In Ireland we frequently bemoan the lack of critical forums available for seriously discussing and appraising both the range of current visual art practice and culture; and Ireland’s rich visual history and heritage. In turn, this frustrates the effort of those in the visual arts trying to reach, develop and maintain audiences. Thus, it is especially apparent and urgent within the current climate – where the arts are often seen as a soft target for funding cuts and portrayed as an unessential luxury – that the visual arts receive due and proper mainstream media attention.
Over the last few years Visual Artists Ireland has been researching and addressing these issues from a number of perspectives. At the 2012 and 2013 Get Together events, VAI staged panel discussions on specialist and mainstream coverage of the visual arts. In January this year VAI hosted the first meeting of a Media Working Group comprising representatives from the media and visual arts sector who are dedicated to developing Irish media coverage of the visual arts. The Working Group has been devised as a cross sector campaign to bring the visual arts and mainstream media sectors (print, broadcast and online) into a discussion.
Visual Artists Ireland believes there is much work to be done in addressing deficiencies in the media in terms of its appreciation of the vitality and importance of the visual arts to Ireland’s cultural life. But there is also a need to develop knowledge and skills within the sector in terms of addressing the media. This goes beyond debates about ‘art-speak’. VAI’s concerns have been more focused on understanding how the media is structured in terms of editorial policies, organisational hierarchies and forms of coverage, such as: publicity, news, previews and reviews, or more in-depth analysis that crosses over into the current affairs agenda.
DEVELOPING CRITICAL WRITING
In 2011, in collaboration with Dublin City Council, VAI launched the annual Critical Art Writing Award. The DCC / VAI Critical Art Writing Award was devised as a developmental opportunity for writers, as part of our mutual commitment to encouraging and supporting critical dialogue around contemporary visual arts practice. In June / July 2013 Cristín Leach Hughes of the Sunday Times conducted a master-class in art journalism for prospective art writers.
FUTURE MODES OF ENGAGEMENT
The Printed Project Symposium Critical Writing: Future Modes of Engagement was held at the 2012 Get Together at Limerick College of Art and Design (15 June 2012). Fiona Fullam, James Merrigan, Fergal Gaynor and Adrian Duncan considered the rise in new methods of engagement such as: online journalism (blogs, Twitter, personal websites) and the resurgence of self-published ‘zines and journals. The session considered the future and importance of discourse surrounding visual arts practice and exhibition. In addition to the panel a range of artists, curators and critics currently working in these areas were invited to take part in an open discussion about their experiences to date and how they perceived the future of this vital and immediate form of critical writing.
PUBLICISE, INTERROGATE, RECORD
At the 2013 Get Together in NCAD (28 June 2013), VAI expanded on the specialist media theme explored in Critical Writing: Future Modes of Engagement and presented Publicise, Interrogate, Record in conjunction with AICA Ireland. This panel discussion addressed mainstream media coverage of the visual arts. Publicise, Interrogate, Record was devised as a constructive response to complaints from within the visual arts sector about a lack of serious media coverage contemporary art in Ireland, which is in turn frustrating attempts to reach, develop and maintain audiences.
By bringing media experts together, the discussion explored the relationship between the visual arts sector relationship and the media. The scope of discussion included: editorial policies – current and aspirational – and what specific hooks and angles make the visual arts ‘newsworthy’.
The panel comprised: Cristín Leach Hughes (art Critic for the Sunday Times Ireland, Freelance TV and radio contributor, RTÉ’s The Works); Fionola Meredith (Belfast-based freelance writer and broadcaster (the Irish Times, the Belfast Telegraph, the Guardian, BBC NI); Sarah Ryder (Assistant Commissioning Editor, RTE Factual, with responsibility for Arts) and Des FitzGerald (Art Beat, Dublin City FM, contributor to Le Cool Dublin). Declan Long chaired the discussion (Course Director with Francis Halsall of the MA Art in the Contemporary World at NCAD, reviewer for Artforum, Source Photography and RTE Arena RTE, member of the judging panel for the 2013 Turner Prize).
EDITORIAL & PROGRAMMING DECISIONS
Publicise, Interrogate, Record offered an informative account of how editorial and programming decisions are made in mainstream print and broadcast media. The broad term ‘new worthiness’ was employed to describe content that would appeal to specialist and non-specialist audiences alike. It was pointed out that readers and viewers now choose what to give their attention to – therefore coverage must be made attractive, interesting and relevant to the broadest possible audience.
The conversation centred on questions of the quantity and quality of arts coverage. The broad perception of the visual arts sector (as represented by the attendees) was that current mainstream print and broadcast media coverage was insufficient in quantity and frequency both in terms of generating publicity about events and exhibitions and engaging critically.
The panel were broadly in agreement with this judgement, as each participant is a specialist in visual arts coverage and shares the desire to develop media coverage. All spoke of pragmatic / budgetary / administrative issues around visual arts coverage, but the discussion did not linger on these.
One attendee noted that “mainstream media coverage of art in Ireland is patchy at best: lone art critics battle with editors for airtime and print space, television takes art and puts it out there at a time that suits the ratings chart. This is good business and appeases the accountants and shareholders but it does nothing to enhance connecting art to a wider audience”. (1)
Another issue raised was the scheduling of broadcast programming. The panel and audience members agreed that the late night television slots for arts shows marginalised the arts as the domain of the specialist. Furthermore, while all of RTE’s radio and TV arts coverage is available online, this largely attracts specialist / pre-informed audiences. One suggestion made was that weekend daytime repeat slots, could be utilised for arts programming in order to develop more diverse audiences.
