Marrying the arts and the media
Our monthly feature on THE ARTS explains how the arts and the media can work together to compliment each other, says Stephen Callaghan, creative director, Archdiocese of Glasgow Arts Project
The arts and the media are often mentioned in the same breath and it is true that these two fields overlap in some respects. If the media is about generating and responding to an audience, likewise, the arts must also engage with the public. Looking back over the past seven years, the public face of Lentfest, the flagship arts festival of the Archdiocese of Glasgow, has grown in part due to the effective use of a range of media.
On Ash Wednesday, artists, musicians and guests gathered with Archbishop Philip Tartaglia at Glasgow Archdiocese’s curial offices for the launch of the 7th annual Lentfest. The room was decorated with posters advertising the festival and booklets listing the range of events on offer were scattered around the room for visitors to pick up. One performer, a non-Catholic who is new to the festival, said to me: “I have performed at lots of different festivals, including some big ones, and I’ve got to say that I’m really impressed with your advertising. I think it’s great.”
When Lentfest began as a pilot in 2007, it was only advertised within the parishes of the archdiocese through a relatively small run of leaflets advertising about four events. However, as time went on and more people heard about the concept, the appetite for a Faith-based arts festival grew and there was a lot of good will from people who were looking for a way to express their Faith.
The intervention of graphic designer and music festival organiser, the late Erne Parkin, changed the face of Lentfest in 2008, opening our eyes to the possibility of outdoor advertising and leaflet distribution on a larger scale. Before we knew it, we had posters on the side of buses and a website advertising our events to the general public. Since then, each year we have had ten large outdoor posters at railway stations and around 30,000 glossy booklets available in public leaflet racks in galleries, bars, cafes and elsewhere as well as in parishes and schools. The result is that the festival has become widely known inside and outside the Catholic community.
A telephone conversation following the first media launch in 2008 has stayed in my mind: “That was the best bit of coverage that the Catholic Church has had in years.” It is true that the launch of Lentfest 2008 received coverage on both major national television news programmes and the story ran in several newspapers. An extensive television report on the festival by BBC reporter, Pauline McLean began with a sweeping shot of the Vatican and the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reminding a new generation of the historic patronage of the arts by the Catholic Church and joining this up with footage of our launch at one of Glasgow’s finest Italian restaurants where we served up bread and water for Ash Wednesday—an idea that came from Archdiocese Communications Director and ex-STV journalist, Ronnie Convery and was repeated this year.
This reminder of the Catholic Church’s positive role in the arts was one of the founding principles of the Arts Project that engendered Lentfest and its younger sister-festival Arts in Autumn. During my years at university, I was painfully aware that all too often the voice of the Church was heard in relation to the arts only as a censor, a moral watchdog or a critic. Sadly, its role as the patron of the arts had been eroded over time and replaced by an image of oppression. Sadder yet, the voice of the Church was often only heard in condemnation of works of art, books, films or plays—usually with some cause—and seldom in celebration of art that could inspire. It seemed that the Church needed to find a new way to take a more positive, pro-active approach to the arts that avoided being typecast as the antithesis of creativity and embraced the potential of the media in this regard.
I asked STV reporter Karen Greenshields who was at the launch of the inaugural Lentfest in 2008, whether she thought that the Catholic Church was still perceived as a patron of the arts today.
“Well from a historical perspective, of course, but if we were to ask our viewers to name a group/individual in society inextricably connected to the Scottish arts scene, I don’t believe they would name the Catholic Church,” Mrs Greenshields said. “Maybe a few more Lentfests down the line? I believe the Church is still regarded by many as a censor/watchdog, although in recent years, there appears to be less of a knee-jerk reaction and more of a perception that any criticism is selective and considered.”
Ronnie Convery, director of communications for Glasgow Archdiocese said: “The growth of interest in the Church’s relationship with the arts has been a very positive development.
“It is too easy for the media to get bogged down in a mistaken notion of the Church as an institution which can be trotted out to condemn things. So when the Church is seen as the patron of the arts, sponsor of community events and a custodian of beauty then a much-needed balance is given to the perception of the Church.”
Media coverage of events organised by the Archdiocese of Glasgow Arts Project (AGAP) has been largely very positive. Press coverage by broadsheets and tabloids alike has related news of art exhibitions and concerts with a degree of curiosity at the Church’s involvement but without any hint of suspicion or unfriendliness. Sometimes, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we are over-suspicious of the media and I am reminded of a line from the unsettlingly truthful parody presented in an over-quoted episode of Father Ted relating to the Holy Stone of Clonrichert, “We’ve got to string out the media!”
Nevertheless, a little prudence and a sense of humour are important but we are not always in control of the finished product and most interactions require an element of good faith in the person carrying the story. In 2009, a journalist called to ask me about a screening of Sam Raimi’s film Spider-Man (2000) which took place at Lentfest. The film was shown in an academic context with a few to unpacking themes of vocation and calling contained in it. You can imagine the mixture of horror and amusement when I picked up the newspaper on Easter Sunday to see a lozenge on the front page with the headline “Catholic Church adopts Spider-Man!” Inside was a picture of the superhero spanning St Peter’s Square and the story ran that we were ‘using Spider-Man to recruit priests and nuns!’ That story ran in at least six different newspapers throughout that week. However, it is easy to overreact to something like that when, in fact, it only served to raise the profile of Lentfest, which when properly looked at, reveals a very sincere approach to the realm of Faith.
Referring to faith-based arts events, composer James MacMillan remarked that ‘there will always be secular scepticism about these things as they will be seen as ‘instrumentalist,’ that is pushing an agenda that is not first and foremost ‘artistic.’’
To some extent this is true, but happily Lentfest and similar initiatives of AGAP have been met with interest and approval from those of no faith, although it is sometimes difficult to attract the attention of the media when the Church’s involvement is no longer a novelty.
However, it is impossible to adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the subject as the personalities and subjective opinions are as diverse among individuals working in the media as they are within the Catholic Church.
“There are myriad relationships with many individuals in the media, which are varied and often multi-faceted,” Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, said.
Today, with the emergence of new forms of social media, a new platform has been created for the exchange of information by everyone from the Pope to the person in the pew and journalists admit that it has opened up a new approach to stories.
“We search local online sites for stories that might suit our audience,” Karen Greenshields of STV said. “We have sought to develop contacts via Twitter and elsewhere and as a result we are sent a wealth of stories and tip-offs. From an arts point of view, we get to hear about events that perhaps the local authority isn’t ‘pushing.’”
Last year, Lentfest enjoyed a media partnership with Premier Christian Radio to raise awareness of events and activities happening throughout the festival. This year, I am aware that there has been less coverage of the launch by the secular media than there has been in the past. However, interest from the Christian community and through social networks has ensured that the festival remains a household name at least in the Archdiocese of Glasgow… even without the need to employ Spider-Man.
—PIC: PAUL McSHERRY