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'Culture fundamental to a successful society': Martin Green, from London Olympics to Hull 2017

Ahram Online talks with Martin Green, CEO of Hull City of Culture 2017, about organising large cultural events, such as the London Olympics 2012 ceremonies, and the importance of cultural practices in society

Ati Metwaly , Wednesday 29 Apr 2015
Martin Green
Centre: Martin Green (Photo: courtesy of British Council Cairo). Right and left: closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photos: Reuters)
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To many, Martin Green is the name known as the head of ceremonies for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, during which he oversaw the delivery of the torch, and opening and closing ceremonies.

Today, CEO of the Hull City of Culture, Green came to Egypt for one day, on 28 April, to add his voice to an ongoing series of talks on art festivals, organised by the European Union National Institutes for Culture in collaboration with the Townhouse Gallery.

Green's immense experience, however, is not limited to the Olympics. Prior to involvement with the games, he was head of events for then London Mayor Ken Livingstone, and produced more than 60 events each year for audiences of more than 350,000. In 2007, Green programmed and opened the O2 venue in London and masterminded the opening ceremony of the 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ.

Green's newest engagement takes him to Hull, a city that has been named the UK City of Culture 2017.

This ambitious project, which Green believes will transform Hull, artistically, culturally, socially and economically, will run for 365 days. The challenge is the perfect opportunity to combine Green's experience in producing grand cultural events with his belief that culture is a tool that changes cities.

"Art and culture is the answer to everything. Culture is fundamental to the successful society. Culture makes people healthy, educated; culture reduces crime rates; it allows people to celebrate their identities. Culture stimulates economy, tourism, etc," Green told Ahram Online.

This wonderfully-sounding concept, however, needs considerable skills to be translated into practice — something that Green proved capable of on many occasions.

Festival making: Producer versus artist

Whether it is in Olympics or planning Hull's 2017 celebrations, Green follows the main principles of festival organising.

"The most important is to create a programme and narrative of meaning. In all events, you have, metaphorically or literally, a stage and an audience. The rest is the scale only. The Olympics is like a vast event: you're talking about five years of preparations, 70 stage managers for your shows instead of one, a million British pounds for lighting instead of a hundred, 14,000 artists, 350 logistical staff, a number which by showtime rose to 2,000 ... "

Working with huge teams can be a challenge, particularly when it comes to bridging gaps that often emerge between artists and producers. No wonder: in one of his interviews Green called artists "single-minded."

"I say it in a positive context," he laughs.

"Artists have a vision they want to communicate. Rightly, if they feel diverted away from that, they protest. Though I celebrate and enjoy this single-mindedness, it can also be an incredible challenge."

In the Olympics, Green chose a production team with experience in this kind of event, yet reached out to artists that had never done anything like it before.

"I felt that was the only way to get a new energy and aesthetics into the show, even if it lead to sporadic conflicts. While the artists always want to do amazing things, the producers might wish to modify ideas for the bigger image's sake. We were lucky to have brilliant producers who knew how to manage this rift, without affecting the integrity and beliefs of each party."

The right choice of a team is one of the components to a successful outcome.

"You cannot bring Danny Boyle and other renowned artistic directors to the Olympics and then tell them what to do," Green underlines.

Creating impact and legacy: From London to Hull

At nearly £100 million, the London Olympics was a gigantic endeavour.

Interestingly, Green calls it a "relatively small budget," adding that, "We spent on the four ceremonies less than Athens (2004) or Beijing (2008) spent on their opening ceremonies each."

Green underlines, however, that though return on investment is an important issue producers think about, the gains are not limited to financial returns.

"The London Olympics showcased the UK and its creativity to the world. The messages that have been engraved in the audiences' minds can never be quantified."

The Olympics included two-three weeks of the games and a couple of weeks for the Paralympic Games. The Hull 2017 celebrations are a 365-day a cultural mission. This will be "a challenge but also an opportunity," Green says.

Green talks about Hull 2017 with a light spirit, pointing to the approach as the key factor. "Instead of commissioning a single show, you create a sequence that grows throughout the year."

With Hull 2017, the "legacy of memory" will matter even more than with the Olympics. But Green will also benefit from his experience as head of events for the mayor of London in the early 2000s.

"Though London's case is different in terms of social history and financial capacities, I was always interested in how culture changes cities. Hull is a great city, but it had some turbulent times. I think that neither the people of Hull nor the UK population really appreciate what Hull is about," Green explains.

The celebrations will be split into four themes, beginning with "Made in Hull," a celebration of the city. "Roots and Routes" will look into Hull's connection to the rest of the world. "Freedom," the theme of a summer season, will focus on freedom and emancipation while "Tell the World" will position Hull globally.

"Apart of spectacles and grand events, there will be community based events, lots of different art forms and many ways of doing them. We will be producing and co-producing things, but also anyone can do anything during the year and all we ask is that they tell us about it so we tell everyone that it's on. As long as it's not offensive, you can join in. We hope to engage 43,000 young people living in Hull and raise the interest of all the city's citizens."

The city will not talk by itself about itself, but will open its doors, invite an exchange of different ideas and conversations, and welcome friends from the UK and the international scene.

Green is not worried about funding of the Hull events.

"We are very lucky in the UK, because change through culture is recognised by many people. The London 2012 Olympics, the 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ and other events that came one after the other have showcased the power of culture to many players," Martin says. In contrast to the Olympic Games, the Hull celebrations will not be supported by the government, but it will encourage lottery partners, which represent the main source of income for public art in the UK, to fund it."

In support of Green's argument, numerous examples worldwide speak of the importance of the arts and culture, and therefore "discussions about how culture benefits societies, economically and socially, should be laid to rest," Green says. 

"In terms of key performance indicators, we aim at bringing one million extra visitors to the city, reaching £60 million of economic benefit, and creating new jobs in cultural sector. We also hope that by the end of 2017, 75 percent of Hull's population will recognise that it is a great place to live in. On an intangible level, I want to give to the people an overwhelming sense of pride, relief and confidence."

Green nonetheless insists that no one should notice his team's exit from the city at the end of 2017, saying the revival of the cultural life of Hull should take on its own momentum.

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