Where do readers fit in? And what do we want from them?
A few weeks ago, I had a brief conversation about local arts writing with someone I greatly admire. A third person had asked me how often I get letters in response to what I write in the local alt weekly, and I told him it didn't happen that often. Mostly (as one might assume) people write in when they're unhappy with something in a review; the positive comments I get are more likely to be personal notes directly from artists, not something published in the public sphere. At any rate, I asked these two educated, connected people why they don't think more people write in to papers about arts coverage and one of them responded, "I'm more likely to write in about a political issue. That gets me more fired up."
I hear her. Politics are one of my other main passions in life, and the times in recent memory I've sent a letter to the editor, it's been about a local or national political issue. But this got me fretting again about one of my pet issues: why don't readers write in more to their newspapers about arts coverage? Especially now, in this time when many are lamenting cuts in arts journalism positions, why don't people send in letters to show editors they're reading arts coverage? Whether the comment is a positive or negative one about a writer's work is of less interest to me; it's like that adage that any PR is good PR. What I want most is to see that readers care about the quantity and quality of the arts coverage available to them.
One caveat: I'm talking specifically about print coverage here. One of the great things about the blogosphere (a dumb yet efficient term) is the ease with which it enables give-and-take. Responding to something in a print publication takes a little more work--one can fire off a letter via e-mail but still needs to wait to see when (or if) it will be published. Things are slower and more static.
It should also go without saying that I'm also not worrying about that segment of the population that is not interested in arts coverage. I skip the sports page, they skip the arts, and that's OK. We don't all need to have the same interests. What intrigues me are people like this woman that I know--highly intelligent, culturally involved--who don't usually respond to arts coverage.
I've got a few theories about this phenomenon (in general, not in reference to this individual). Partly, I feel that many arts people, especially in smaller cities where arts are not always a big part of the local identity, feel disempowered. They get used to being ignored or not taken seriously, so they start opting out of the larger discussion or they feel grateful for any coverage at all.
Another issue may be the "complaint syndrome": we're more likely to write in when something moves us passionately and negatively, like a political controversy. I'd liken this to how most of us would only call a store or restaurant manager if we had a bad experience in their establishment; we don't normally contact businesses to let them know they did something well or simply OK. Thus much arts coverage (lots of which consists of inoffensive previews and feature stories) doesn't really inflame readers' passions. And, of course, most people are just plain busy; I don't want to read anything nefarious into readers' silence on cultural matters.
Then again, maybe I'm living in a bubble of relative quiet regarding readers and arts coverage--though I doubt it. I'd like to hear from readers of this blog how they feel about the role of readers in local arts journalism, wherever "local" is for you. Are things lively? Curiously silent? And do you feel that if readers were more vocal, we'd see more and better arts coverage?
Of course, this concern of mine could be written off as merely ego or self-interest on my part (naturally, every writer wants to feel read and get a compliment from time to time), but I feel my point is larger than that. Call me naïve or overly sincere, but I really do believe in trying to have a cultural dialogue; it makes the experience of the arts richer and more meaningful. And it is in the best interest of artists, too. In April, I was invited to be the featured speaker at the annual dinner of a nearby artists' group. Although it wasn't the focus of my talk, I encouraged them to stand up for arts journalism in their area, to write a letter just to show that they're reading.
While visual artists in particular have become more savvy about marketing themselves in recent years, all the press releases, phone calls, etc. in the world don't really matter if no one takes notice. And for the media to take notice, all of us who care about arts coverage need to show it. I may be a writer, but I'm also a reader.
(Update as of Nov. 1, 2007: I'm turning off the comments on this post since, for reasons I don't understand, it is getting a lot of spam comments that seem to be automated. I'm getting tired of having to junk them. If you're an actual, live person with something you want to say about this topic, please let me know [e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org] and I'll turn the comments back on for you -- or you can leave your comment in your e-mail and I'll post it.)
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog