Once upon a time, around 776 BC, the Olympic Games games began and were dedicated to the Olympian gods of Greece. This year, NBC is paying more than $1 billion for the right to air the 2012 games from London.
My, how things have changed.
"The Olympic Games: Art, Culture & Sport," a fascinating exhibition that follows these changes, opens tomorrow at the Bruce Museum. The exhibit compares the ancient and modern Olympiads through a look at six sports -- the long jump, wrestling, boxing, javelin and the discus -- that have survived since the games' earliest days. Items on display include sculptures, photographs, prints and paintings, and they feature everything from ancient Greek artifacts to modern day Olympic memorabilia.
Putting together an art exhibition the size and scope of "The Olympic Games" is usually a marathon undertaking, says Robin Garr, director of education at the Bruce. Normally, Garr says, a project that big would take from three to five years, from idea to execution, to complete. But for Garr and a team of eight Bruce Museum staff members, putting the show together was more of a sprint -- completed just in time for the London 2012 Games.
"The exhibition took shape over two years," says Garr, "which is pretty quick in terms of museum exhibitions."
Greenwich Citizen asked Garr, who came up with the idea for the exhibition and served as its project leader, about the show, what will be on display and the relationship between sports, art and culture.
Tell us a little bit about the exhibition, "The Olympic Games: Art, Culture & Sport." What types of pieces have you brought together?
For this exhibition, the Bruce Museum wanted to explore the history of the ancient Olympic Games and the development of the modern Olympic Games that we are familiar with today.
In order to create an exhibition that one could take in (and that would fit in our gallery spaces), we had to narrow our topic. We have chosen to approach the history of the Games by focusing on six of the sports originally contested at the ancient Games that have survived into competition at today's modern Olympic Games. The six sports are: foot racing, wrestling, boxing, discus throw, javelin throw and the long jump. Each section features ancient objects, such as Greek ceramics with depictions of ancient athletes; 19th, 20th and 21st century fine art including sculptures, photographs, prints and paintings; and sports memorabilia and new and older sports equipment from Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Each section also features a recognized American Olympian in that particular sport: Jesse Owens is the featured in the foot racing section, Bruce Baumgartner, the wrestler; Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr./Muhammad Ali, the boxer; Al Oerter, the discus thrower; Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the javelin thrower; and Bob Beamon, the long jumper.
Why a sports exhibition, and why now?
As a museum of art and science we can explore most any topic, and we hope this topic will be popular this summer and will appeal to a wide audience. We have mounted exhibitions on specific sports in the past, such as sailing and equestrian pursuits, as they are popular sports in our region. With the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London only 80 days from today, we had an excellent opportunity to develop this exhibition to coincide with this year's Games.
What is the relationship between sports, art and culture?
That is a loaded question!
Artists have been depicting athletes and athletic competitions since ancient times. The beauty of the athlete and sporting events have always intrigued and inspired artists. The famous Diskobolus sculpture, for example, is one of the most iconic pieces of sport art ever created. We have a plaster cast in the exhibition, I am happy to say! And sporting competitions, especially on a national and international level, have promoted, and affected world culture and cultural exchange from the beginning. Both are at the heart of the Olympic Movement and the exhibitions covers all those questions via videos, objects and virtual exhibitions, courtesy of the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Museum.
Art and culture were conceived as an important part of the modern Olympic Movement by the founder Pierre de Freddy, Baron de Coubertin (Pierre de Coubertin), who believed that sports, especially team sports, should be the core of any educational system. He believed strongly in the development of both body and mind. Art competitions for literature, music, architecture, and the fine arts of painting and sculpture, are known as The Cultural Olympiad have been part of the modern Games since their inception, but came in to their own at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam when more than 1,100 artists submitted works. Pierre de Coubertin actually won a gold medal for poetry at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, under a pseudo-name of course so as not to influence the judging!
These competitions still take place at each Olympic Games.
Also, you can't deny the that the opening ceremonies for each Olympic Games have developed into spectacular cultural and artistic displays by the host cities/countries, as well as one of the highlights of the Olympic Games for the worldwide audience!
How has sports influenced art and culture? (See above!) How have art and culture influenced sports?
Many athletes are accomplished artists. We have borrowed a beautiful sculpture by Emanuela Pierantozzi, who competed in Judo at the 1992 Barcelona Games and the 2000 Sydney Games. The piece has come to the Bruce Museum from the Art of the Olympians Museum, located in Ft. Myers, Fla., which was founded by the late Olympic Champion Al Oerter -- who was an abstract painter of note in his own right. He wanted to establish a museum that would feature art by Olympic athletes to honor the ideals original to the ancient Greek athletes -- to possess excellence in both body and mind. A familiar ideal true to the modern spirit of Olympism as well.
What was the most difficult piece to acquire?
The most difficult objects to acquire for the exhibition were the items and memorabilia from the athletes, or their families. Because of the very personal nature of the objects, athletes are reluctant to lend; and the objects from past Olympic champions tend to be in the collections of larger, national museums, who are reluctant to remove them from view. However, we did secure some very interesting objects from individual athletes as well as museum and foundation collections.
Do you have a favorite piece?
Well, as the project organizer I can't say exactly. I like them all! As a huge sports fan, sports memorabilia has always fascinated me and, as an art historian, the art objects are wonderful. We have an amazing selection of sculpture in this show.
But I also like the display of Olympic pins that athletes, officials and spectators all trade at the Olympic Games. Pin trading is almost as important as the athletic competitions and certainly promotes the spirit of the Olympic Movement, which is to promote peace and develop friendships across national and cultural barriers. So those are pretty cool, too.