An informative and fundamental point was also made that television was a relatively cumbersome medium for raising public awareness of visual arts events that might have a short duration due to its long production times. Radio and print are more flexible media in terms of giving timely coverage. It was recommend that the arts sector consider coverage in local / regional magazine-type television news programmes such as Nationwide.
BREAKING THE BARRIERS TO COVERAGE
The Publicise, Interrogate, Record panel discussed and outlined a number of barriers to greater media coverage of the visual arts. These included: the insistence of the visual arts sector on the use of ‘art-speak’ in press releases; and the media perception of the visual arts as a specialist domain of little interest to broad audiences. As another attendee observed that the “kind of language used by earnest institutions and serious artists: woolly, elitist, full of impenetrable jargon” was “anathema to the average reader / viewer / listener”. (2)
The panellists suggested that the visual arts sector should look beyond specialised arts coverage and examine how its activities cross over with broader categories of ‘newsworthiness’ such as, economics, sport, politics, agriculture, health, human interest etc.
Counter views about the specialist concepts and terminology of the art world were also presented: the media is comfortable with specialised concepts and language for sport, science and economics – so why should visual arts journalism be expected to ‘dumb down’ its own specialist terms?
The fundamental conclusion of the meeting was that the way to develop audiences for the visual arts – and to reach the considerable but poorly served visual arts audience – was ‘better journalism’.
In terms of quality, the panel returned to points made earlier about broad newsworthiness; in their view good arts journalism should appeal both to specialist and non-specialist audiences, patronising neither, offering sophisticated yet accessible discussion and analysis.
There was general acceptance that artists should be encouraged to suggest ways for art representation on RTE to be improved, as they comprise part of the public / audience / constituency for our public service broadcaster.
MEDIA WORKING GROUP
The VAI Media Working Group is a cross-sector campaign to bring the visual arts and mainstream media sectors (print, broadcast and online) into closer dialogue. Its current membership includes representatives of print and broadcast media and leading visual arts venues and institutions. The first Media Working Group Meeting was held on 17 January 2014.
The aims of the meeting were to bring interested and motivated representatives of the visual arts and media sectors together in order to establish actions, targets and key messages for both sectors in order to develop the quality and depth of media interest in and coverage of the visual arts.
The issues at stake were identified as follows: the apparent lack of understanding about the interests and rationale of mainstream media within the visual arts sector; failure within the media to appreciate the ways in which the vibrancy, talent and cultural significance of the visual arts sector in Ireland can be communicated to its audiences.
It was stressed that the aims of the working group go well beyond questions of avoiding ‘art-speak’ and recognise that many aspects of Irish contemporary culture are also specialist fields yet maintain significant media profiles, for example: the pure sciences, the medical / health sector, business and economics, and of course sports.
In terms of future goals and plans it was agreed that institutions need to pool knowledge about their programmes in order to ‘seasonally’ capitalise on opportunities to promote the visual arts – ie major events on the Irish and international artworld calendar – as well as promoting the visual arts in terms of more general seasonal themes such as holidays.
The Working Group agreed that there was work to be done within the visual arts sector in terms of the quality and timing of the information it sent to the media (publishers and broadcasters noted that they were not getting enough advance notice or clear and hyperbole-free outlines of visual arts activities). It was also agreed that the visual arts sector needs to build knowledge and skills on: how to pitch events for various forms of media coverage (ie producing a range of press releases and strategies for particular events); and how to feed information to the media correctly, reaching the right editors and journalists and cultivating / maintaining these relationships.
It was agreed that the idea of pooling resources to fund a special supplement in one of Ireland’s national weekend newspapers would be an effective means to reach new audiences and offer a platform for serious coverage, publicity and criticism addressing a mainstream audience.
MAKING OUR VOICE HEARD
One of the key messages to emerge from VAI’s research and advocacy in the area of media coverage and understanding of the visual arts was that the media is responsive to and conscious of complaints from its audience; losing viewers / readers to competitors is a real concern. An anecdote repeated in the course of the panel discussion and Working Group meeting was that when Irish national newspapers neglect to cover minor sporting events they receive a torrent of letters and emails of complaint. Yet, when major exhibitions, biennale-type events or other Irish visual arts events of national and international importance are neglected, the media receive hardly any complaints despite widespread dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of visual arts coverage.
With this in mind, upcoming plans arising from the Media Working Group include the implementation of supports and resources for the visual arts sector to easily and effectively make their collective voice of complaint heard. This will comprise a list of relevant contacts for editors, programme commissioners, producers and editors and suggested templates correspondence – along the lines of “I can’t believe you didn’t cover this…”
Visual Artists Ireland is planning to convene a Northern Ireland Media Working Group in the near future. Details of further developments will be circulated in due course.
Jason Oakley, Publications Manager, Visual Artists Ireland.
1 & 2. Patricia Clyne Kelly and Sarah Kelleher were participants in Cristin Leach Hughes’s VAI art writing masterclass; the comments quoted here are from their reports of the discussion written as assignments for the masterclass.