February 2007 Archives
A literature teacher of mine preached that the word tragedy should be used sparingly in journalism when referring to the death of an individual. His premise was that death is natural and crime is sordid.
Yet, there are times when it is difficult to use anything but the word "tragic" to refer to a death. It has been the only word on my tongue this morning as I talk with people about the death--and apparent homicide--of Robert Busby, a man known as the honorary mayor of Lansing's Old Town.
Robert is truly one of those unsung heroes. He's someone who has done more for visual art, music, poetry, and theater in Lansing than any other single individual. Back when Old Town was "north Lansing", he had a vision for the neighborhood that looked beyond the boarded up buildings and high crime rate. Over the past 20 years, he's labored quietly and untiringly to see that vision come to life.
A successful businessman, Robert opened the Creole Gallery, a place that quickly became the center of exciting things happening in Old Town and in the arts scene in Lansing. Such artists as Wynton Marsalis and Tyree Guyton became regular performers and exhibitors there. In a city that is desperately short on performance spaces, Robert and his partner Meegan Holland opened up the stage and partnered with local theater groups. Icarus Falling has made its home there and Riverwalk Theater performs its black box productions there.
Indeed, Icarus Falling is in the middle of its world premiere run of Fatal Error, a surreal comedy written by two local playwrights. It's not known yet whether they will cancel the rest of their run or move to a different space. Robert's body was found in the basement of the Gallery and the space is still roped off as a crime scene.
Robert's support of the arts went beyond what happened between the walls of his building. He was a friend and supporter of every business that came into Old Town, encouraging them and always being present at whatever event was taking place. His support went beyond Old Town as well, stretching out to support art wherever it could be found in the community. He and Meegan brought together diverse people in the community, hosting receptions after shows and parties that fostered dialog between busy people. He was a patron of BoarsHead, a group that is already reeling from the loss of grant money and the death of another individual donor that sparked a change in schedule and the layoff of three staff members this past weekend.
Robert Busby will be greatly missed. He's left behind a gaping hole that will take many people to step forward and fill so that his dreams for a thriving, cultural community does not die with him.
One of the concepts inspired by the NEA Arts Journalism Institute was the idea of "critical relativism." Joe Nickell came up with the idea after hearing John Lahr's talk. Joe was concerned that the same standards of criticism could not be brought to a production in Missoula, Mont., where he is the arts and entertainment reporter for the Missoulian, that Lahr brings to any number of shows in any number of cities around the world.
I had this in mind when I saw an original play recently by a start-up group here called the Savannah Actor's Theatre. The group was the subject of a previous post of mine called "Arts as Community Dialogue" in which a reader of the Savannah Morning News responded angrily to the attention I paid to the Savannah Actor's Theatre but not to her group (typical professional envy; no big deal).
The piece I wrote about Savannah Actor's Theatre was influenced by Joe's "critical relativism." I didn't want to write a staight-ahead review, because the play, called "Fiction, or Wild Stories," wasn't really good. It was poorly executed, though it had potential, as I say in the piece, but it wasn't good enough to recommend to a ticket-buying readership.
I could have written a thumbs-down review, but I realized the play had a larger - and more interesting - meaning that a conventional review could not capture. So I wrote a kind of critic's notebook (I call it an "arts notebook" for reasons that will make for a future post). And I set the play in the larger context of theater in Savannah, its tourist trade and the need in the arts to attract younger audiences (the theater group for some reason is getting lots of high schoolers to come to their shows).
In this way, I think I was able to assess the play relatively speaking and to extrapolate its larger meaning. Or at least begin a conversation that will hopefully evolve.
Which leads me to a theory I developed at the NEA Institute that may be an extention of Joe's "critical relatavism" theory: that we critics need to not only examine the quality of theatrical productions; we have to examine their meaning to the community.
Those of us who are not John Lahr likely work in communities where there are many who do not understand, appreciate or participate in the arts. These people may not understand mise-en-scène, but they do understand concepts like education, economic impact and quality of life.
Therefore, it's up to us as professional communicators to bridge those gaps in understanding. Not as educators, as I mention in this post. But as journalists who know what's important in the communities we live and work in.
Just as Joe suggests we deploy a relativistic approach to our qualitative assessments of local theater, I'm suggesting we endeavor to relate what's critical about the arts to our communities. We have to do more than review. We have to be cultural journalists, too.
"There are no angels in Los Angeles"
Our good friend Mia Leonin, one of the fellows of the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater, wrote this piece about a new translation by Miami-based playwright Nilo Cruz, whose "Life Is a Dream" was playing at South Coast Repertory while we were in Los Angeles.
"It would be easy to reduce 'Life Is a Dream' to its fatalism versus free will paradox, but Cruz's translation strikes the chord of an even more reverberant and often-ignored theme: in the spiritual battle between destiny and self-determination, forgiveness, not willfulness or witchery, is man's only hope. Cruz's translation lays bare this subtlety . . ."
(Thanks to Mia Leonin, drama critic for the Miami Herald and Category305.com)
Buffalo News weighs in on Albright-Knox sell-off
"The bottom line is this: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has a worldwide reputation for its collection of modern art, and it can either polish that reputation or stagnate and watch its luster fade and its international visitor drawing power erode. Polishing requires money, and the gallery board has decided rightly to focus on its core mission of exhibiting, preserving and collecting modern and contemporary art - and to find the money for that by auctioning off parts of the collection that don't tightly fit the core mission."
(Thanks to the Buffalo News, in which this editorial appeared Saturday)
Fisk University poised to sell prized O'Keeffe amids calls for higher bids
"The cash-strapped university is seeking to sell this painting ['Radiator Building -- Night, New York'] and Marsden Hartley's 1913 'Painting No. 3' from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection donated to the school by O'Keeffe in 1949. In a deal announced last week, the O'Keeffe Museum would ... buy the O'Keeffe work for $7 million. But the art market is surging right now, with some works selling for record prices -- including one Willem de Kooning painting, 'Woman III,' that sold for a staggering $137.5 million last fall. This has led some observers to wonder if Fisk might not be letting go of 'Radiator Building' at a price that amounts to a fire sale."
(Thanks to Jonathan Marx, staff writer for the Tennessean)
Lexington, like many midsized cities, exploring ways culture boosts prestige
"As cooperation among Lexington museums picks up for the 2010 World Equestrian Games and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration, their relationships could come to change the cultural life of Lexington. Many midsize cities that compete with larger, better-known neighbors are exploring ways to make themselves stand out to visitors from far away and to residents who could be tempted to drive elsewhere. Consider Dayton -- a city just a few hours from Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland -- where some arts and cultural groups have grown stronger by combining or by partnering with businesses and schools."
