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March 15, 2008

Major universities can have a major impact on local arts

Rich Copley

Uk_symphony_carnegie_hall

The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performed in New York's Carnegie Hall with Arlo Guthrie in November, under the baton of John Nardolillo. The ensemble also performs in Lexington regularly, including a February concert with cellist Lynn Harrell. Copyrighted photo by Aaron Lee Fineman | for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

A few weeks ago I took a look at the front page of Arts + Life, our Sunday features section in the Lexington Herald-Leader. There was a story about a double bill of plays by University of Kentucky Theatre, a piece about UK soprano Afton Battle in the national semifinal round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and, inside, a story about a new UK ­musical and operetta club.

A few nights later, I was in UK's Singletary Center to hear the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, and I noted that concertmaster Daniel Mason directs UK's string program, principal violist Joseph Baber teaches composition at UK, principal ... well, you get the idea.

Even when you're not dealing with a UK organization, there's a good chance there will be a tie to the university.

That is not to diminish the efforts of artists from other area schools. I'm reminded of folks such as Stephanie Pistello, a Transylvania University theater graduate who now directs the New Mummer Group in New York; John Ellison Conlee, who graduated from Centre College's theater program and went on to a Tony Award nomination for his performance in The Full Monty; and singers such as Corey Crider and Norman ­Reinhardt, who got their starts at Morehead State University and Asbury College, respectively, before filtering through grad school at UK on their way to burgeoning opera careers. We have a wealth of colleges and universities in Central Kentucky with substantial arts programs. And covering UK arts extensively is not a subversive effort at boosterism (my dirty secret: I was born and raised a Duke fan -- one of UK's mortal enemies in basketball).

There's something to be said for having a major land-grant university in your city. It elevates the possibilities for what you can do and what your community demands.

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March 14, 2008

Audience Etiquette

Suzi Steffen

Should promoting audience etiquette be part of our jobs?

I'm thinking about this because of a Guardian UK blog post about theater etiquette.

I'm also thinking about it because in the town where I grew up (which I believe Terry Teachout calls something like a "second-tier" city, in no doubt much more elegant terms), the classical music critic for the daily paper wrote about audience etiquette. I'd say "often" or "a few times," but the truth is that just because I have strong memories of the few times doesn't mean it was, or wasn't, often.

That critic, whose work I remember reading in high school and perhaps college, was Scott Cantrell, now of the Dallas Morning News. (I emailed him to see if I was making this up; I'll update when I get a reply.)

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March 11, 2008

There's something happening out here

Rich Copley

Humana_the_civilians

Michael Friedman, Jim Lewis and Steven Cosson (L-R) discuss This Beautiful City, the play they created about the evangelical community in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is part of 32nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actor's Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Maggie Huber | Lexington Herald-Leader and LexGo.com.

Last week, I saw a performance of Lee Blessing's new play, Great Falls. It was an excellent piece of theater that belied the bells and whistles of so many shows today by focusing on two terrific, well-traveled actors under the guidance of a first-rate director.

And I was nowhere near New York City. Not even Chicago or San Francisco. I was in Louisville, a town most people only think about the first Saturday in May. But every year, somewhere around the last weekend in March, the Derby City becomes the center of the theater world with critics and theater professionals flocking in for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

The festival, which has launched critically acclaimed plays such as Crimes of the Heart, is now into its fourth decade. It has had its up years and down years, but with recent hits such as Dinner with Friends and Omnium Gatherum, people still come to Humana hoping to be among the first to discover the next great thing.

Nowadays, when people describe Humana, it's often compared to the Sundance Film Festival, another major arts (yes, it attracts glitterati, but most of its offerings are geared to the art houses) event that thrives outside of major mets. Look south to Charleston, S.C. (John, are you ready?) and we have Spoleto, a major arts festival with a schedule that will make you da-rool, da-rool.

Chatting with Jim Clark, the president and CEO of LexArts, the United Arts Fund here in Lexington, he pointed out that one of the common denominators of these and other major arts happenings outside of the cultural capitals of America is that they didn't have great infrastructure to launch. What they had was a great vision that serious and substantial work could be done right where they were. It's the kind of success that should make you look around and wonder what could happen, wherever you are.

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January 31, 2008

Tilting at windmills

Bridgette Redman

Pretend for a moment that I'm the owner of a fine-dining establishment.

I've experienced a success that few would complain about. I have a very loyal customer base, including those who pay me weekly visits. I've enjoyed great profit margins, outperforming most other restaurants in the area.

My chefs have won awards for the quality and creativity of the dishes they create. One review even said that we've helped to change the culinary environment of our region because of our chef's artistry.

Food costs are high and it isn't cheap to produce and serve our food, but that's been more than made up for in profit and customer loyalty.

