Twenty-two years ago today – a Monday just as today is – I added the first stories and launched ArtsJournal. And waited. I emailed everyone I knew and soon there was a trickle of visitors. The idea for the site was simple – not a “news” site in the sense that you would necessarily come here for breaking news about the arts, but a provoker of conversation and a culture of ideas, powered and sustained by ongoing threads of stories I perceived as the big issues of the day, what the arts world was thinking about.
Aggregation online was a new idea. Google was barely a year old. The word “blog” had barely been coined. There were no content management systems so every story had to be added to unique html pages, resulting in frequent breaks of formatting . Compiling archives by hand every week was not an insignificant task.
Finding stories was no small thing either. Theoretically we were drawing from every story online – best of the best. But finding them was another matter. News sites barely had rss feeds, and online layouts and organization were primitive. We had to go to every site and search where we thought the stories might be hiding. Arts stories were hardly a priority at most publications, so just finding them on many sites was a challenge. They hid behind sections called “Lifestyle” or “Going Out” or Living”. And there was no social media to spread the word.
The news landscape was quite different in 1999. Most of our sources were newspapers and magazines, with a few broadcasters like NPR, the BBC and CBC. We scoured over a hundred sites a day, browsing hundreds of stories to select 10-20 we thought were important. Ten years later, by 2009, half of all the arts journalism staff jobs in the US were gone as advertising collapsed and perversely, readership soared. Dozens, no hundreds, of online attempts at arts coverage came and went (remember the late lamented Andante?) And arts journalism in most daily newspapers was a much-reduced enterprise.
I could go on about how coverage of the arts has changed and evolved over the years. In some ways, coverage is worse. Much worse. Like local reporting in most cities about the ways arts organizations and artists do their work. But in other ways, cultural coverage is much richer and more diverse than it has ever been. Twenty-two years ago, it was often difficult to find enough smart stories to post. Now it’s the opposite. And the quality overall is much better.
But enough of that. Today I want to talk about how the arts have changed over that period. A few months ago, thanks to some help from the Mellon Foundation, we were able to consolidate ArtsJournal’s archives and make them available online. Over 22 years, we’ve posted more than 150,000 stories – about twenty per day, six days a week – but the stories were distributed between four different publishing platforms (plus the html pages from the early days) and they weren’t all accessible or searchable. Now they are.
In the process of the consolidation, I had the opportunity to browse many of them again and realized that this is a unique record of an extraordinary period in our cultural history. Sorry – that sounds grandiose, but here’s what I mean:
When ArtsJournal started September 13, 1999, the internet existed but was still figuring itself out (as it still is). The primary structures that supported culture had been more or less in place for almost half a century. The non-profit model. The arts as primarily institution-based. Record sales, movie box-office, publishing bestseller lists, TV and radio ratings, the museum/gallery system – they all measured and conveyed success of a cultural production model that, while it evolved from year to year, was fairly stable.
There was the regional theatre boom, the NEA Dance Touring Program, the rise of the blockbuster museum shows that could pack in the crowds, the move of music from vinyl to CDs, the rise of the VCR, but these built on an expanding existing structure as regional cities grew after World War II. Between 1982 and 1997 the number of non-profit arts organizations grew by 81 percent. The number of for-profit arts enterprises grew by 44 percent. Over that time the number of self-proclaimed professional artists doubled to 1.6 million, according to a Rand Report.
But this was all precursor to two decades of unrelenting, challenging and profound change that would turn practically every model of cultural production upside down – for good and bad – and change the relationships between artists, their work, their audiences and the institutions they work with. The digital revolution is not unique in our cultural history (the history of art has been driven by technical innovation), but the digital age’s pervasive transformation of culture on virtually every level has been profound and transformative.
In September 1999, one of the first stories we posted on AJ was an announcement that CD sales were at an all-time high — $22.4 billion accounting for 90 percent of all music sales. As first Napster arose (141 stories in the archive), then music piracy (222 stories), downloading (361 stories), then iTunes (308 stories), and streaming (374 stories) took over, annual sales of music fell off a cliff. Today, music sales have climbed six years in a row, totaling about $12+ billion last year, with CDs a sliver of that amount and streaming the dominant format.
TV ratings also took a dive (284 stories) as YouTube was first invented, then became broadcaster to the world (810 stories). Since 2006 we’ve had 736 stories about the rise of social media in all its forms and 672 stories about the growing dominance of Facebook. The transforming movie industry (762 stories). Rise of podcasts (152 stories). Sixty-two stories about clumsy tourists breaking art.
We’ve logged 227 stories about the evolution of self-publishing from a vanity endeavor to a publishing phenomenon. The struggles and rebirth of independent book stores and the death of giant book chains. Dozens of stories about the evolution of mega-galleries. In our Ideas section, 271 stories on the development and cultural implications of artificial intelligence, 154 stories on developments in neuroscience in understanding the human brain. There are 847 stories that come up for the search on “diversity” and 144 for #metoo.
Along the way, we realized that one of the profound shifts in the arts was the changing relationships between artists and audience, and we created a new “audience” category that has more than 3000 stories tracking that evolution across all the arts.
Our most-viewed story ever was a thoughtful column in the Toronto Star in 2018 by music critic John Terauds who suggested maybe it was time to retire performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Internet trolls got ahold of it and our link to it got retweeted 120,000 times in short order. Why? We were Visigoths with no respect for Western culture. I wrote about the incident here.
In short, the AJ archive documents in story-by-story fashion the profound, sometimes, wrenching and disruptive transition from one era at the end of the last Century to where we are now. Not that we’ve arrived at another stable period, or that this shift has an endpoint. But, looking at the trendlines in our archive stories and the changes the pause of the pandemic has wrought, it suggests that COVID has only accelerated those trends. Among them: accommodation of hybrid performances and significant opportunities for new forms of engagement and revenue streams on the blockchain. The development of AI tools that will transform ideas about art and the ways it gets made, paid for and presented. And the diversification of cultures and opportunities and audiences that will make the culture stronger.
Before I end, some shout outs to some of the people who have worked on AJ with me over the years: including Amy Hansen, Sam Bergman, Jessica Werner, and Laura Collins-Hughes. For the past ten years, editors Suzi Steffen in Eugene, Oregon and Matthew Westphal in NYC have been stalwart editors.
In 2002, we started adding bloggers, many of them well-known arts journalists and figures in the arts, including the late dance critic Tobi Tobias, who was the first online finalist for the Pulitzer in criticism; the indefatigable theatre critic Terry Teachout, our most prolific blogger; Andrew Taylor, a good friend and author of the Artful Manager blog; Greg Sandow, an agent provocateur extraordinaire; the ever-thoughtful Diane Ragsdale, the late much-missed Scott Timberg, who in his own ways tried to record the cultural crash he saw around him; John Perreault, the late great art critic; the rigorous music maven Kyle Gann; jazz chroniclers Doug Ramsey and Howard Mandel; the intrepid and fearless Lee Rosenbaum, who writes as Culturegrrl; the irrepressible Norman Lebrecht, the nonpareil coverer of the classical music world; pioneering visual arts blogger Tyler Green; cultural critic Joe Horowitz, who’s produced some of the most incisive writing about culture and where we are during the pandemic; the clear-eyed Michael Rushton and Doug Borwick writing about the culture industries; theatre researcher Lynne Conner; culture chronicler Jan Herman; good friends and cultural historian Jeff Weinstein and architecture critic Jim Russell; dance critics Deborah Jowitt and Apollinaire Sher; David Patrick Stearns, one of the best music critics around; critics John Rockwell and Regina Hackett. Art world reporter Judith Dobrzynski; Orchestra educator Stan Thompson; Radio journalist Chloe Veltmann, pianist Bruce Brubaker, and clarinetist Alex Laing. Also media exec Sarah Lutman, pr queen Amanda Ameer, the indefatigable Matt Lehrman, and irrepressible Margy Waller and Molly Sheridan. Michal Shapiro brought a keen video eye to world music, and David Jays and Paul Levy brought an English perspective from the UK. Sheila Melvin likewise was a keen chronicler of culture in China. Two of our newest bloggers include Aaron Dworkin, who weekly posts his conversations with arts luminaries; and Sunil Iyengar, researcher extraordinaire. Joining the fold in the next week or so is Hannah Grannemann, who will be writing about changing forms of audience engagement.
Thanks to everyone, particularly readers who have kept ArtsJournal as a part of their regular cultural diet. Onward.