(Thanks to Jamie Gumbrecht, culture writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader)
Joe Boyd, underground rock's invisible man
"It's an odd query coming from the Harvard-educated muso who cut Pink Floyd's first record, produced Nick Drake, made the definitive documentary about Jimi Hendrix and helmed R.E.M.'s best album. But Boyd's varied tastes and easy manner have served him well over the course of a nearly five-decade career. From leading the blues revival to capturing the zeitgeist of Swinging London, helping midwife the English Folk boom to prowling the frontiers of world music, Boyd has been a significant if relatively unknown figure in the history of modern music, serving as a promoter, producer, label owner, filmmaker and self-described 'eminence grise.'"
(Thanks to Bob Mehr of the Memphis Commercial Appeal)
I don't know this journalist personally, nor do I doubt that he ordinarily excels at his job. However, his preview on Friday for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville on "The Barber of Seville" does more harm than good: "Don't be too quick to dismiss opera as an elitist art form for the rich and snooty" is his first sentence.
The logical fallacy here is that a reader who is not interested in Italian opera might be interested if addressed in a snappy writing style. The thinking is that if we can avoid all academic puffery, perhaps ordinary people will dig in.
Which sounds fine and dandy until the writer then goes ahead and gives the reader all that academic puffery anyway.
"This year's opera performance, the symphony's sixth since 2001, features the full symphony orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus and some very gifted (and, judging by the photos we found on the Web, far from obese) singers who have spent decades training to reach some of those notes. Yes, it is in Italian, just the way Gioacchino Rossini wrote it nearly 200 years ago, but there will be supertitles so patrons can read along with the story."
The basic problem here is simple: Know your audience. This writer does not. He has in mind, no doubt, the mythical "general reader" whose interests are that of an eighth-grader and who must be talked to as such.
People who go to the opera, however, know who Rossini is. They know he wrote in Italian. They know about supertitles. They know the cliche about the fat ladies singing in the opera is just a cliche. And because they know all this already, the writing doesn't come off as funny; it comes off as condescending.
Such pandering insults interested readers, alienates potentially interested readers and makes classical music appear all the more elitist to those who already think so. It makes opera seem as simple to understand as any old TV show, as if to say even an idiot can enjoy it, with the implication that the reader is an idiot.
The Montana Newspaper Association has sent out its entry forms for its 2006 Better Newspaper Contest. There are 41 categories for entries -- everything from Best Agriculture Reporting to Best Process Color Ad.
There is no category for entries even remotely related to arts coverage.
I'm thinking of entering some arts stories in the ag category, just to make a point.
There are so many ways to create art and artists are constantly exploring in every medium.
Two Lansing, Michigan playwrights are premiering a show this evening that grew out of an e-mail conversation. They began riffing on the banalities of overheard office conversation and from there, a play grew. What it has to do with tormented hamsters remains to be seen. When asked what he'd like the audience to leave with, Playwright and Icarus Falling Artistic Director Jeff Croff responded with, "I would like them to leave with less money ... er, actually, I'd prefer they leave with the need to talk about the show with friends over coffee. I'd like them to leave with a bit of exhaustion and wonder. I'd like them to leave that poor little hamster alone."
On another related note, the interview for this story ended up being a lot of fun. Since the play had its genesis in e-mail, we decided to do the interview as a three-way chat between myself and the two playwrights. It was a medium we were all comfortable with and it fostered a great deal of banter and perhaps more spontaneity than we might have had in a more traditional format. As a journalist, it also helped to have all their responses typed and saved and be able to concentrate during the interview on asking questions and talking with both people.
But gallery president defends right to sell
"Through a series of petitions and e-mail campaigns, the group Buffalo Art Keepers has been asking gallery members to request a meeting with the Albright-Knox leaders. The group also plans to file a petition in State Supreme Court early next week to force the gallery to stop the sale, according to Carl Dennis, Art Keepers leader and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet."
(Thanks to Colin Dabkowski, arts writer for the Buffalo News, and to Lee Rosenbaum's CultureGrrl blog on artsjournal.com)
Trucking art out of Buffalo
"The Albright-Knox Art Gallery released a list of 196 items that will be sold this spring at Sotheby's New York City auction house. In addition to antiquities, the auctions will include artworks from Africa, China, Southeast Asia, India and pre-Columbian North America, as well as 19 master paintings and European works of art from the 14th through 16th centuries. The works extend from the 13th century B.C. to the early 20th century. Highlights of the list were published by Sotheby's in November, and included the classical sculpture "Artemis and the Stag," valued at $5 million to $7 million, and a collection of Chinese porcelain."
(Thanks to By Colin Dabkowski, arts writer for the Buffalo News)
Buffalo sale exemplifies corporatization of art in America
"The message is, once again, that those entrusted with the sacred task of safeguarding our public patrimony have become as irresponsible as the money-grubbing executives who have given corporate America such a bad name. The works of art in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery don't belong to the directors or curators, who move in and out of communities as job opportunities present themselves. Nor are they the property of the trustees, who are meant to hold them in trust for the people of Buffalo, but who now show that they cannot be trusted.
(Thanks to Tom L. Freudenheim, who wrote this for the Wall Street Journal)
The link between culture, business and civic character
Here is an excellent example of cultural journalism that lays out for the reader why culture is important. Instead of just examining the quality of a museum exhibit, it examines what it means to a community. Lexington, Ky., will be the home of the World Games in 2010, an international horse competition and exhibition. Instead of just opening their doors and expecting people to come, culture writer Jamie Gumbrecht reports that museum administrators are being proactive in their pursuit of compelling exhibitions, economic impact and impacting how the world sees Lexington. This is the first part of a two-part series.
(Thanks to Jamie Gumbrecht, culture writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader)
All arts is local
As finalists for "American Idol" were selected, hometown newspapers began coverage of locals trying to became America's next celebrity. In San Antonio, columnist Jeanne Jackle writes about Haley Scarato's bid for the spotlight in the San Antonio Express-News. Here in Savannah, my colleague Amy Morris wrote a frontpage story for the Savannah Morning News on how Stephanie Edwards fought her way onto one of TV's most popular shows.
I'm so glad to see this post has inspired so much discussion. To add another layer, here is the reader's response to my reply, which I also posted to my blog on the Savannah Morning News website. Notice how the tone of voice has changed. Perhaps the public forum in which this conversation is taking place has had a positive impact.
One of the talking points of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute concerned criticism not just as a mode of assessement but a mode of engagement with the community. With this in mind, I posted an angry email to my blog on the Savannah Morning News website.
The email was in response to a think piece I wrote on Feb. 19 regarding Savannah's lack of a thriving theater scene. It was also about how I detected the possibility of change after seeing a new original play. I then posted a response to her letter, keeping in mind the idea of engagement with the community.
As I say in the preface to my response: "I consider this exchange to be part of a conversation about the arts that every community ought to have. We should get angry about the arts. We get upset about football. We get emotionally attached to baseball teams. Why not theater? We should fight. We ought to disagree. That way there's no mistake this is important to our lives."
Let me know if you think I should have handled this differently, in terms of tone and phrasing. Otherwise, I hope this serves as at least a passable example of a concept that will likely preoccupy all of us in the future, as the print medium shrinks and online forums grow.
