Friday at the Centre for Newcomers, there were lots of stories being told about the impact that the 1988 Cultural Olympiad had on various Calgarians, and 2010 had on various Vancouverites, as part of a wide-ranging conversation about the possibilities and pitfalls on the arts community when it comes to hosting an event the size and scope of the Games.
Calgary 2026’s Karen Ball related how, back in 1988, Opening and Closing ceremonies tickets were bundled together with season tickets to different Calgary arts organizations.
That meant that in order to buy a ticket for one of those events, a prospective buyer also had to buy season tickets to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.
“According to the CPO, a lot of those people renewed their season tickets and became longtime supporters of the Philharmonic.” Ball said.
The Cultural Olympiad featured Alberta Theatre Projects’ PlayRites Festival, premiering a bunch of new works in Calgary that helped propel the careers of numerous western Canadian playwrights, actors, set designers, and directors.
Calgary actor, director, dramaturg, and playwright Shari Watling was one of the thousands of volunteers who helped make 1988 Games a global hit, and her turf was working in various capacities at Arts Commons.
“My main memory of the 1988 Olympics was getting to learn a lot from artists,” Watling said.
Her big dream for 2026?
“I’d like to be part of the advisory board for the (2026) Cultural Olympiad,” she said.
Commissioning new work
In 2008, Calgary playwright (and Calgary 2026 event facilitator) Ken Cameron was the artistic director of the Magnetic North Festival, a national theatre festival that it turned out, was enlisted with commissioning new works for Vancouver’s 2010 Cultural Olympiad.
One of Cameron’s favourites was commissioning 11 small Vancouver theatre companies — including Rumble, the small company run by Craig Hall, now the Artistic Director of Vertigo Theatre — to create HIVE, a kind of rave/performance, with afterparties programmed by Veda Hille, who brought in the city’s best indie bands to perform.
While the commissions for those 11 companies paid off with a hit show, Cameron admitted it was partly a cover story, to allow him to commission nine other national productions without incurring the wrath of the local arts community.
His big dream for a 2026 Cultural Olympiad in Calgary?
“I would like to program an all-Calgary Cultural Olympiad,” he said. “That’s my big, hairy audacious goal that no one is going to let me do!”
Olympics kick started art careers
Plenty of Calgary artists had dynamic experiences with Cultural Olympiads in past Olympics. Leslie Feist performed in the opening ceremonies, in 1988, as a young girl, an event she has said in past interviews launched her desire to become a singer.
Fluid Festival artistic director and community-builder Nicole Mion programmed the ContaineRs at Vancouver in 2010, before bringing the idea back to Calgary and setting up a permanent ContainR space in Sunnyside.
Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre and Calgary composer Dave Pierce both played huge roles in creating work for Vancouver’s opening and closing ceremonies — for which Pierce won an Emmy.
One Yellow Rabbit icon Denise Clarke received a commission as a young dancer, to create a piece for the 1988 Cultural Olympiad.
The PlayRites Festival ended up a Calgary institution to 27 years, giving birth to over 100 new plays that had world premieres in Calgary — transforming the city into a theatre hotspot.
kd lang, born and raised in Consort, Alberta, sang at the Opening Ceremonies in 1988, and then again in Vancouver, in 2010.
Lang spends a lot of time these days in Calgary.
Anyone game for a kd lang Olympic three-peat?
For Vertigo Theatre artistic director Craig Hall, the Cultural Olympiad generated a huge rush that produced an artistic hangover for Vancouver’s arts community.
“HIVE was a seminal event for Vancouver’s indie theatre scene,” he wrote in an emailed reply to a question about the experience. “All three versions completely sold out and it was the hottest ticket in town.
“I have mixed things to say about the value of the Cultural Olympiad for the local arts scene,” he added.
“While it temporarily injected some major funds into the local arts economy, there was very little legacy.”
After the Olympics, he added, project specific arts funding dried up, which wasn’t really related to the Cultural Olympiad on the surface, but was a major buzzkill after the high of the Cultural Olympiad.
“All this to say,” he added, “that a HIVE event and the Cultural Olympiad could both have value for the Calgary theatre scene, but it needs to be done in a thoughtful way with an eye towards legacy.