Travelers converging on London this year will have more to look forward to than runner Usain Bolt acing the 100-meter sprint and swimmer Michael Phelps topping up his gold-medal collection.
The city is rolling out many arts events around the Olympic Games (July 27-Aug. 12). Some have been long planned and some commissioned as part of a four-year, 97 million pound ($148 million) cultural program. Big U.K. names such as Shakespeare, David Hockney and Damien Hirst will be the toast of 2012.
On the quirky side, Martin Creed (the artist who in 2008 had runners sprint through Tate Britain) will set athletics aside and have people through England ring a bell - a bicycle bell, cowbell, church bell, or ringtone - at 8 a.m. on July 27. And "Jerusalem" actor Mark Rylance will approach London's pedestrians using Shakespearean verse. He'll ask the time, then lapse into "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
"It would be mad for London to have an event as big as the Olympic Games without it having a really strong cultural component," says Nicholas Kenyon, managing director of the Barbican Centre, a major participant. "What London is about so much these days is culture."
Topping the Barbican Theatre bill is actress Cate Blanchett, who will play a rejected wife, stranded and lonely, in Botho Strauss's eerie "Big and Small" (April 13-29).
Also at the Barbican, writer Toni Morrison teams up with Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traore to imagine a dialogue from beyond the grave between Shakespeare's Desdemona and her African nurse Barbary. The show, which was performed in New York, Paris, and Berlin late last year, has words by Morrison and music by Traore with Peter Sellars directing (July 19-20.)
In the two days before the Games, the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play Wynton Marsalis's "Swing Symphony," a tribute to jazz legends (July 25-26).
The visual-arts slate for 2012 is particularly rich. This month sees the opening of a Royal Academy of Arts show of mostly new works by 74-year-old David Hockney (Jan. 21-April 9). The tech-savvy artist, who loves to draw on his iPad, will premiere a giant grid beaming images taken by nine cameras of the same scene at slightly different angles.
Lucian Freud, who died last July, is the focus of a portrait show in what would have been the year of his 90th birthday (at the National Portrait Gallery, Feb. 9-May 27). It's the first major British exhibition since 2002 of a man who ranked just before his death as the world's priciest living artist.
Hirst gets his first-ever British retrospective with some 70 works at Tate Modern (April 4-Sept. 9). They include his shark in formaldehyde ("The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living") and his $76.64 million diamond skull, which will be securely displayed in a special viewing room in the lobby-level Turbine Hall.
"We were keen to show British artists" during the Olympic year, Tate director Nicholas Serota said about the Hirst show. "It seemed simply, to us, to be the right moment."
The Serpentine Gallery is exhibiting an artist who, though not British, played a role in British cultural history: Yoko Ono (June 19-Sept. 9). Ono will show film and performance work and create an installation called 'Smile' that will invite all to upload a smiling photograph of themselves or have one taken in a booth outside the gallery.
Bring on the Bard
A World Shakespeare Festival will be the most extensive event of its kind. More than 50 arts organizations worldwide - including the Iraqi Theatre Company and Brazil's Companhia BufoMecanica, which fuses Shakespeare with circus acts and multimedia - will give their interpretation of the plays.
Dance lovers will get a monthlong season of Pina Bausch: 10 works performed back to back by her Tanztheater Wuppertal that were created for the Olympics and inspired by the cities she traveled to ("World Cities 2012," June 6-July 9).
And in "Metamorphosis," seven choreographers including Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon will produce works inspired by Titian for the Royal Ballet to perform. Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger will design some of the sets.
Classical-music aficionados will be in Scotland for an outdoor concert: On June 21, Gustavo Dudamel and his 200-strong Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela will play outside Stirling Castle and will be joined by a group of young Scottish players.
Daniel Barenboim will perform a complete Beethoven cycle with the West Eastern Divan Orchestra (made up of Arab and Israeli players) at the BBC Proms, culminating in the Ninth Symphony on July 27, opening day of the Games.
The pop and comedy lineup will be announced closer to the Games by Cultural Olympiad director Ruth Mackenzie and by Tony Hall, who chairs the Cultural Olympiad board and runs the Royal Opera House.