Each year since 2009, Createquity has offered a list of the top ten arts policy stories of the past twelve months. And let’s be frank: some of those years are a little…what’s a polite way to put this? Boring. (Looking at you, 2013.)
2016 was not one of those. When the fifth-largest nation in Europe decides to give the equivalent of a year’s allowance to every 18-year-old in the country to spend on culture, and that only barely cracks #10 on the list, you know it’s been a consequential year. (To be fair, it also reflects the global perspective we take in our methodology for ranking stories, described more fully last year.) Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure: 2017 is going to tell us a lot about our collective future.
As has been the case for the past few years, creation of this list is distributed amongst our editorial team. Authorship of individual items is noted at the end of each story.
10. The Italians launch a cultural voucher program
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who resigned this month after a bruising referendum, may not have achieved everything he had set out to accomplish, but his government did leave one cultural legacy for the country’s young people. Beginning this year, Italian teens will receive a €500 “cultural bonus” from the Italian government along with their right to vote on their 18th birthday. The money will be available for a full year, and, yes, keeping to its millennial audience, is administered entirely through an app. In its first year, a total of €290 million in government money will be apportioned out to some 574,000 teens–both Italian natives and foreign-born residents. The program is intended to foster affinity between the country’s youth and its arts sector by providing Italy’s youngest adults with incentive to consume culture on their own terms, and is part of a larger package of programs aimed at “fighting terrorism through culture” that was initially announced in November 2015. Though vouchers are viewed as efficient ways to provide social benefits (Brazil implemented a cultural voucher program in 2014; Canada and Finland are experimenting with broader programs), critics of Italy’s program question the wisdom of its launch in a struggling economy and its ultimate ability to empower workers in arts and culture. It’s unclear what will happen to the program under the new administration, though Paolo Gentili, tapped to succeed Renzi, seems, for now, to be following in Renzi’s center-left footsteps. –Michael Feldman
9. The era of Peak TV is upon us
2015 was the year that the number of original scripted television series available in the US surpassed the 400 mark–coming in at 409 shows, up almost 9% from 2014 and nearly double that of 2009. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf dubbed it the year of “Peak TV,” and assured us the decline was nigh (a welcome thought for many). He was, by his own admission, wrong. By his new accounting, the peak will hit in 2017, and possibly carry through to 2019, with the tally soon to cross 500. Netflix is primarily to be blamed (or congratulated) for the push; the streaming video industry as a whole is projected to earn nearly $7 billion this year. The business of too much TV is a complex one, with numerous winners and losers: short-term boosts in salaries and profits don’t necessarily translate to long-term profits; more scripted shows means more room for voices in the writers room but also fierce competition for crew and equipment. And the irony is it’s more expensive than ever to produce a TV show: according to Landgraf, the price for making and marketing an hour of television has gone up about 20% in the past 5 years, to $4-$5 million an hour. Beyond the benjamins (and the fear the good times will come crashing down around us), there’s another side to consider: with the explosion of scripted shows from small producers aimed at niche audiences, it’s becoming increasingly easy to create our own television bubbles, creating a narrative space populated with characters who look and think exactly as we want them to. As we look towards a Trump presidency, fake news, and filter bubbles, it will be imperative to keep an eye on the role of television. We watch as much as five hours a day, after all. –Clara Inés Schuhmacher
8. Ghost Ship brings underground artist spaces into the light of day
Described as one of the worst U.S. structure fires in over a decade, the tragic Ghost Ship warehouse fire took at least 36 lives in Oakland, CA on December 3. The warehouse, whose owner had an industrial permit (but not a residential or event permit), served as the illegal residence of some 25 artists, and was the site of an electronic dance party the night of the fire. The tragedy has pulled back the curtain regarding the crushing cost of rent and inavailability of safe spaces in which artists can afford to live and work, in Oakland and beyond. It has also triggered a flurry of investigations into code and permit violations across the country that has resulted in heavy scrutiny of similar spaces, and the subsequent closings of DIY event venues and live/work spaces in Nashville, Denver, Los Angeles and Baltimore, with more likely to come. Sadly, the issue has become politicized: as of December 24, the East Bay Times reported that the so-called Right Wing Safety Squad, an extremist group on the anonymous message board 4chan, was claiming at least partial responsibility for 16 closures after a call to action December 7 to “Make America Safe Again” by alerting authorities to potential code and permit violations in DIY artist spaces. A counteractive push from foundations is aimed at recognizing that urban artist communities operating in spaces like Ghost Ship are in desperate need of affordable real estate, and artists from marginalized communities are especially affected. Three days after the fire, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued a statement regarding a coordinated response to the Bay Area’s real estate problem, involving three local foundations in a $1.7 million grant initiative aimed at “preventing displacement, growing the capacity of the city’s artists and cultural organizations, and enhancing municipal resources for the cultural sector over the long haul.” –Lauren Warnecke
