Now that Toronto has won its bid to host the Pan Am Games in 2015, it’s time for the city’s arts leaders to seize a rare opportunity. Athletics may be at its core, but this event can be about much more. It can be the occasion for a cultural explosion.

No one is more aware of this than David Peterson, the former Ontario premier who was chair of Toronto’s bid committee.

“The value of Pan Am is what you make it,” Peterson pronounced Tuesday in an interview about how a sporting event can be turned into a bonanza for culture. “Just having a few guys running around in a circle is not much use. We can get a lot more out of this in addition to the physical legacies of new pools and housing.”

The way Peterson perceives it, this is a way to celebrate the culture of the western hemisphere.

“I have a strong vision, and we have already engaged in discussions with some of our existing cultural institutions about the role they can play.”

At Peterson’s request, Luminato CEO Janice Price convened a round table of prominent arts insiders to brainstorm about creative ways to highlight Toronto’s cultural strengths in its bid presentation.

A particularly effective part of the presentation was a film called Share the Dream.

That film, by the ubiquitous arts marketing guru Barry Avrich, depicted athletes in three countries preparing for and dreaming of the 2015 games in Toronto.

Among the topics up for discussion at the round table were suggestions for what might be included in the opening and closing ceremonies.

“I am particularly pleased that culture was such an important part of the Toronto bid,” Price said Tuesday. “The opportunity to showcase our artists and cultural facilities can only strengthen the legacy the Pan Am Games will provide to Toronto.” However, we need to remember that during the two weeks in July that the Games are on, culture will play a secondary role to sporting events, except perhaps in the opening and closing ceremonies.

“During those two weeks it would be crazy for artists to compete with athletes for attention,” Peterson said. “Where the great opportunity for the arts comes in is in the year leading up to the Games. During that year we should be doing everything we can to celebrate the 42 countries in this hemisphere.”

That’s a perfect goal for Toronto, which leads the world in creating a lively multicultural urban centre.

Peterson made clear it would be a mistake to create a new bureaucracy for showcasing the arts in the year leading up to the Games.

“We already have a number of big, capable cultural institutions. They need to come up with imaginative events that tie in with the Games, focusing on the culture and history of the Americas and taking advantage of the chance to co-brand those events with the Pan Am Games.”

The Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, various theatre companies, the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada are all potential partners, as long as they come up with projects that tie in with the Games and the culture of the western hemisphere.

Matthew Teitelbaum, chief executive officer of the AGO, is enthusiastic about such a partnership. “The Pan American Games is an extraordinary opportunity for the AGO and all cultural institutions to engage with diverse communities, bring people together, to inspire and be inspired by civic pride,” he said Tuesday.

And Caribana chair Joe Haltead is eager to link that event with the games in 2015.

“We will engage everyone with what they’re good at,” Peterson said. “We might call (Piers Handling, co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival) and say, `Piers, how can we work together?'”

But how would it all be coordinated?

“Luminato might be able to manage a lot of it,” Peterson said. “The festival could be extended.”

The CEO of the annual June arts festival is cautiously receptive. “We have experience in coordinating projects with various cultural organizations,” Price said, “and of course we want to help our arts partners make the most of this opportunity.”

Practically speaking, however, Games organizers must realize that the feasibility of these grand visions will depend on how much money can be allocated to develop extra cultural projects.

And if Games-related arts events are to roll out for an entire year leading up to July 2015, then Toronto’s Pan Am Games leadership will have to recruit a cultural commissioner with the powers of a wizard.

Let the search begin.

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