight in my plimsolls.” Rather her than me, I tell the woman who is to arts and culture what Jessica Ennis is to the heptathlon.

“Oh, I’d love to be the Jessica Ennis of the Cultural Olympiad – if only,” replies the 54-year-old, who has had to leap over a fair few hurdles since 2010 when she was parachuted in somewhat late in the day to run the largest cultural celebration in the history of the Olympic and Paralympic movements. It had been running in various forms since 2008 but was floundering, despite its £40 million budget.

Mackenzie, with her legendary powers of persuasion and “pretty substantial” address book, called in favours – “big time” – from her many stellar contacts. “I just called people up and said, ‘Have you got a great idea?’ If they had, I ran with it.

“I’d inherited a lot of money for the Shakespeare season, but there was no money for any other plays, for instance. There was money for film but not for visual arts, so I had to get out there and fundraise like crazy for every brilliant new idea that came my way,” she explains.

The 12-week-long project has been such a success that Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt has awarded it a metaphorical gold medal, keeping the board together to work out how best to build on the cultural legacy of the Games, with a new biennial festival. Which Mackenzie is delighted about, although her role with the Olympiad ends on 14 December.

“I don’t believe it will be London-centric – rather that it has important implications for Glasgow and the Commonwealth Games in 2014,” she says.

For now, though, the phenomenally 
energetic Mackenzie, whose shock of pewter-coloured hair seems to stand to attention owing to the amount of cerebral activity going on underneath, has sprinted into Edinburgh. Her eyes are, however, most definitely not on the finishing line.

“There’s almost a month to go before the Olympiad closes,” she points out enthusiastically over early-morning coffee at Creative Scotland’s Waverley Gate offices. “Still to come is glorious work by Silviu Purcârete, Ariane Mnouchkine and the world premiere of Dmitri Krymov’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) – and much, much more.”

This week, continues Mackenzie, marks a key moment both for Scotland and the Olympiad, which is collaborating with all seven of Edinburgh’s festivals. Seven International Festival shows open within six days; the World Writers’ Conference launches at the Edinburgh International Book Festival; and there are many links with the Fringe, ranging from the Pleasance Barge to the BBC’s overnight comedy marathon.

Between racing up Arthur’s Seat in the dark and taking time to see everything from the Polish 2008: Macbeth at Ingliston to the sensational Baxter Theatre production of Mies Julie at the Assembly Hall, simply because someone told her it is brilliant, “which it is”, Mackenzie attended the two-day cultural summit at the Scottish Parliament earlier this week, delivered the keynote address to the first World Fringe Congress [yesterday] and lunched the great and the good.

Although she is not allowed to reveal what was said at the conference of culture ministers, she discloses that all of them declared Edinburgh was now their model for future festivals. “A pat on the back for us? We don’t pat ourselves on the back – we’re not gymnasts. But all of us, including Jonathan [Mills], Festivals Edinburgh and Creative Scotland, always saw that having 40,000 foreign journalists in the country, only 20,000 of whom were accredited to cover the Games, was a unique opportunity. We’ve cashed in on that,” she says.

“We’ve had a stunning amount of coverage across the world – not that Edinburgh has ever been shy of getting international publicity – and we always knew that we could match up to the sport and what they were calling ‘the greatest show on earth’ in London. Only in Edinburgh can you decide to bring theatre that’s too big for any theatre – 2008: Macbeth and Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (Aurores) – so you build a new, enormous, special space. Isn’t that fabulous?”

For Mackenzie, London 2012 was only the start of a journey that has built up across the country. “It’s no accident that we opened the Cultural Olympiad in Scotland in June on Stirling’s Raploch estate, with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra masterclass for children, conducted by the wonderful Gustavo Dudamel, ahead of the London opening concert,” she notes.

“Unforgettable! Those kids were simply wonderful! On 8 and 9 September, we close our festival with the [Aberdonian] dancer Michael Clark’s makeover of Glasgow’s Barrowland, with the help of local people – it’s thrilling! That’s the handover to Glasgow 2014,” says London-born Mackenzie, who ran the Nottingham Playhouse, Scottish Opera, Chichester Festival Theatre and the ground-breaking premieres-only Manchester International Festival, between serving as an adviser to five Labour culture ministers.

It is “tormenting” to Mackenzie that she has curated a festival that is so large and all-embracing that it is impossible for her to attend every event. “I spend all my time running from one to another in a frantic attempt to see as much as I can, although some events carry on beyond 9 September so my diary is full way beyond the final day.”

In the autumn, Mackenzie and her team will “gather the evidence and the memories” and report back on – in the dreaded Olympics jargon – the legacy of the Cultural Olympiad.

“Legacy! Such a horrid word,” Mackenzie shudders. “It sounds as if there’s been a bereavement. Yet here in Scotland what we have, with the three-year plan and the Year of Creativity and the year after that, is something that is very much alive and kicking.

“Scotland was way ahead of the game in thinking about the opportunities afforded by the Olympics. Where other arts organisations saw only the threats, the International Festival saw only the opportunities – and here they are with ticket sales up more than eight per cent. Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government saw opportunities, too – they understood that this is about life and life going forward, building up to the Commonwealth Games which then will have their own legacy.

“So, well done Scotland!”

With her impeccable Scottish roots, Mackenzie delights in pointing out that since her paternal grandmother was born and raised here, she could actually play football for Scotland. “Strangely, they have yet to ask me,” she laughs.

Not with those killer heels, they won’t, although there must be many an arts organisation in this country wishing she were on their team – out of the starting block and running as fast as she can with yet another brilliant idea.