Jeff Daniels creates another gem
Long a favorite in Michigan for creating The Purple Rose theater in Chelsea and for his perennial sell-out play Escanaba in da Moonlight, Jeff Daniels has garnered yet more laurels for his dramatic abilities.
The American Theatre Critics' Association has named Daniels' "Guest Artist" as one of six finalists in their annual new plays competition.
Jeff Daniels is someone who is passionate about his belief that theater exists outside of the major cultural centers. When writing about why he left New York to open a theater in a small town in the Midwest, he says:
Years later, after moving back home to Michigan, I bought an old bus garage in the small town of Chelsea with the dream of creating a Midwestern answer to Circle Rep. I wanted a professional theatre company, featuring Midwestern actors, directors, designers and playwrights, situated in the middle of America, producing plays about the middle of America. People, of course, thought I was an idiot. From the local critics who wanted the latest shows from New York starring my "movie star friends" to the townspeople who thought Art was someone who lived out by the highway, no one could understand what I was trying to do. It made no sense. Except to all those local actors, directors, designers, and especially playwrights, who call the Midwest their home.
In case you haven't noticed, the New American Play can't get a cup of coffee in New York. It seems to me that if the American Theatre is to remain vital it must produce American plays, and it can only do that by supporting, nurturing, and developing American playwrights. Period. Just like Circle Rep did.
That's what we do here at The Purple Rose and we love it.
(Thanks to Roger LeLievre, mlive.com)
Dance Troupe celebrates 16 years
Dance Kaleidescope Choreographer and Artistic Director David Hochoy trained in New York, but has found a home in Indianapolis. The modern dance troupe is one he says reflects the community as well as his artistic aesthete.
This summer marks their last season with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and they're now looking to expand in their home town.
(Thanks to Whitney Smith, Indy Star)
Martinis and Mozart
The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra stretches its creative muscles from its music to its outreach program. They're bringing people in to experience symphony through such programs as a happy hour concert with free drinks and appetizers, a peek behind the curtain, a side-by-side mentoring program for youth, and radio broadcasts.
(Thanks to Whitney Smith, Indy Star)
Country-bluegrass-mandolin artist ready to experiment
He's been performing for 40 years, but tonight's show marks only the second time Marty Stuart has gone solo. He'll be taking the stage in Davenport, Iowa at the River Music Experience. His own band, the Fabulous Superlatives, will have a night off while Stuart explores his music before an audience.
"I'm just at a place in my life where I need to get out and do four or five shows on my own, to just see what's going on in my mind. I've been so busy, so productive for the past few years, I just have to see for myself what's going on up there."
(Thanks to David Burke, Quad-City Times)
Veteran turns to playwrighting to understand Abu Ghraib
Iowa-native Joshua Casteel experienced a crisis of faith while serving as an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison. A jihadist prisoner challenged him that he wasn't following the precepts of his own Christian faith. Casteel listened.
He left the military and wrote "Returns," aÂ play exploring the difficulty a soldier has in returning to civilian life. It's an autobiographical play that asks questions about faith and military service. Casteel, now an advocate for peace, has performed scenes from his play for such people as Czech President Vaclav Havel, British playwright Harold Pinter and actor Jeremy Irons.
The play received a full run in Iowa this past weekend.
International Jazz Festival touches down in Moscow, Idaho
Jazz has never been a corporate property, but has always belonged to the grass-roots musicians. So it should raise no eyebrows that the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival is running in Idaho this week. It features four days of performances, workshops, lectures and competitions.
(Thanks to Dana Oland, The Idaho Statesman)
Jenn McKee saw this production on its opening night. I saw it on its closing night. By the end of the single weekend run, there were no actors struggling with speaking through their fake teeth and the prosthetics contributed to the overall humor of the piece.
It was also refreshing to see a show that completely eschews the naturalistic acting style. John Neville-Andrews directed his actors to fully indulge in the asides and to declaim to the audience. The actors moved in a purposely stilted fashion, striking poses in a manner that celebrated theater as it was written in the 1700s. It plays oddly to modern eyes accustomed to a theater indelibly stamped with Ibsen, Miller, and Stanislavsky, but in so doing, it remains remarkably true to the work's time and place.
One of the objectives of Art.Rox is the provide a greater and deeper context in which arts journalists work and understand the value of their work as it applies to markets and regions outside the big media metropolises. Though we try to aim below the horizon, Frontline, the excellent program offered by PBS, has created a six-part series examining the troubled state of American journalism that we feel compelled to recommend. The series is a superb 30,000-foot-view addressing American journalism's history, economics, philosophy and struggle to remain stable amid battles with executive power, market pressures and emerging technologies which threaten to undermine the ways in which people understand the world around them.
You can watch each of the six parts of the series here.
"FRONTLINE examines the political, cultural, legal, and economic forces challenging the news media today and how the press has reacted in turn. Through interviews with key figures in print, broadcast and electronic media over the past four decades -- and with unequaled, behind-the-scenes access to some of today's most important news organizations, FRONTLINE traces the recent history of American journalism, from the Nixon administration's attacks on the media to the post-Watergate popularity of the press, to the new challenges presented by the war on terror and other global forces now changing -- and challenging -- the role of the press in our society."
Utilizing an already artful community
The University of Kentucky is using its outreach infrastructure to create centers throughout the state that focus on the arts. It's the first program of its kind in the U.S. The reasoning behind the initiative, headed by Stephanie Richards, who receives Governor's Award in the Arts today, is the that arts are good for the economy and good for a community's quality of life. Moreover, the program aims to identify and bring forth artistic endeavors already happening in communities. "Art, for generations, has been in the mechanics of the culture and day-to-day life, so the quilting was just part of the mechanics to survive when they needed heat," Richards says. "They didn't consider it art. Painting, oral historians and storytellers. ... When we first started doing our story gatherings, people said to be careful because people will be afraid to tell their stories.
(Thanks to Rich Copley, culture writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader)
Gordon Wright (1934-2007), maestro, antiquarian and mountainman, took classical music to corners of the earth
"The body of Gordon Wright was found by friends Wednesday night on the front porch of his cabin in Rainbow Valley near Indian south of Anchorage. The longtime conductor of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra appeared to have died from natural causes, state troopers said. He was 72. Wright lived alone in a one-room cabin off the power grid that was inaccessible by road. Friends, including this writer, brought the body out to the community parking area by sled, a quirky and utterly Alaska exit for a quirky Alaska character, a musician and a wit who, friends say, would surely have smiled at the antics and affection that accompanied his grand finale."
(Thanks to Mike Dunham, arts editor of the Anchorage Daily News)
Can public art really reflect a city's identity?
"One danger in pursuing public art that authentically reflects who we are, even assuming we can figure that out, is that it can easily become a public art by which we inauthentically imitate ourselves -- or a stereotype of ourselves."
(Thanks to Mike Greenburg, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News)
Composers live outside New York?
