This morning the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House threw open its doors for one of the largest gatherings of artists, writers, film-makers, arts leaders and broadcasters I’ve ever seen in one place. People had come from all over the country to hear Tony Hall’s vision for BBC ARTS and share their thoughts about how we can work together in the future. It was both humbling and inspiring to see so many people whose exceptional work I have encountered in theatres, galleries, museums, festival tents and, of course, on our own screens and radio stations.
The BBC has long been one of the best providers of arts programming in the world, but there’s always room for improvement. And Tony Hall expressed that today in our renewed commitment to British art and culture in five promises.
The first is to make communication easier both with and within the BBC and to join up its different arts and music outlets through clear leadership. This is vital to delivering a shared strategy for the arts as well as getting greater recognition back for the brilliant work we do.
Our second commitment is to do more to cover the many extraordinary cultural events across the country with a new cross-platform strand BBC ARTS at… It will launch on television in May with a Museums at Night special, theatre from The Globe and expanded coverage of the Hay Festival.
We’re also going to make Online a third ‘pillar’ of the arts (alongside television and radio) through iPlayer, an enhanced BBC ARTS portal and the return of The Space later this year. Through these services we can innovate new formats and interact with our audiences more.
We also want to offer more ways for artists and performers to speak directly to our audiences and for us, in turn, to challenge them to work outside their comfort zones. For example, Michael Morpurgo is making an animated film for television, Zaha Hadid is presenting a documentary on Malevich, and there are great new initiatives on both television and radio giving a voice to emerging writers.
The final promise is to place arts output not just on a particular TV or radio network at a particular time, but also to put arts at the heart of the BBC. A film about the 16th century German artist Holbein on The One Show tonight is testament to that spirit.
Why such a focus on the arts now? I’d been making arts documentaries at the BBC for ten years and, while believing passionately in the importance and pleasure of what we made, I’d become used to the complaint that the arts were essentially niche and exclusive. Then came the Olympics Opening Ceremony in 2012. We all remember where we were… I was on holiday in Athens. Seeing that display of British creativity and talent through foreign eyes made me realise something we’d all seemed to have forgotten: we’re pretty good at this stuff. Not just music, but poetry, dance, acting, design, art and film. It’s what we’re best known for. Admittedly, a few days later it emerged we were pretty good at sport too. But for a few days there was a swagger in my stride.
At that moment I felt more confident than ever that the arts aren’t just for a particular group of people. The arts are the stuff of life – they’re about self-expression and creativity and those are things that matter to everybody. The only time they feel elitist is when they’re represented in the wrong way– whether in the way people talk, write or broadcast about them.
I think most people watching that July night realised it too. In the same way we’ve gone athletics mad since that time, we’ve also gone arts mad too. Sounds far-fetched? Here are some interesting figures: Chris Evans’ 500 Words short story competition on Radio 2 received entries from 118,000 children this year. Radio 4’s A History of the World has reached more than 37 million downloads to date. A call-to-arms we put out earlier this year for amateur artists to appear in BBC1’s The Big Picture has been met with 4,500 detailed applications of brilliant pictures and moving personal testimonies. When we get it right, we appeal to that appetite for creativity in everyone.
That doesn’t mean we’re only looking for big audience figures. In BBC ARTS, we can speak to audiences of all sizes, inspire creativity, advance knowledge and understanding, shine a spotlight on Britain’s most obscure artists as well as celebrate our best known. Most of all: be a catalyst and platform for that artistic innovation and excellence the world wants from us.
We can do all this, but we have a few challenges to face.
Foremost amongst them is joining up what we do in the arts. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking closely at what we do, looking at everything that goes on across our services – regionally, nationally and internationally. The list is long and by no means complete. It’s hard enough getting your head around everything that is done on network television and radio, then there’s all the excellent work that goes on across all our services: from The Arts Show made by Paul McGuigan’s team in Belfast to Janice Forsyth’s Culture Studio on BBC Radio Scotland to Razia Iqbal’s Talking Books on BBC News.
What I’ve realised is that when critics say the BBC doesn’t do enough for the arts, it’s not because of the quality of what we do, but because we haven’t necessarily been as good at joining it all up and getting the credit back we deserve. And so, to address the quality issue, this lack of connectedness has meant we have a tendency to super-serve some genres while not doing enough to represent others.
Which brings me to the maddening way I keep referring to BBC ARTS in that rather monolithic upper-case. It’s because we’re treating it as a new brand within the BBC in the way we treat NEWS or SPORT. As of today, regardless of where a piece out of output originates, if it is about the arts, it is part ofsomething else too. BBC ARTS is a way of working together. It is, first and foremost, a recognition that we need to join up, to get acknowledgement for what we do, to think strategically about how we support and enrich culture, and keep our place at the vanguard of that globally acknowledged phenomenon: British Arts.
And before I go, here’s a quick plug…
10-13 April, we’re hosting Art Screen in Glasgow - Britain’s first festival of arts documentaries. It’s an amazing selection of new films about art and music with personal appearances from the likes of Jeremy Deller, Jarvis Cocker, Julien Temple, Andrew Graham-Dixon, Kim Longinotto, Tim Marlow, Kirsty Wark. There’s also a programme of classics from the archive. All organised by BBC Scotland with generous support from Creative Scotland, Glasgow International and the British Council.
Jonty Claypole is Head of BBC Arts
- Director-General Tony Hall introduced BBC ARTS in a speech given at a special event in Broadcasting House on Tuesday 25 March 2014. Read it here.
- Read a press release announcing BBC ARTS published on the Media Centre website.
- Follow @BBCWhereNext for updates on the BBC's strategy in the run-up to Charter renewal.