The case for public investment in online arts

Sir Peter Bazalgette on the ways in which the internet has affected the arts and examines the case for public investment in online arts.

We’re about two decades into what will be a digital millennium. The internet has ripped like a typhoon through everything. Up to the end of the last century the arts did their physical stuff – in theatres, in cinemas, in galleries, in concert halls. And TV and radio had these things called ‘arts programmes’ providing normally pretty sterile coverage of the goings-on.

Digital disruption in the arts

Now there’s no limit on spectrum so anyone can distribute whatever content they like. A mobile phone makes you a one-person auteur and a laptop is your personal post-production suite. Theatre or opera production can jump from a five hundred audience to one of fifty thousand with a live transmission. But is this new content any good? Is it well executed? Can the plethora of material, short or long form, find a genuine audience?

We invest public money in arts and popular culture because it enables our national conversation. It’s the means by which we define our society and make sense of our lives. We build physical spaces and fund the productions therein. If we’re now online for up to third of our time, we can say the internet has now become an integral part of that society. Why shouldn’t it also have a publicly invested space too? So well done The Space for getting this far. For helping aggregate content so it finds an audience. For capturing and distributing live events so many can enjoy them wherever they are. For improving production skills and for commissioning new art (digital video is a new medium in its own right). This is a tradition stretching back to Henry VIII and his court musicians, to Lorenzo Medici and his sponsoring of Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo and to Maynard Keynes when he set up the Arts Council in 1946.

New developments

So some things don’t change, however new the times. Like the way an artist should always seek an audience or their work becomes meaningless. And they need to know where to find it, so search optimisation skills are the new marketing. But this is just the beginning. For instance, smartphones are less than ten years old – the greatest arts portal ever invented. Our creators are just at the threshold of imagining what VR, as an entirely new, highly empathetic medium, can do.

Just as in all other areas of arts and popular culture, there needs to be a judicious blend of the commercial and the publicly invested. And the latter normally build the talent base for the former. So as well as The Space and BBC Arts Online we welcome an app like the recently launched Marquee. As we know, if it’s internet revenue you’re after to support creative endeavour, it comes down to subscription or advertisements. The experimental, the cutting edge, the radical departure…all by definition do not have a mass following to start with, whose attention can be monetised. So I hope we can continue the public/private nexus going forward. And The Space has an important role to play.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, former chair of Arts Council England and of English National Opera, was writing for The Space’s collection of essays ‘Self publishing and the arts‘.

How useful was this resource?