"Composer-critic Virgil Thomson once wrote that to be an 'American composer,' one simply had to be an American and write any kind of music you like. By that standard, at least, Atlanta is a hotbed of contemporary classical sounds. While there's no reliable estimate of how many composers operate in the metro area, at least 120 people have added their names to lists kept by the two most prominent Web sites for local composers. It's a scene that seems perpetually ready to blast off."
(Thanks to Pierre Ruhe, staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
We here at Art.Rox wouldn't normally post a story from the LA Times about a federal agency in Washington, D.C. But given this whole venture into the blogosphere was inspired by our time at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California, we figured an article looking back at Dana Gioia's (highly successful) first term as chairman of the NEA would be appropriate.
Remaking the National Endowment for the Arts: " ... (Dana) Gioia has had a profound effect on the NEA, converting the once-beleaguered federal program into the nation's main engine for integrating arts and education. It's a remarkable turnaround for an agency whose mere name was once enough to get Newt Gingrich and other social conservatives foaming at the mouth. Controversial exhibits, including Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs and Andres Serrano's picture of a plastic crucified Christ in a jar of urine, made the NEA the central battleground in the 1990s culture wars."
(Thanks to Scott Martelle, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times)
The most common reaction I got to that phrase was, "What's a newspaper march?"
It's a reaction I could relate to--I certainly hadn't heard of one before, and I was a member of a marching band for three years. What I discovered was a pretty fascinating piece of cultural history. The most famous march of the genre was the one written by John Phillip Sousa for the Washington Post in 1889. Since then, composers have created more than 300 marches named after and dedicated to newspapers in towns across the country.
The Advocate Brass Band has researched some of the history of newspaper marches, digging into the Library of Congress to find scores. They've put together several CDs of them that they offer for sale.
What I find most fascinating about this piece of cultural history is the intensely local nature of the composition. It's music written for a particular place and for a particular organization. It's music that has meaning for a group of people because it is about their hometown, about the newspaper that comes to their doorstep every morning.
While most of these were written in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they've continued to be produced throughout the years. The newspaper I write for commissioned composer John Moss to write one for its 150th anniversary. It premiered at Michigan State University which was also celebrating its 150th anniversary. You can read what I wrote about the Lansing Concert Band's recent performance of it here. The Lansing Concet Band's director talked about how important it was for that march to become a part of their repertoire. Aside from it being a great concert march, it was something that uniquely belonged to their city.
For me, it was yet another confirmation that art, good art, happens everywhere. Site-specific art doesn't have to belong only to the metropolitan areas. It can belong wherever people create.
Art reflecting local culture: A collector of post-1960s American prints told the Capital Times in Madison, Wisc., that Madison's sophisticated counter-cultural character is more suited to his collection than a city like Atlanta, whose museums chafed at the word "stoned" being used in the art.
The result is a gift to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art of three prints: Andy Warhol's 1982 portfolio of six colorful silk-screened dollar signs called "$1"; Robert Rauschenberg's 1989 color photogravure entitled "Soviet/American Array III"; and James Rosenquist's 1987 black-and-white aquatint and etching called "The Prickly Dark."
The benefactor is Stephen Dull (pronounced DOOL), a high-powered corporate executive for the VF Corp., a company based in Greensboro, N.C., whose brand names include Wrangler and Lee blue jeans, North Face outerwear and Nautica clothing. Dull is looking for an institution to give his entire collection to in future years. His collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Kiki Smith. Will this gift inspire others to donate large collections to musueums in the American Outback?
"Absolutely," Dull told the newspaper. "I've been attracted to what the museum is doing for a long time. I've seen many other museums, and this is a really tremendous institution. The new building is just a manifestation of the commitment to and support from the community to contemporary art. To me, this is about finding a place where art has the place in other people's lives that it has had in mine."
Call it the curse of topicality. The week that North Carolina's Council of State is forced to vote on changes in lethal injection protocols, a regional company stages Dead Man Walking. Read about how this all came together, here.
There's a fun interview with poet Andrei Codrescu at the Idaho Statesman site; check it out here.
Apparently Monet plays well in the outback: the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors bureau announced that "the Monet in Normandy exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art injected almost $24.3 million dollars in tourism revenue into the Wake County economy - more than double the initial projection." Just think....with all that money, maybe they could buy a Monet of their own! Anyway, read about it here.
Arts advocates in Kansas were relieved to learn that Gov. Matt Blunt has included money for the arts -- a little over $8 million -- in his annual budget recommendation. Though it's a pitance, some had feared the gov was going to stiff the arts completely. Read more here.
Floridians, apparently, love Florida -- Richard Florida, that is: "The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has picked Tallahassee and two other communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, Charlotte, N.C., and Duluth, Minn./Superior, Wisc., as the launch sites of the new Knight Creative Communities Initiative. It's a partnership with social theorist Richard Florida, author of 'The Rise of the Creative Class,' and Leon County's business, education and government leaders to enhance the area's economic base beyond government and education." Read more about it here.
Finally, at risk of self-promo, here is a review I wrote of the most recent performance by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra. I've gotten notes of thanks and praise from members of the chorus and the audience; I've also gotten angry letters telling me I need to show "fealty" (!?!?) to the orchestra and that reviews like this "will shut down this valued institution." So I guess a mixed-bag performance inspired a mixed-bag review which resulted in mixed responses!
Critic's notebooks, think pieces, essays and other kinds of intellectual explorations -- these you don't expect to find in local newspapers like mine.
For that, you go to the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly or some other highfalutin East Coast publication, whose readers are likley to be Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, tree-hugging, Bill Clinton-loving liberals. Local papers are for the red-blooded types, whose interests are in sports and hard news, just the facts, and whose concerns have little time for lah-dee-dah flights of fancy.
I received an email recently that might contravene this assumption (and I admit this characterization is something of a straw man, but work with me here).
In Savannah, we have four colleges in the area. One of these is Georgia Southern University, whose student body numbers more than 17,000. One of its faculty members, Sonya Huber, expressed her appreciation recently for a piece I wrote setting the exploits of James Frey, the author of "A Million Little Pieces," in the historical and philosophical context of postmodernism.
In short, I suggest perhaps our tolerance for postmodern relativism is waning. We simply are not buying into "essential truth" the way we did 10 years ago when John Berendt came out with "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," a "nonfiction novel" that by the way has had a massive impact on the economy of Savannah. We simply call it "The Book."
Anyway, Dr. Huber's note suggests there are audiences for this kind of writing even in the American Outback.
Dear Mr. Stoehr- I just wanted to send you a quick note of thanks for your context piece on James Frey from 1/28/07. I just started as an assistant prof out here at Georgia Southern this fall, and I am using your article for today's class with my creative nonfiction students--it's great timing, as we're talking about Frey and ethics in nonfiction. I was very glad to see a thoughtful examination of the meaning of the Frey debacle in a daily paper! It made my day.
Dept. of Writing & Linguistics
Georgia Southern University
From Bridgette Redman:
Theater people talk a lot about how theater builds community and makes their home a better place to live. It's that sense of community that is felt viscerally when tragedy strikes.
