City Art Reader 5: Growing Pains: The Complexities of Art Publishing Online

1st Nov 2018

By Lana Lopesi, author, critic and editor-in-chief of The Pantograph Punch

When I was coming through art school the contemporary art writing landscape was very different to what we have now. We had two dedicated magazines, Art New Zealand and Art News, as well as one dedicated website EyeContact. At this time, of course we also had art writing in generalist magazines such as Metro and The Listener as well as within our national and regional newspapers. We even had nationally funded television programmes dedicated to the arts such as TVNZ’s Frontdesk. And furthermore, there was Artbank on bFM and Standing Room Only on Radio New Zealand.

So, in 2012, when artist Louisa Afoa and I decided to form #500words – a website dedicated to experimental arts discourse for young voices – we had little pressure to be all-encompassing and complete freedom to have only the arts conversations we wanted to see. Which was actually fortunate as, at the time, we had no idea what we were doing. What we did know was what the internet offered to us – a low-cost platform. Around the same time as we started #500words, The Pantograph Punch was forming, although with a much different remit to #500words (and, granted, also a much different remit to The Pantograph Punch today). The two sites grew alongside each other and within the wider arts writing ecology in exciting ways, demonstrating not only diverse approaches to creating online content but also displaying a wide range of voices.

These two sites underpin my foray into arts writing, a career which has grown simultaneously with the expansion of journalism from print to the online sphere. In the first instance this online environment has provided many opportunities to grow critical conversations – today anyone can start a website or feed into critical conversations online through social media and comment feeds. We’ve seen people and institutions flock to the internet to create new and specialised platforms including Contemporary HUM, Hainamana, Extended Conversations, HAMSTER and now City Art Reader, while some of the bigger institutions such as Te Papa and Auckland Museum run active blogs.

These sites coincide with the stripping and shrinking of art writing from print formats here and the world over. National and regional papers have pulled a lot of our nation’s arts coverage. Auckland had a glimmer of hope with the Bauer Media publication Paperboy which is no longer in circulation and its Metro magazine has reduced to bi-monthly publishing which has also reduced the arts coverage there.

However, while the online environment is often lauded as a heroine for journalism and arts writing, ultimately it has proved an anomaly for much of the journalism industry. The issue is not that the interest and/or value of arts writing has changed but that the entire journalism landscape of which art writing is a part is struggling to understand how to make journalism financially viable online. This is also seen in the often-short life spans of websites including #500words and TUSK which are no longer publishing as well as the struggles of EyeContact and the severe reduction in reviewing from Theatreview. The key question is how can online arts writing be financially viable? The advertising model is one which is somewhat translatable to an online environment however the number of clicks a piece of arts writing will receive which will translate into advertising dollars is questionable. A paywall of course is another option, much like The New Yorker. Even the sponsorship model of The Spinoff seems to work well, but again an arts publication would likely never garner the same amount of readers to warrant such large sponsors.

While the fact that sites can constantly pop up and end according to their natural lifecycles makes way for exciting potentials, what is increasingly worrying is that with all of these sites there is a decentralisation of an art conversation online. Ultimately none of these platforms can cover the entire arts conversation nationally. This leaves readers with bite-sized coverage all over the show making it hard to see the archival and historical value of these sites. Furthermore, many of the art writing platforms have specialised remits such as New Zealand art overseas or Asian New Zealand art, so to be all-encompassing is never be the aim. As a result, arts writing is becoming more and more specialised, while arts writing within mainstream media platforms reaching non-arts engaged readers is becoming fewer and further between.

Ultimately, we are still in the process of building a meaningful arts writing infrastructure in this country, meaningful being those in which arts writers can actually be sustained financially so that writers do not have to be those also curating or making the art. While we make the most of the opportunities we have online, we should also ask questions.

My career in arts writing is inextricably linked with the internet but to think that the online environment provides solutions with no risk is naïve. And yet currently it’s our best option. Technology is changing rapidly and I can’t even imagine what devices and technologies we will have in a year or ten years’ time, let alone how that would change the publishing landscape again. What is clear is that our national arts sectors will continue to thrive and the demand for critical conversations will continue to exist. How can those leading the critical conversations thrive too?

City Art Reader is a fortnightly blog written by City Art Depot staff and guest writers. If you want to join our mailing list please click here, otherwise catch up with new blogs and City Art Reader archives on our website or facebook page.

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