7. Impact investing and equity crowdfunding gain ground
Interest in impact investing–taking a financial stake in ventures designed to create social, economic, cultural or environmental impact–is growing: the 2016 U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy and the First National Benchmark Survey of Family Foundations found that fully one third of those surveyed are interested in impact investing. The arts have been latecomers to this game, largely because it’s tricky to create a competitive return on investment in many areas of the arts sector. Despite $2.4 billion annually in corporate impact investing, the arts’ best chance may be with individuals, and many are working on making the arts appealing to folks with deep pockets. Upstart Co-Lab, a startup nonprofit headed by former NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Laura Callanan, has forged an agreement with the Calvert Foundation to create a Community Investment Note for impact investment opportunities like low-income artist housing developments. Another way for corporations and foundations to “make an impact” with their investing, of course, is to choose who they don’t invest in. Such divestment movements have been floating around for some time now, but the Brooklyn Community Foundation has taken it further than most, committing to divest all its interests in corporations or initiatives that, in its judgment, harm communities of color. Upstart and Calvert’s Community Investment Note, however, is primarily aimed at individual investors, who now have even more options than before thanks to 2012’s Jumpstart our Startups (JOBS) Act. The JOBS Act lifted regulations on capital investments that kept average Americans from seeking a financial stake in new companies, and this November, the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo announced a new partnership with Microventures to provide vehicles for regular folks who want to invest in new companies. –MF
6. Turkey continues its crackdown on artists and intellectuals
We first wrote about Turkey’s alarming trend towards artistic censorship in 2014 (the story made our Top Ten), and–unfortunately–the news continues to worsen. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was first elected as prime minister in 2003, was once considered a relatively moderate leader. Over the past decade he has gradually manipulated the political system to remain in power, increasingly targeting journalists, artists and intellectuals in his continued drift toward authoritarianism. A “culture war” that began in 2012 when Erdoğan felt his daughter was disrespected during a theater performance has since spurred attempts to exercise control over the state arts funding apparatus, attacks on public art and television, and going after satirists and museums. Erdoğan used an unsuccessful coup attempt earlier this year as an excuse to crack down even more on free speech, shutting down and seizing the assets of 29 publishing houses accused of aiding the enemy, imprisoning more than 120 journalists, blocking social media networks, silencing writers, closing universities, shutting down TV and radio stations, charging the editors of a Turkish daily with espionage, jailing academics on charges of promoting terrorist propaganda, and forcibly overtaking Zaman, Turkey’s largest-circulation newspaper. Freemuse claims that Turkey, along with Russia, China, Iran, and Syria, belongs to “a special league of countries that systematically repress freedom of expression,” with more than half of the recorded violations against artists worldwide originating in those nations. As Ian noted in his recent article on the Trump presidency, artists and media are often among the first to be singled out when an authoritarian government seeks to impose itself on the people. We can only hope that Turkey’s creative class continues to resist. –CIS
5. Audiobooks and podcasts break records
Books and radio, whose death has alternately been heralded and bemoaned for years, are making a comeback–in scrappy start-up form. No longer just the stuff of road trips and bad jokes, audiobooks are the fastest-growing format in the book business today. Fueled by the ubiquitous smartphone, revenue from downloaded audiobooks grew 32.3% in the first half of 2016 compared to last year. By comparison, hardcovers and paperbacks grew by 0.9% and 8.8%, respectively, and e-books revenue declined 20% in that same period. Some 35,574 titles were published as audio in 2015, up from 7,000 in 2011. Edison Research found that 43% of Americans over the age of 12 have listened to an audiobook, and some audiobooks are even outselling their print counterparts. Everyone is looking to get in on the action: publishers are hiring high profile actors, and testing out original dramas; authors, such as Stephen King and Fred Armisen, are writing new work specifically for audio. Meanwhile, the conditions and format advantages that are propelling audiobooks forward are likewise helping podcasts, which are finally breaking into the mainstream after first debuting more than a decade ago. By a recent iTunes count (which does not host all the podcasts out there), there are some 200,000 podcasts in the iTunes library, 40% of which are active, and one-fifth of which are not in English. Edison Research estimates that 36% of the US population over the age of 12 has listened to at least one podcast–21% in a given month. Legacy media organizations including the New York Times, WNYC, the Wall Street Journal and the Des Moines Register have all announced podcasting investments, and media startups are getting in on the frenzy, including Slate, Buzzfeed and Gimlet Media. As with audiobooks, podcasts are still a small sliver of the pie, representing but 2% of the total time Americans spend listening to audio, and some say we’re approaching a glut. Still, the field shows no signs of slowing down yet. Even Createquity has jumped on board–we launched a podcast in collaboration with Fractured Atlas in March. –CIS