I'd skipped over the front page of the newspaper this morning on my way to work to get to the arts section. So it wasn't until an e-mail arrived pleading for sets, costumes, and volunteers that I heard the news that was on the front cover.
Owosso is a town of 16,000 people. Its downtown has many cultural landmarks including a castle built by a famous novelist. But the community's heart is found in the spotlights of the Lebowsky Theater, a historic building where the Owosso Community Players draw huge crowds every year with their musicals. The building was erected in 1926 and Players purchased it in 1991, making them one of the few local groups to own their own performance space.
At least, that was true until fire ripped through it Wednesday, destroying the auditorium, the stage, their equipment, and all of the sets and costumes for "Beauty and the Beast", the musical that was to open next Friday.
It's difficult to describe the death of an arts space. No matter what happens with rebuilding or insurance, there is a loss that can't be replaced. All the hopes and dreams poured into the space, all the work, all the laughter can now be sought only in memory and ashes.
When I last made the hour drive out there it was in 2005 to see Motown's Martha Reeves perform in a Motown Revue alongside singers from the community. My father tells a story of his childhood how his first trip to a "big city" was to Owosso and what was then the movie theater. Each year, the Owosso Players have put on more and bigger musicals and shows, making themselves a source of pride to their entire community. Now they are homeless.
The Owosso Community Players plan to open their musical next week on schedule. They don't know where and they don't know how, they just know that they're not going to let tragedy stop them from doing what art does best: bring people together.
Reuters reported Wednesday a study showing that investment in the newsroom will actually help newspapers make more money. This commonsensical conclusion came from researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who spent a decade scouring financial data to find that newsroom quality affected the bottomline more than advertising and other departments.
The findings emerge during a growing trend in the industry to eliminate jobs in order to boost profits. According to job outplacement tracking firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the number of planned job cuts in the U.S. media sector surged 88 percent to 17,809 last year, Reuters reported.
"If you invest in the newsroom, do you make more money? The answer is yes," Esther Thorson, an advertising professor and associate dean for graduate studies at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, said in a statement.
While some may see the study as cause for celebrating, given the anxiety currently besieging publishers over declining circulation, stock prices and relevance to young readers, Philip Meyer, a professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the book "The Vanishing Newspaper," told Reuters he won't be holding his breath.
"I don't share the authors' confidence that the industry will appreciate the importance of their result and act on it," Meyer said. "Too many owners are more interested in harvesting than investing."
Two days later, Georgia Public Broadcasing reports that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the largest paper in Georgia whose national stature has grown as the Southeast has grown, announced it will cut back on its circulation. It will no longer distribute to Alabama, South Carolina and Florida. It will also scale back in-state circulation to 66 of Georgia's 145 counties. The newspaper had previously delivered to 145 counties.
More from Bridgette Redman in Lansing:
One-hander plays are becoming increasingly common. Partly this is because theater budgets are shrinking and the payroll strain is lightened when they have to pay only one actor rather than multiple ones.
I'm still undecided on what I think of the genre. When done well, they can be immensely entertaining to watch. While I didn't care for the script's conclusion (though perhaps it was meant to be more satirical than it came across), Michigan's Williamston Theatre's production of Fully Committed was highly entertaining (click here for a full review).
It was a show that did underline a characteristic of one-hander shows: They're often more about the skill and technique of the actor than they are about the story. They're fun to watch because of what the actor is pulling off. They rent a low-budget space on the plane of spectacle theater.
Our colleague Victoria Welch, a staff writer for the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, writes in this morning's paper in the spirit of Art.Rox, offering a snowy New England point-of-view of the vibrant and somewhat unexpected theater scene in sunny Southern California.
This article contains reviews of three plays seen by the 25 fellows, one of whom was the vicacious Victoria, of the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater hosted by the University of Southern California: David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," the world premiere of Jason Robert Brown's musical "13," and Stephen Sachs' adaptation of August Strindberg's classic "Miss Julie."
Two days after the Grammy Awards on Sunday, two articles emerged that were exactly the kind of story newspapers are good at. One was in the New York Times, the other was in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Both focused on how the Dixie Chicks have been redeemed by sweeping the awards show.
These stories are what newspapers do best -- exploring a range of often competing ideas, talking about them intelligently, suggesting who we are as a society and what of interest is happening in our culture.
These were thoughtful stories developed over time. They weren't breaking news. People knew about the results of the Grammys way before the next day's paper. So why spend the rapidly shrinking inch-count on something people already know about.
Curt Holman, a 2005 fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California and writer for Creative Loafing in Atlanta, has thoughtfully pointed out a cover story, published in Time Out New York in December, that turns the tables on Big Apple critics. Anyone who reads Art.Rox ought to check it out. The book critics section is particularly interesting.
What's also interesting is the thinking expressed in the introduction. Writer Nathan Huang cleverly notes that critics give readers a lot to talk about, even if readers have no intention of experiencing the theater, concert or performance in question. One purpose of criticism, in other words, is providing readers with information with which to take action. But isn't another purpose to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of a community?
As Huang writes: "We live in a city that churns out massive amounts of art and entertainment, then proceeds to talk about it endlessly. At times it doesn't even matter if you haven't seen, read or heard something, as long as you can gab about it--and our local critics provide the handiest cheat sheets."
Even if a city doesn't churn out as much culture as New York (and let's face it, name one that does), culture still plays an important role in the lives of everyday people, even if they themselves don't know it. Here in Savannah, where I'm the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, people love -- and I mean love -- high school and college football.
There is an Southern adage worth remembering -- you don't get married in the fall, you don't die in the fall, you don't do anything in the fall except watch football. The result is people are gabbing about football endlessly come autumn. But why can't they also gab about the arts? Their children are involved in all sorts of cultural activities, in school and in other organizations. I suspect parents don't talk about the arts at least in part because such talk would be considered haughty and highfalutin.
Case in point, I was reading the New York Times while waiting for my lunch yesterday. The waitress came by with my order and patiently waited while I moved by newspaper. She said: "I don't want to put this on your New York Times," with a tone of voice that suggested I was some fancy-pants Yankee doing something regular folk, like her, don't do.
But when it comes to the arts, people in reality are very engaged; they just don't talk about it. In my view, that's where we as arts journalists can play a critical role -- by normalizing what they already experience and giving them the vocabulary to use in talking about it. Perhaps someday even a place like Savannah will talk about the arts as endlessly as we do about sports.
Gian Carlo Menotto, the founder of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., one of the country's premiere arts festivals, died on Feb. 1, 2007. He was 95. Yesterday, festival administrators released an official statement (see below). His passing is an occasion to reflect on the impact an internationally acclaimed composer and conducter can have on a small American city. Since a bitter dispute with his board 14 years ago, Menotti had had little to do with Spoleto USA, focusing more on his other festival in Spoleto, Italy. But in the wake of his death, reports Dottie Ashley of the Charleston Post and Courier, the two festivals may once again work together.
February 13, 2007
Dear Friend of the Festival,
All of us associated with Spoleto Festival USA are saddened by the death of Gian Carlo Menotti, who passed away on February 1, 2007.
Some thirty years ago, Mr. Menotti founded Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston as the "new world" counterpart to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. In his opening statement in the very first Spoleto Festival USA program, Mr. Menotti remarked, "Just as the composer - without being able to define 'inspiration' - knows when he is inspired, I knew that Charleston would be the town of my choice as soon as I set foot in it, and Charleston, with its enchantment, will confirm to the beholder the wisdom of this choice." His vision was for the festival to be "fertile ground for the young with new ideas and a dignified home for the masters." We embraced his vision and Charleston lived up to his expectations as the perfect setting for the festival. All of the artists and all of the members of the audience, board and staff since 1977 have in some way benefited from his inspiration.
During the festival this year, we plan to celebrate the life of Gian Carlo Menotti. Please continue to check www.spoletousa.org for additional programming if you would like to join us in remembering this remarkable composer and friend of the arts and artists.
Artistic Director for Choral Activities
The Christel DeHaan Music Director for Opera & Orchestra
The Charles E. and Andrea L. Volpe Artistic Director for Chamber Music
More from Bridgette Redman:
It's not the big budgets that make great art. In fact, I question whether big budgets can get in the way of great art. If art is all about making the sale, recouping the investment, and making sure box office sales are high, doesn't it lose touch with its creative power? Doesn't it become commercial rather than groundbreaking and expressive?
It's why I'm fascinated with groups that are creating compelling art with small to modest budgets. They have a certain freedom to pursue the art which speaks to them rather than the art which will sell to faceless masses created by marketing research composites.
In Lansing, Happendance is one of those groups that everyone knows. They're also a group that has had to be creative in finding ways to survive--especially after state arts funding was frozen in 1991. They're celebrating their 30th year and the story of their survival is one of commitment to their art, sacrifice by its founders, and the generosity of those who believe in dance as an expressive art form that makes our community a better place.
Mike Hughes chronicles that tale in this recent Lansing State Journal article.
The Montana Meth Project has earned more than a few headlines around the country for its extremely graphic television, billboard, and print ads. This week, a full-length documentary sponsored by the MMP is set to debut at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula (read about it here, and squirm). The doc will run on HBO next month.
And you thought there was nothing new in the theater...Just look what's happening in Louisville:
"While site-specific performances have become more prevalent, no company, as far as Louisville's Specific Gravity Ensemble can tell, has staged plays in elevators. Friday, the company premiered Elevator Plays: Ascent-Descent/Assent-Dissent."
Read all about it in Sherry Deatrick's review from the Louisville Eccentric Observer.
Several of the presenters at the recent NEA institute on theater journalism riffed on the importance of painting vivid detail in critiques of theater. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune told us he has a note posted on his computer that says: "Be Specific. Be Brave." Dominic Papatola of the St. Paul Pioneer Press asserted, "what we should try to articulate is the relative humidity in the room." Several others echoed that theme.
Perhaps it's illuminating to look outside of what we normally call theater criticism to find examples of such in-the-scene writing. Imagine, if you will, how a theater review would read if it took an approach more like this blog post, by Juan Carlos Rodriguez, about preparations for the Super Bowl in Miami. You can almost smell the pavement, the tensions...and the beer.
(Thanks to Mia Leonin for pointing us to Rodriguez's post)
It's usually the artistic directors, conductors, and other artistic staff that get the limelight in any performing arts organization. The administrative staff is respected and appreciated internally, but are rarely seen as anything but paper-pushing employees outside the organization.
Yet, an organization can live and die by its administrative staff. It's something that the Lansing Symphony Orchestra appears to have in mind when they selected their new executive director this month. David Gross, a percussionist for the Grand Rapids Symphony has been selected to be the next executive director.
He's a man who has learned from the administrative tragedies of others. As a professional musician he witnessed the labor disputes that caused the downfall of the Kansas City Philharmonic. Still a staunch union man, he's built a career by learning how to successfully negotiate contracts in ways that keep both musicians and the organization healthy and functioning.
In this story, Lawrence Cosentino of the Lansing City Pulse captures the importance of such skills to an organization in his profile of the incoming executive director.
At a time when arts organizations are spending more of their salary budget on administrative positions than on artists, it's always refreshing to see an organization that hires an artist who is also a capable administrator.
(Thanks to Bridgette Redman for pointing us to this story)
Looking over the entry categories for this year's Best of the West contest for journalists from the western U.S., I note what I've noted pretty much every year since I started as an arts writer: There's no category remotely related to arts. Even the "special topic column writing" category lists only the following as examples of such "special topics": politics, sports, food, television, or business.
Last year as I recall, the Montana Newspaper Association awards application still had categories for agriculture and natural resource reporting; but no arts category. This despite the fact that, according to a 2005 report by the Center for Applied Economic Reseach in Billings, there are more artists making their living in Montana than people employed by Montana's mining industry, wood products manufacturing industry, and building materials retail trade market.
What are we, chopped liver?
Below are notes, provided by Bridgette Redman (Thanks Bridgette!), from the lecture by New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, given at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute on Theater and Musical Theater. We're hoping to eventually get an audio link posted for the lecture; but in the meantime, there's plenty to chew on here.
The #1 problem of drama criticism is that you see yourselves as reporters. No. You are storytellers. You tell the story of what the play is about and what you think about it.
The real drama of critical experience is not a thumb up or down. Judgment is a part of it, but the narrative challenge is the mind of the critic meeting the mind of the playwright. The critic should state the case for the play better than the playwright.
The challenge is one of vocabulary. You have to have a big word horde of critical language, a rich vernacular about different spheres of the art. Build it up--keep words, phrases, jokes, funny things you hear. Store it up. Every time you hear a great line, put it down. Keep a notebook. Filled with notes and information for yourself.
Certain ideas start to secrete. It puts your unconscious mind to work. It's an important way of building up. Write down notes in advance of seeing a show. You're then more receptive, you're ready for a conversation. You've prepared yourself.
When you have a pad in hand, you're not watching the stage. Get a script so that you are fully present for the event. Some critics are in the seats, but they're not there. Read the experience, not the person's words. Operate in an arena of intuition. Be litmus paper. IF you are not open and receptive, if your critiquing isn't an act of generosity and love, why are you there? What is your function?
Tell the story of community and where you are. You are there to interpret. Take this thing and place it in a larger context.
The plot is not the play. It's a codified experience of a fiction that allows the author to speak, so figure out what it is really about. It's where the drama of the playwright and critic come together.
The playwright will mention what the play is about in the first 40 seconds. A good playwright will tell you the theme. It happens in Hamlet, The Seagull, The Lute.
Bring the event to the reader. Put together the text and the subtext and create for the reader the sense of the expedition the playwright has gone on. Get people into the theater to learn something.
We are all members of the audience. Be as responsive and responsible as possible. Be more informed and communicate that information back to the audience.
