Discover more from Art On Demand
Digital Access to Arts and Culture
An introduction to the project and the blog
This blog forms a part of my current UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project ‘Digital Access to Arts and Culture Beyond COVID-19’. The idea for the project came within the first weeks of lockdown in spring 2020, when I woke up one morning house-bound, but with a calendar newly full of opportunities for engaging with arts and culture. For years, as an academic and practitioner whose work crosses between film, art, and online video, I would wonder why so much of the arts and culture sector treated the Internet as a place to publicise art that happened elsewhere – for example, in concert halls, theatres, and gallery spaces. Why was it so difficult to imagine that the Internet itself could also be a site of artistic engagement?
Prior to the pandemic, exhibitions at MoMA, screenings at Locarno Film Festival, and concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic were things most people could only ever read about. For all the experiments in creation and exhibition taking place through digital arts organisations including Images in Toronto and initiatives including Arts Council England’s Live to Digital network, most arts and culture remained stubbornly, sometimes perversely, offline. In many cases, all that you’d find of a performance or exhibition online would be the publicity and the reviews. The UK’s National Theatre, for example, has been live streaming performances since 2009 under the ‘National Theatre Live’ banner, but until last spring they streamed only to cinemas and not to people’s homes: art transmitted from one cultural venue to another.
Last spring, within just a few weeks, everything changed. As the Internet became the only show in town, the unprecedented crisis of closed venues led to an unprecedented collective effort by arts providers around the world to connect with their audiences in whatever way they could. Organisations, like the National Theatre, that had pre-existing infrastructure for video production quickly pivoted to streaming directly to people’s homes. Many arts providers without such infrastructure also innovated as best they could by putting up previously unavailable documentation of concerts on YouTube, filming staff talking in front of paintings, running family workshops on Zoom, and so on. The degree and speed of the innovation was dizzying – as was the generosity of spirit behind it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the weeks and months following the global pivot to digital, many professional commentators expressed frustration at having to engage with art online. Pushbacks would typically focus on one or two things: firstly, the writer’s exhaustion at having to engage with the vast quantity of art suddenly available; secondly, the writer’s frustration at having to engage with their chosen art form in a way that they regarded as inferior. Expressions of unchecked privilege came thick and fast. For example, the news last summer that the New York Film Festival was going online prompted the following eulogy from one critic in the New York Times:
That lovely New York tradition of looking up to the balcony in Alice Tully Hall while the spotlight illuminates a grateful young director whose film has just wrecked the crowd, everyone rising to their feet in celebration — none of that will happen. Running into friends and colleagues at the packed Smith bistro across Broadway, long an opening-night dinner scene: nope. Toronto and Venice won’t even let me get close since I’m an American and thus a viral threat.
Something has changed in the intervening year. I’m sure some culturati still feel deep-down that there is now too much art around, too easily available, and mostly in an ‘inferior’ form. But I don’t hear these views expressed quite so carelessly any more. Instead, over the last year, I’ve observed a gradually spreading enthusiasm about the opportunities that digital programming opens for addressing at least some of the most urgent equality, diversity and inclusion challenges now facing the arts. Here’s a more recent article in Variety:
It’s the digital medium’s potential to expand accessibility on multiple fronts that elicits the most consistent excitement from creators, producers and arts leaders. Greater pricing flexibility can reduce economic hurdles via lower price points and sliding payment scales. Audiences with disabilities can be better accommodated with captioning and audio description, and remote attendance broadens reach to those who are physically unable to attend shows in a traditional theater setting. And the global reach of digital means artists and theaters can cultivate audiences well beyond the typically local scope of a single production or organization.
Of course, it will take work to translate potential into reality. Even basic sector-wide data on the equality and diversity implications of digital programming is currently nonexistent. One of my project’s goals for the next eight months will be to consolidate and combine individual organisations’ audience research, and provide a broader evidence base for assessing the impact of digital programming on audience diversity. However, I’ve already come across plenty of exciting data in my initial contact with arts organisations over recent months. For example, an amazing 54% of the audience for the 2020 online edition of Alchemy Film and Arts Festival in Scotland comprised first-time attendees (up from 3% in 2019); 50% of this audience came from outside the UK, including various countries in the global South. The festival also consistently had around 150 devices (about 200 people) tuned in to each programme – especially impressive considering that the seating capacity for their main venue is only 108.
The example of Alchemy demonstrates that it is not just the largest and best-funded arts organisations that have been able to adapt effectively to digital. However, COVID-19 has also foregrounded a digital divide within the arts sector. Every lockdown, for every Alchemy, there has also been a local museum locked out of its own collection, unable to offer its public a digital programme because it has no digital content to put into it. There remains a huge distance to be travelled before the potential opportunities of digital programming can be experienced by all.
‘Digital Access to Arts and Culture Beyond COVID-19’ aims to contribute in a range of ways to widening access to arts and culture, and thus also to helping arts organisations become more resilient in the face of the on-going pandemic. This blog will develop partly within the project and partly in parallel to it: it will form a platform for sharing news and reports about project activities, as well as for my own reflections on the wider topic of online arts and culture. As a result, it will include various different types of post – for example, snapshots of particular research activities, analyses of different aspects of streaming culture, conversations with arts professionals (perhaps sometimes in the form of podcast), and more personal opinion pieces. In coming months, I hope to write about on online film festivals, streaming platforms, geoblocking, websites and buildings, the VR headset, and NFTs.
As this blog encompasses my work as the Principal Investigator on a publicly-funded research project, and as an individual researcher, I need to start with a few clarifications and disclaimers. Firstly, unless attributed, all opinions expressed in the blog are my own. Secondly, as the project’s goal is to support the UK arts and culture sector, much of my primary research focuses on the UK; however, though there will inevitably be much reference to UK arts providers’ experiences, I hope the blog can also take a global view and be of interest to readers far beyond the project’s national boundary.
Finally, though the project focuses on the potential benefits of digital programming (to artists, organisations, and especially audiences), I am not naive enough to believe that the Internet provides the answer to the arts and culture sectors’ historic exclusions. The seven million people in the UK alone who do not have internet access at home currently have little to gain from online arts. Nor am I short-sighted enough to believe that society’s broader pivot to online activity over the last year is a wholly positive thing. I do not take the technologist’s view that what is inevitable is also desirable, and certainly don’t think that looking at a screen for fourteen hours a day is a good thing. However, I do believe that this moment in history provides us with a chance to remove at least some of the barriers that prevent people from engaging with art, and that digital programming can play an important role in making good on this opportunity. As many before me have already noted, to talk of ‘in-person versus digital’ programming is to create a false binary. To maximise engagement with art, we need both.
Accordingly, in my next post, as many of us start to look forward to returning to at least some in-person social activity, my focus will move on to explore the potential benefits of ‘blended’ arts and culture programming.