We're taking a look back at the fine art competitions that originated in ancient Greece and were revived as part of the modern Olympics from 1912 to 1948.
In 1949, the International Olympic Committee met in Rome to discuss a variety of topics, including the future of the Olympic art competition. The 1952 Summer Games were scheduled for Helsinki and, at the time, there was no reason to doubt the art competition tradition that had been revived in 1912 would continue.
Amateurs vs. Professionals
One of the issues addressed at the 1949 meeting was the participation of professional artists in Olympic art competitions.
Countries were required to certify that their Olympic athletes were amateurs; should artists at the Games be held to the same standards? Several prominent members of the IOC believed so, arguing that artists who profited from winning a medal—an award increased the value of the art to would-be buyers—didn’t fit with the Olympic ideal. A measure was approved that banned the awarding of medals in the art competition, thereby rendering it no more than a glorified art exhibition.
In his book, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions, Richard Stanton suggests that the decision to eliminate the art competition came from the IOC’s Executive Committee, which counted among its ranks one particularly staunch supporter of the amateur ideal. American Avery Brundage, the committee’s vice president, won an honorable mention in the Literature category at the 1932 Games for his piece titled, “The Significance of Amateur Sport.” It was evident that Brundage thought there was some significance of amateur art, too.
IOC members who weren’t present at the 1949 meeting, as well as artists, expressed their displeasure with the decision to turn the art competition into an exhibition by writing to IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer. Many argued that the art exhibitions would be a failure without professionals, a point with which Mayer did not disagree. Swiss artist A.W. Diggelmann proposed enacting a rule that artists could not sell medal-winning works on the open market, and instead had to donate them to their country’s Olympic committee. While he stopped short of overturning the 1949 decision, IOC President J. Sigfrid Edstrom agreed to appoint a special committee to revisit the issue.
Out of Time
After much debate and several more meetings, a vote was taken on the matter at a meeting in Vienna in May 1951. While the IOC members present voted unanimously to reinstate the art competitions for the 1952 Games, Von Frenckell, an IOC representative from Finland who did not attend the meeting, would soon rain on the parade. With only one year before the start of the Helsinki Games, Frenckell said Finland wouldn’t have enough time to prepare for a competition. “Since we are optimists,” Frenckell wrote, “we hope that the ones that wanted to take part in the competition will send their works to the exhibition, for which we will gladly give ‘honorable mention’ diplomas.” For the first time since 1908, there was no art competition at the Olympic Games.
Brundage succeeded Edstrom as IOC President in late 1952. At an IOC meeting in Athens in 1954, Brundage, who remained opposed to reviving the art competition, proposed that host cities plan exhibitions that showcased the finest art of their country. “If we should return to Vienna, for example, we would hear the best music in the world,” Brundage said. “If one day we go to Russia, we would see the best ballets in the world.” Brundage’s proposal was adopted and adding art competitions to the Olympic program has not been seriously considered since.
For the 1992 Games, Barcelona’s organizing committee spent $50 million on a Cultural Olympiad, a four-year celebration of art and culture that began after the closing ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Games. While small art exhibitions and cultural events had remained a part of the Olympic festivities since 1952, Barcelona’s efforts would raise the bar. The 1996 Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta featured 190 ticketed events and 23 exhibitions. As the New York Times noted, “visitors will be able to buy a package that might include the javelin throw, women’s basketball, the Atlanta Symphony and the Dallas Black Dance Theater.” As for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, London’s organizing committee boasts that more than 16 million people across the UK have taken part in or attended performances.
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On Monday, we’ll profile a few of the more interesting participants and medal winners in the Olympic art competitions from 1912-1948.