Broaden your experience of the theater. Words are not the only language of theater. We are intellectual entertainers. Play with the play, enter it, enjoy it and critique it. Give the reader a sense of a theatrical dimension in it. Your job is to animate this memory. Give the illusion of what you've seen.
There is not an objective point of view.
Theater is important even if it isn't being seen by the masses. Where else do you get stories told by individuals to other individuals? Other stories are told by corporations to pick your pocket. The theater is where people are saying what they really feel.
There are reasons people don't come to the theater. The whole point of terrorism is to make people afraid of groups.
You mediate between individual voices and get its argument out.
I disagree with everything Mary McCarthy writes. But she writes well. Her interests are lofty. She makes an argument alive. I don't agree with her, but I admire her expression.
Polish your expressiveness. It's not your reporting skills; it's what resonates with you. The theater isn't so much a beat as the thing you use to express what you feel. Use theater to express who you are.
I hate the condescension critics get. They are all figures of fun in literature. I prefer the metaphor of the gaze of the mother and child. The gaze is the power of critics and the problem of critics. If it isn't lovable, clearn, and free of excess baggage, then it isn't properly nurturing.
Unlike film, theater happens in real time. It's different every night. You are a living response to it. Where's the record when it is done? The record is down to the review. The review has great importance to the art form. It has an historical as well as a personal import. That's why it is sad that the writing isn't better.
How do you put the play in the larger context?
Not every play needs to be reviewed. Seeing 100 shows a year is deadening. It hampers criticism. I find my tolerance for being bored is in direct proportion to my age. It pisses me off when they waste valuable hours of what's left of my life. I'll leave. If you know you're not liking it, why stay? It kills your palette. You have to stay fresh. Don't see everything.
Critics need to know more.
Some critics aren't psychologically aware. Theater is psychology translated to behavior. It's all the psychology of individualism, the losing of the self.
You have to be involved in shows. Make sure you can get to where you can see shows--New York, Chicago, or London.
Story. Drama. Word horde.
You want a sentence to pop, to empower, to get a lot of interest. It's simply syntax. The verb, subject, noun predicate. The closer you can get them together and end on the point, the better the sentence will be. Put clauses before the subject. Let the sentence fall on the idea you want to hit. Make it a straight, powerful drive to the idea.
Try to identify a way of speaking.
It's weird to have regular readers. You become intellectual wallpaper. They get used to your tone and attitude. You have to really be honorable. Write to them. People are waiting for you to explain what they don't get. If you do criticism correctly, you're creating.
Criticism is a life without risk. You must come to the theater with an open and humble heart.
It's not a play without an audience. The echo from the audience is a part of the play.
Try to think against perceived opinions and yield different ideas. So much of the story we're told is never tested. Come at it from a different angle. Change your questions and see what answers you get.
In the future, they'll look at our songs, stories, and styles. Insist on joy. Explore the concept that culture is threatened. Do your job better than you know how to do it.
We love the Grammy Awards in Georgia. So much so that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent its excellent hip-hop reporter, Sonia Murray, to blog in Los Angeles live from the event Sunday. We have good reason to be excited. Many of last night's winners -- Ludacris, Ciara, Third DayÂ and T.I. -- have ties to the Peach State.
But the record industry hasn't realized how archiacÂ it has become in the wake of new technologies.Â However stylish it might be, the award show seems almost quaint compared to its former self 20 years ago.
In 1987, bands like Poison were selling millions of copies of hair-metal hokum (remember "Look What the Cat Dragged In"?). The same record today -- featuring that bedroom anthem for the ages, "Unskinny Bop" -- would be lucky to sell a few hundred thousand. Indeed, the standards of being a hitÂ have changed so much thatÂ selling aÂ million records would be considered aÂ smash.
Pop music critics have been bemoaning the vanilla flavor of theÂ Grammys for years, but now in the wake of internet downloading (legal and otherwise), in which music is measured in megabytes not physical CDs, the critics have quantifiable evidence to support long-held charges of irrelevance. Fewer and fewer people are buying records. Why then isÂ there so much to-do about the Grammys?
Perhaps it's denial. But it could also be the force of nostalgia. David Marchese, from Salon, reports the Grammys -- that bastion of the young and hip --Â were headlined by Earth, Wind and Fire, the Police, Lionel Ritchie and the Eagles. The president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences,Â Neil Portnoy, gushed over his youthful excitement after seeing Elvis perform on TV. He thought, "I want to be a record executive."
Let's see, Elvis has been dead for how long?
The foundation of the record industry was poured during the heyday of Elvis and the Beatles. The industry controlled the artists, the recording technology and the means of distribution. It had a lock on everything and all was good. And when MTV came along, things got even better, as long as the MTV was the gatekeeper in charge of who gets in and for how long.
That's no longer the case and will not be the case again, as Mark Swed notes in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The irony is that newspapers like theÂ Atlanta Journal-Constitution and my own paperÂ are hoping coverage of the Grammys will attract younger readers. But they are not buying records. Baby boomers are, and they are already reading the papers. Georgia newspapersÂ are rightfully cheery about Georgians being in the national spotlight, but that spotlight won't be there for long. It's just a matter of time.
-- John Stoehr
This blog is an attempt to continue the vibrant conversation that I and Joe Nickell, the arts reporter for the Missoulian in Missoula, Mont., experienced during the USC Annenberg's 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater. We felt strongly that something more than a listserve between Fellows from 21 states in the union was necessary to keep the dialogue (and the excellent writing, I might add) going.
Moreover, this blog is an expression of the different perspectives of the art world and practices of art journalism outside the big media centers of New York City and Los Angeles. Case in point is the adaptation we saw of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," currently playing at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
Set in 1964 Greenwood, Miss., Stephen Sachs' stunning interpretation will no doubt resonate differently to a media-savvy New York critic than it will with an African-American audience in the South, where the dynamics of racial power and the paradoxes of Jim Crow are still deeply felt. While the necessity of such an adaptation might not be apparent to a effete Northerner, the need (at least from the perspective of this Yankee living in Dixie) is abundantly clear to an audience of a certain aesthetic sensibility in the South.
Joe and I had the good fortune of hearing a presentation by Doug McLennan, the editor of Artsjournal.com and regular contributor of cultural journalism for papers throughout the country. His presentation painted an astonishing picture of the future of media and the role of cultural journalists in that future.
In the next 20 years, the very notion of mass media will be undermined, perhaps to the point of extinction, by emerging technologies that are creating ever more diverse niches of affinity and inquiry. That is to say, the all-things-to-all-people model of journalism won't make much sense in a information universe organized by smaller and smaller categories and made available on-demand.
Most newspapers aim for the lowest common denominator, hoping that if they hit their readership right down the middle they will gain wider circulation numbers. That means stories are getting shorter, less provocative and less interesting for those with curious minds and a need to understand the world around them. (Those with curious minds, ironically, are probably the very people that newspapers would like to have, since they tend to have more education, more interest in their communities and more money.)
