Transformative moments in the arts

In his role as Executive Chair at the National Campaign for the Arts, Michael has published his top ten transformative moments in the arts.


In the countdown to the General Election, amidst the gloom of Brexit, we’ve chosen to celebrate the overwhelmingly positive contribution that the arts play in our lives. Each of the board members of the National Campaign for the Arts has pulled together their own list of the UK’s transformative moments in the arts. As Executive Chair, here’s my top ten.

The NHS meets Voldermort and the Queen of Hearts at the Olympic Opening Ceremony 2012. Photo: Michael Smith

1. Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games 2012. The scale, originality and ambition of this performance confounded all expectations – a world-beating happening that showcased all that is exceptional about our Isles without shying away from controversial topics and brutal history.

Sign (with pigeons) above the Royal Mile, Edinburgh.

2. Edinburgh Fringe: The world’s largest arts festival since 1947. It completely transforms the city and is the hinge point from which most live performers measure their year. A global export and reputation builder, annually issuing close to three million tickets across 300+ venues.

3. Live Aid 1985. In less connected times, this felt like an unbelievably naive undertaking. Yet somehow it worked and transformed perceptions of the power of pop, raised a lot of money and kick-started Sport Aid, Comic Relief etc.

The little girl gets a lift on The Sultan’s Elephant’s trunk.

4. The Sultan’s Elephant 2006. It is impossible to describe the wonder of seeing an enormous mechanical elephant and a giant puppet girl, watched by a million awe-struck faces. The four day event set the standard for public investment in large-scale free public performance.

5. You’ll Never Walk Alone. Gerry and the Pacemakers released a version of this song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel, in 1963. It was adopted by the crowd at Anfield (Liverpool’s stadium) and is now an anthem on terraces across the globe.

6. Star Wars release 1977. A decade after ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had defined the way we all perceive space, ‘Star Wars’ used that visual template to redefine the UK and transatlantic film industry, special effects, post-production and merchandising.

7. Grayson Perry wins the Turner Prize.  In 2003, a foul-mouthed, transvestite potter from Essex made an ideal target of outrage when he won this most controversial art prize. But very quickly, this articulate, down-to-earth man has become a National treasure with universal appeal.

Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North

8. Angel of the North 1998. Beloved as the symbol of the North East, this work has transcended art; it is an icon, a point of pride and pilgrimage. It changed the way we all think about outdoor art and publicly funded commissions.

9. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Lots of books are hyped by publishers but this release in 1998 felt special. Two decades later the Potter phenomenon has shaped a generation and spawned countless copies and spin-offs; its influence has spread far, far beyond publishing.

Starman: David and Mick Ronson on Top of Pops

10. David Bowie on Top of the Pops. In 1972, an androgynous Bowie draped an arm over the shoulder of guitarist Mick Ronson and sent a shiver through the nation. It’s now impossible to imagine a moment where such a slight act of rebellion could galvanise and disgust with such power.

Are you #forthearts? If you feel that the arts should continue to thrive, through public funding, in the UK, you can support the work of the National Campaign for the Arts by donating or just signing up to the newsletter. Click the ‘Join Us’ button in the top banner of their website for options.



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