4. Virtual reality and augmented reality establish themselves as new art forms
By most accounts, we are living in the future. You can now teleport to a helicopter flying over the Swiss Alps, then back in your living room just by strapping a cardboard box holding your phone in front of your eyes. You can sit on stage, smack in the middle of a live performance by an orchestra, ballet or play, without ever entering a hall. You can experience the Tate Britain’s iconic collection alongside real-time news cycle without traveling to London. You can even walk down your own street and battle it out with your favorite Pokémon characters via Pokémon Go, downloaded to your smartphone. It’s the era of augmented and virtual reality, and, in reality, we’re just scratching the surface of possibility. Interest in virtual reality rose exponentially this year, while the popular augmented reality game Pokémon Go broke through to the mainstream with 100 million downloads worldwide, 30 million daily users, and extensive media coverage. The medium’s potential impact on the arts is far-reaching: arts organizations are putting audience members in the middle of the action, radically challenging notions of interactivity, narrative and site-specificity. Visual artists are pushing the boundaries of their work (see here, here, here), and VR experiences are making their way into film, making a splash this year at Sundance. VR is even changing how news stories are told, with the New York Times leading the charge. It’s changing the world of gaming, too: in South Africa, you can book a spot to play video games in virtual reality at the VRCade, and fend off zombies approaching you from your periphery. With Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard putting VR in the hands of the masses, it will be interesting to see how the medium continues to evolve. The Onion may just turn out to be right–on some counts, anyway. –Benzamin Yi
3. China expands holdings in (and censorship of) arts and entertainment
As Clara predicted, China dominated the news again this year, finding itself on this Top Ten two years running. The country’s economy continues to grow at a breakneck pace, and is predicted to overtake the United States as the world’s largest by 2018. China can thank the entertainment industry for much of this growth, including plans for a new $2 billion film studio in Chongqing, homegrown worldwide blockbusters, and buying up big players such as Dick Clark Productions, Legendary Entertainment, and Dalian Wanda (the Chinese conglomerate that now owns AMC Theatres.) This rapid entertainment biz expansion has raised some concerns in Congress about the potential of Chinese nationalism and socialist propaganda infusing American arts and entertainment. Those concerns are not without merit. China ranks 176 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index–a report by Reporters Without Borders which calls President Xi Jinping a “predator of press freedom”–and the government’s grip on content continues to tighten. Its airtight Great Firewall includes bans on most social media networks and news sites that report a negative image of the country (notably including the New York Times and Bloomberg); this censoring led Google to pull out of the market in 2010. This year, the government passed a law promoting Chinese nationalism in films, updated restrictions on television content, and scaled down relationships with Apple and Disney (despite these companies’ unbridled popularity in the country). It has also continued its intimidation of neighboring Hong Kong: the disappearance of five prominent booksellers in 2015 has virtually everyone in Hong Kong’s publishing industry scared they will be China’s next target. Still, it appears the lure of an enormous untapped global market is hard to turn down. American filmmakers have started producing films that obey the country’s strict regulations regarding content, thus dodging its quota on the release of foreign films, and gaming console manufacturers like Sony and Nintendo are getting back in on the game after a fourteen year ban was lifted last year. Corporations and media companies are adopting an “if we can’t beat them, join them” approach too–even Google is preparing for its return to China and is prepared to follow the government’s rules. Of course, it’s anyone’s guess how things will change once the Trump administration is in the White House, and we find ourselves once again with a case of wait and see on the China front. –LW
2. The United States elects Donald Trump