The recent death of Anna-Nicole Smith is instructive. Within hours of her death, the country knew about it. Yet the next day USA Today played the story above the fold as if it were breaking news. Why use that coveted place in the print edition for something most people knew about already? Why not give that to stories developed over time, that are well written and that cannot be found anywhere else?
No doubt the newsroom logic is that the paper's readers want to know about what happened and so they feel they are giving readers what they want. The irony is, however, that they already know by way of blogs, cable news, websites, text messaging and so on. So the question not being asked is, what value does such a story add to what's already known?
I think this kind of thinking has a lot to do with arts journalists. If the newsroom is aiming for the lowest common denominator, then it's pushing out more nuanced, more niche-oriented, more thoughtful stories, like what's happening in local communities, what artists are doing in those communities and how arts organizations play an important role in the lives of real people.
Moreover, the concern in the newsroom is how to get people who don't read to read the paper. Answer? Stories like the death of Anna-Nicole Smith, a story that everyone already knows. The question not being asked is, why are we trying to get people who don't read to read the paper? People who don't read have already gotten the story from someplace else. People who do read are looking for something else in their newspapers, like why geographical context would affect the perspective and ultimate aesthetic of a new adaptation of "Miss Julie."
Joe and I also had the pleasure of seeing a live interview with Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Gioia came on board as attacks on the NEA and its support of "The Piss Christ" and others were peaking. His legacy will be changing the perception of the NEA from a federal agency that supports artists to one that serves Americans by providing them with art and artistic experiences. "It's not about artists; it's about Americans," Gioia said.
Likewise, we arts journalists need to start changing the perception of the arts in our newsrooms. The focus shouldn't just be on quality of the arts, but also on the meaning of the arts to people. With our hyperfocus on assessment (thumbs up, thumbs down), we are playing into the "service journalism" philosophy that is one of the bedrocks on the all-things-to-all-people mentality. Is it worth spending the money on? Such an approach is a commodification of arts journalism. As a result, we are slowly writing ourselves out of a job because commodified journalism can be done so much better outside newspapers.
What newspapershave historically done better than anyone else is tell people what's important, why and how, and they have been a wonderfully eclectic catch all for the interesting things that happen in our communities, full of everything from news to comics to political columns to arts journalism. Art.Rox attempts to address some of the issues facing the arts, artists and arts journalism. Joe and I hope to hear from you and hope to keep the conversation going.
-- John Stoehr
Let's cut to the heart of what inspired this blog in the first place. In his keynote address to the NEA Institute mentioned in the first post, New Yorker senior theater critic John Lahr stated, with what at least appeared to be a straight face, "If it's not in the New Yorker, it doesn't exist in the culture." He went on to explain his belief that the New Yorker serves as the de facto publication of record for theater in America.
While it's true that the New Yorker consistently has some of the finest and most thought-provoking theater criticism in America, this assertion seems the exact kind of New York-centric thinking that is common in the arts world. If you're serious about theater, you go to New York. If you're serious about film, you go to Los Angeles. Yada Yada.
I, for one, would beg to differ, both in spirit and letter. For one thing, the New Yorker isn't exactly the most widely read publication in America; there are plenty of other newspapers and magazines that offer theater criticism (at least in some small doses) that reach larger numbers of people. The Los Angeles Times is but one example.
But beyond that is the implied question of whether art in other places really matters in our historical and cultural trajectory; whether serious and significant art happens in other places.
I live in Missoula, Montana, sharing a river valley with about 60,000 people. It's true that Missoula lacks the diversity of culture in New York. It's also true that the archives of the Missoulian newspaper aren't quite as widely or well preserved as those of the New Yorker (although that's changing as the paper's body of work online grows); so some things that happen in my city do become largely lost to history once they've passed.
Still, many of the artists I know in Missoula live here for reasons that are more about their art than about their exposure to the world: The mountains inspire them, fly fishing soothes them, etcetera. It's a quieter place than New York, and thus a great place for contemplation and focused creativity. There are important things that happen here.
And Missoula is just one place in a big, big country. It's a place that John Lahr himself visits on occasion, to fly fish. Surely he can understand why an artist might choose the big sky of Montana over the bustle of New York.
And in Missoula, I daresay our local culture matters more to us than what's happening on Broadway.
Welcome to art.rox, a blog about art in the American outback. This blog was created as a means for arts journalists and artists outside the major American urban areas to celebrate, discuss, critique, and simply share what they do.
My name is Joe Nickell; I'm the arts and entertainment reporter at the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Montana. As I write this, the third annual NEA Institute in Theater and Musical Theater is wrapping up in Los Angeles. I've been fortunate to be a part of this Institute; the energy, communion, and sharing of ideas that we've experienced in the past two weeks has been amazing. Life-changing, I would even hazard to say.
This blog is intended partly as a means for the fellows of this Institute to continue sharing ideas. But there are bigger hopes here: That this can ultimately grow to serve the larger community of journalists, artists, and institutions involved in the arts in America -- particularly those who reside in smaller cities and rural areas of the country.
This blog is currently co-hosted by John Stoehr, arts and culture reporter at the Savannah Morning News. He'll likely say hi soon enough.
Welcome. Say hi!
Art.Rox is a blog about art in the American outback. It was created as a means for arts journalists and artists outside the major American urban areas to celebrate, discuss, critique, and simply share what they do.
This blog is intended partly as a means for the Fellows of the USC Annenberg's 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater to continue sharing ideas.
But there are bigger hopes here: That this can ultimately grow to serve the larger community of journalists, artists, and institutions involved in the arts in America -- particularly those who reside in smaller cities and rural areas of the country.
Art.Rox is co-hosted by Joe Nickell, John Stoehr, Bridgette Redman and Jennifer A. Smith.
John Stoehr is the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga. He is a two-time Fellow of the Arts Journalism Institutes of the National Endowment for the Arts. He is also a book critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications.
Joe Nickell is the arts and entertainment reporter for the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Montana. Like John, he is a two-time Fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institutes. He is also co-host of Rox, an independent television series that was dubbed "the best TV show in America" by Wired Magazine and "the first television series broadcast in cyberspace" by Time. A former contributing editor at Res Magazine, Joe has written for publications including the New York Times, Salon.com, Wired, Outside, and Business 2.0.
Bridgette Redman is a freelance performing arts columnist and theater reviewer for the Lansing State Journal in Lansing, Michigan. She was a 2007 Fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater. She is also a textbook editor and writer for the American Hotel & Lodging Association Educational Institute; the publisher of Book Help Web; a category lead for the book, newspaper, and magazine section of Epinions.com; a ghost writer; a freelance magazine writer; and a drama instructor for K-3 at a local Montessori school.
Jennifer A. Smith lives in Madison, Wis., where she manages the state's arts and culture Web site, Portalwisconsin.org. She is also a freelance arts writer whose work appears regularly in Madison's alternative weekly, Isthmus, and other publications.Â She is a graduate of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a 2007 Fellow of the NEA/USC Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater.