Newspaper association: Art doesn't matter in Montana

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.

February 23, 2007 2:36 PM | | Comments (13)



Joe, the Great Falls Tribune has an "arts blog" writer, Laura Ritter, who writes "Eye of the Beholder." Eric Newhouse is the "special projects" editor but also often writes about Western art (the big Russell Auction in March is pivotal in that context) and has a special interest in Native American art -- not just artifacts, but serious contemporary art. Neil Parsons, Francis Wall, etc.

The Montana Arts Council recently did a survey of the artists and the writers in the state to ask them how much money they made, reasoning that if the legislature knew how much money was generated by art, they would finally give a little more money to the Council. There are people in this state, especially at the Billings end, who make millions of dollars from art and writing. (Charlie Fritz and his L&C series, the Butterfield horses, etc.) I seriously doubt that ANY of them answered that questionnaire. I suspect they got answers from folks who sell at Fairs and Farmer's Markets. Anyway, those folks also deserve some serious consideration and taken in toto their money was impressive.

"I can't remember the last time I or anybody wrote a story about the CM Russell auction or the type of art that comprises its offerings." Exactly. There is some VERY fine American Impressionism that goes through that auction -- Moran, Bierstadt, Sharp, and this year Couse. This is not what I mean by schock. I think that you are not in Flyover country at all. You're in the "Montana Paris," which is more closely related to the Pacific Coast than the prairie.

Prairie Mary

Mary, I'm sorry you feel that no vital art happens in Missoula. With due respect, you're simply not looking. And frankly, I'm not sure who you see as promoting this "schlock," as you call it, at expense of .... whatever else it is that you think is important. I'm the arts beat reporter at the Missoulian, and I can't remember the last time I or anybody wrote a story about the CM Russell auction or the type of art that comprises its offerings.

Without even getting into the merits of that art, it seems you're complaining about a bias that doesn't exist.

All right. I can't stand it. Didn't any of you guys ever hear of "Western art" or "cowboy art," a million dollar industry propelled by the annual CMRussell Auction in Great Falls which has been copied across the West -- so successful that now Sotheby's is horning in? "Art critics" are like "Christians" who thought Native Americans had no religion because it didn't look like THEIR religion.

If there ever was a category of art that needed some good vigorous criticism -- as opposed to promotion -- it's "Western art." Past time to prune the schlock and get to the really vital stuff, which --incidentally -- doesn't show up in Missoula, Joe.

Prairie Mary
(Mary Scriver)

You make a strong case, Joe, and I agree. What I think is happening here is what's been happening for a long time in newsrooms. Critics -- arts reporters or arts feature writers, whatever we choose to call ourselves -- are not valued, because what we do is not clearly understood.

It's not as quantifiable as what other reporters do. The City Hall reporter has a role that's clearly defined. It's gathering facts, making sense of the facts and communicating those facts to a reader. With arts writing, there's more judgement involved. It's qualitative sometimes, not quantitative.

Moreover, because there's not much distinction made between arts and entertainment in most newsrooms, what we do is considered to be fluffy and hence not to be taken seriously and hence not worthy of its own award category.

And I think this has been historically the case because most people who cover the arts are reporters who have switched beats. How else can we explain the prevelance of reviews that consist of who, what, where and thumbs-up/thumbs-down -- no context, no insight, no greater meaning?

I think your editor is wrong, and here's why: even at papers that don't have an arts reporter, somebody ends up writing about the arts. There's not a town in America where there isn't an occasional arts story; and so the reporters who get thrown into those stories would likely appreciate some kind of carrot to encourage them to care when they work on those stories. Our reporters here share agriculture story responsibilities; and sometimes one of us wins that award from the state association. It helps validate the effort.

And, perhaps even more importantly for our self-preservation: the publishers who go on a limb and hire a full-time arts reporter won't mind being reminded of the fruits of their decision, when awards time comes around.

I wrote my editor about the lack of arts categories at the Georgia Press Association awards. I asked if there shouldn't be categories in arts reporting, criticism and feature writing. Her answer is below:

"Yep, there probably should be except that only a couple papers would have folks that qualify, so it'd be a race between the AJC writers and us.

Most of the GPA papers are under 30,000 circulation, and the majority are less than daily. Granted, there should be dedicated arts coverage everywhere, but it's becoming more and more a luxury every day. As far as I know, Savannah and Atlanta are the only two papers in the state with dedicated arts coverage.

Columbus [the Ledger-Enquirer, where she was editor before coming to the Savannah Morning News] has a very terrific arts reporter who is now writing GA news and features. He writes arts stories as they come up because he loves them, not because that's seen as a primary coverage need as the staff dwindles. Luckily, his work online has helped that a lot and he's building an audience there. I think that's probably what the future brings.

Those choices have been on my mind a lot lately, and I am beginning to believe wholeheartedly that the web is the answer. If that's where the younger audience is, then that's where we need to focus more attention than ever. I'm really glad you're blogging regularly, because I think it draws them over time to the printed pieces."

All right, perhaps our quest needs to be to find a newspaper association that does award arts coverage. I just checked and Michigan doesn't have it either, though it does have "feature" writing and web page awards.

After looking through the categories for the first time of the Georgia Press Association's awards, I discovered that Georgia also has no category for arts news reporting, criticism or feature writing. The categories for merit in journalism seem as outmoded as traditional journalism itself.

Technology? In Montana? Bwah!

In all seriousness though, I am pretty sure there isn't a full-time technology beat reporter in the state. I would also be surprised to learn if there is a full-time agriculture beat reporter. Yet I'm pretty sure I'm not the only full-time arts beat reporter in Montana. That's what seems most odd to me.

The sad thing is, arts reporting isn't exactly a "new" thing.

Do they have technology categories?

My editor, like all MT paper editors, is involved in the group. She has complained about their outdated categories before, but apparently to no avail. I might write a column about this; maybe a little public shaming is in order.

Cows and abstract expressionism. I think you're onto something.

Have you talked to anyone at the association? Do they have any sort of explanation?

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