The spirits of culture writers at the Philadelphia Inquirer whipsawed this week from jubilation to sorrow, in reaction to two major Monday occurrences—the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism to the paper’s estimable architecture critic, Inga Saffron, whose Changing Skyline column is the go-to source for information and astute commentary on Philadelphia’s buillt environment; the sudden death of the paper’s perspicacious art critic, Edward Sozanski.
Both were passionately devoted to the quality of life in their city and region but bluntly honest in their sometimes unsparing appraisals. For me, their pieces were always indispensable guides to Philadelphia’s cultural and architectural triumphs and shortfalls. One of my frustrations in paying proper tribute to them is that clicking on my blog’s many links to their work—most notably their critiques of the Barnes Foundation’s nearly two-year-old facility in Philadelphia—brings me to this:
The Inquirer should pay proper homage to Saffron’s and Sozanski’s achievements with a feature that not only describes their work but also provides live links to prime examples of it.
Once again, the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners inconveniently coincided with Passover. This proved particularly challenging for Saffron, who had to rush home after Monday’s newsroom celebration to whip up some matzo ball soup, potato kugel and brisket (I’m guessing) for a 10-person family gathering (not that she was complaining). Perhaps the Pulitzer planners can be more considerate of baleboostehs in scheduling future announcements.
Ironically, Saffron was one of several columnists whom her newspaper’s co-owner reportedly may have wanted reassigned to reporting posts. How do I know this? Saffron herself tweeted a link to Romenesko’s report about it, which also included an Inquirer spokesperson’s denial that the boss was unhappy with Saffron’s work.
As it happened, Monday was also the first day of hearings in Delaware Chancery Court on how the newspaper and its parent company, Interstate General Media, are to be sold at auction. The newsroom, as described by editor William Marimow in the Inquirer article announcing Saffron’s win, is “in tumult.” Here’s some recent news on that situation.
Still, it was a moment to savor, and Saffron’s art- and architecture-critic colleagues tweeted their happiness with her win:
I was also happy to learn that Jen Graves of Seattle’s The Stranger was named a Pulitizer criticism finalist for her visual arts reviews and that Detroit Free Press editorial writer Stephen Henderson won the commentary award for “his columns on the financial crisis facing his hometown, written with passion and a stirring sense of place, sparing no one in their critique.”
On my Twitter feed, I recently singled out Henderson’s must-read column, “Hey, creditor vultures! You’re not getting Detroit’s art.” I called it: “the definitive dismissal of the vultures circling hungrily around the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection.”
Like Saffron, Edward Sozanski was an independent thinker, uninfluenced by PR hype or the pressures of civic boosterism when assessing his region’s art scene.
I several times chatted with the soft-spoken, cordial critic while attending the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s press previews and I once asked his opinion of the physical appearance of the Barnes’ new building, then rising on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. A harsh critic of the move (some of those columns are here), he flatly told me that he would never set foot in it. This was clearly an unsustainable position for the city’s leading art critic: He eventually relented, giving the new facility a mixed review (to which I would link, if only I could).
As the Inquirer’s art critic (downgraded some years ago from “staff” to “contributing”), he was far-ranging in both subject matter and geographical coverage: His last column, posted the day before he died, praised the metal furniture of Paul Evans in a retropective at the Michener Museum, Doylestown, PA. Noting that Evans had “a remarkable career,” Sozanski wrote:
It seems odd that an artist who labored so intensely to transform metal furniture into art hasn’t been given a museum retrospective before this one.
Perhaps, like Evans, Sozanski was an under-appreciated star.