No top ten list for 2016 would be complete without mention of the election and the now certain inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. As the entire nonprofit sector holds its breath waiting for the effects of a Trump presidency on its business and constituents, predictions about what will come to pass in the coming years run the gamut from apocalyptic to status quo. There are few clues as to how Trump and his Republican majority in Congress might address the arts sector. His responses to Alyssa Rosenberg’s questionnaire about arts policy in March suggest a free market approach, similar to other policy areas like healthcare and education. The delegation of major decisions to Congress, and the recent proposed appointment of Sylvester Stallone to the top arts position in the administration, underscore Trump’s habit of relying on others (often supportive friends with little government experience) to figure out policy details, especially when they fall outside of the core issues that defined his campaign. While tensions between Congress and the National Endowment of the Arts have eased significantly since the culture wars of the 1990s, there is nevertheless a risk that the Republican Congress may revive attempts to defund the NEA in the context of a larger effort to rein in government spending. Meanwhile, the GOP and Trump administration’s promised policy adjustments to the Affordable Care Act (which provides insurance for many independent artists), and planned tax reforms (including the possibility of a rollback of the tax incentive for charitable giving) could both have immediate effects on the financial security of individual artists and small to mid-sized arts organizations. Most concerning of all is Trump’s threats to freedom of the press and his authoritarian impulses, which could expand constrictions on freedom of expression in a country that has prided itself on being one of the safest places for speech in the world. While the likelihood of overturning a mountain of legal precedent protecting the first amendment is relatively slim, Trump’s attempts at intimidation (like lashing out about flag burning or lecturing Mike Pence at a Hamilton curtain call), not to mention the ease with which his supporters can be goaded into threats of violence against vulnerable individuals and populations, are worrying to say the least. The bizarre and uncharted landscape we’ve found ourselves in has inspired much reflection, from calls to action and lessons learned from the campaign, to the role of the arts in promoting fantasy over fact. One thing is clear–artists will play a role in public discourse over the next four years, and we’ll be right there with them. –Rebecca Ratzkin
1. Artificial intelligence comes into its own
Wait, what?! Donald Trump in the Oval Office is not the top story of the year? Amazing as it may seem, events of 2016 make clear that the march of technology promises greater long-term disruption for our society than even our Tweeter-in-chief can muster. Chief among these developments was the March tournament victory of AlphaGo, a computer application developed by Google’s DeepMind team, over Korean Go grandmaster Lee Sedol. While it was expected that an artificial intelligence would eventually topple a human in the ancient Chinese game, the milestone was achieved nearly a decade earlier than anticipated when AlphaGo bested Lee in four out of five matches. To understand how consequential this is, consider that the number of potential positions in Go is exponentially greater than the number of atoms in the universe, putting the game beyond the power of the brute-force computational approach that has enabled computers to defeat humans at games like chess. Instead, the DeepMind team trained AlphaGo to learn from past games in order to develop new strategies for itself in real time–not unlike what a human would do. Google has used similar techniques, more recently, to have its Translate product churn out translations of literature that are almost indistinguishable from human efforts.
The implications for the arts are at least twofold, both enormous. First, the accomplishments of machine learning are directly tied to the accelerating trend of automation pervading all aspects of society, manifesting most recently in self-driving vehicles and fast-casual spots that replace cashiers with iPads. As more people’s jobs become redundant with what machines can do, unemployment rates could rise substantially, creating far more collective leisure time–and far more opportunity for creative expression. (How exactly that leisure time is spent will, clearly, depend a lot on what we decide to do about our social safety net, which is why many people in the tech community favor a universal basic income.) That could be amazing for the cause of art, though perhaps not so great for professional artists, who are already facing competition from the likes of Jukedeck and Google Brain itself. A grimmer view of artificial intelligence’s advances points to the specter of AI as, essentially, a new life form that could compete with humans for dominance of the earth. Given the rate at which machine learning applications are developing, a lot of smart people have begun to conclude that this isn’t just science fiction–to the point that increasing resources are flowing toward the cause of ensuring that the development of an artificial superintelligence, if and when it happens, won’t destroy the human race. Lest you get too freaked out, be reassured that this worst-case scenario is still considered a low-probability outcome by most observers…but perhaps now you can understand why we think this outranks The Donald. –Ian David Moss
- The Pulse nightclub shooting targets social dancers
- Brexit shakes up the landscape for UK artists and organizations
- Google Books ruled to be fair use (and Stairway to Heaven is not plagiarized)
- Artistic quality metrics controversy at Arts Council England
- Canada Council holds grantees accountable for diversity (and other changes)
- Black Lives Matter and US Department of Arts and Culture release policy platforms
Best wishes for 2017 to all!