One day, I look about the food and beverage environment and read about the success of McDonald's. They have far more customers than I do and they make more money. Changes have to be made!

I call a staff meeting and tell my executive chef that he's going to have to start offering chicken fingers and fried burger patties. Also, he needs to reduce the amount of time it takes to prepare orders by pre-preparing the most popular dishes and getting rid of any dishes that take too long to prepare. I skillfully ignore the look of horror that comes across his face and hand him the statistics that point out people want fast food--it's obvious by how many people are buying it.

What will happen to my audience? Even if my chef doesn't immediately quit in a huff, it's pretty certain that I'll quickly drive away all of my loyal customer base. I'll lose the customers I have and will likely find myself unable to compete with the resources and processes of a McDonalds.

The story seems pretty foolish, and yet, sometimes it feels that it is precisely how newspapers today are being run. Rather than work at appealing to the readers that they have, they're chasing after television viewers, Internet junkies, and non-readers. The loyal readers are treated with almost contempt as editors and writers state with conviction that everything needs to be written in bullets and short little bites because, "No one reads anymore."

Newspapers slavishly cover pop culture in a pale imitation of entertainment networks while ignoring those readers who really want substance--those readers who have been the bread and butter of subscribers. Newspapers rabidly pursue the masses, seemingly blissfully ignorant of the Long Tail concept that reminds us that today's economy is swinging toward selling more for less rather than less for more.

It's almost a mantra in corporate America that it is more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep and please a loyal customer--and loyal customers will earn you more revenue than new ones. They're also more likely to become advocates for you, doing some of your marketing work for you.

So why is it that newspapers have little interest in readers? Yes, growth is important, but there needs to be growth among people who want your product. It's an uphill battle to constantly remake yourself in an attempt to sell yourself to someone who really doesn't want you--especially if in the process you stop being what your loyal customers wanted from you.

What sparks this rant today? In part, it is this article. The vast majority of the article talks about the health of theater in Detroit--the creation of new companies, the expanded seasons, and the fact that despite financial hardships, not a single company shut its doors. Then in the final paragraph, Don Calamia reports that Marty Cohn retired from the Free Press--leaving not a single full-time arts critic at any of the dailies in the greater Detroit area.

It would be one thing if this were just a single incident. Yet, while the arts community continues to grow, flourish, and expand in surprising new directions, the coverage gets smaller and smaller. I've talked to far too many people in both the academic and arts community who say they don't bother to read the paper anymore because there is no longer anything compelling in its pages. There is no longer a reason to convince them to plop down their two quarters. They don't want something they can read in a 30-second glance. They want to read something that will provoke them, get them to think, evoke an emotion, or inspire them to do something.

How can you accomplish those things with three printed bullets?

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October 25, 2007

Is grief a conflict?

Bridgette Redman

Critics are trained to think of themselves as objective observers of shows. While we strive to be receptive to what we see, we are also constantly analyzing and setting aside our personal feelings and any potential baggage.

It was that need for emotional distance that had me questioning a few weeks ago whether I should ask my editor to reassign the review I was scheduled to do. It wasn't a matter of my having any sort of personal connection with the show or anyone in it. Rather, my grandfather was in the late stages of cancer and we had been told he would likely die within the week. Would I be able to properly review a musical farce about two Wisconsin ice fishermen if I had to go the day my grandfather died? After discussing it with my editor, we decided that I would go ahead with the previous plans to attend the show and write the review.

The show was superbly done--which didn't surprise me as so far everything Williamston Theatre has done in the two years of their existence has been superb--and I found myself deeply drawn into the show. Some of this was because one of the two main actors reminded me a great deal of my grandfather, a man who loved his fishing. When the musical turned serious and started talking about how short our life is here on earth and how unexpectedly it could end, I cried through the entire song.

A few hours after getting home from the musical, I learned that my grandfather had died. Almost immediately I blogged about both the musical and his death. It's one of the wonderful things about blogs, you can write personal things that would likely never be appropriate for a newspaper. This is especially true given that my blog isn't associated with the newspaper in any way.

As I mourned for the next few days, I found myself faced with writing the review. I had to do a fair amount of soul-searching. Should I disqualify myself from writing the review because I had such a deep, emotional connection based on personal events? Could I honestly saying that I was being objective and unbiased?

Eventually, the answer that I came up with was that as a theater critic, I'm not required to put my humanity into deep freeze. The reader loses no value in a review simply because I am able to connect with a play. On the contrary, how useful can we as critics be to our readers if we never allow ourselves to feel anything or to emotionally connect with a show the way that our readers will?

So, I wrote the review, being careful to sort out in my own mind what was personal and what was valid material for evaluation (and given our 300-word limit, it certainly helped with identifying material to cut).

That was my answer. I'm curious what other critics might have done in the same situation--or even whether you'd even consider the situation a potential conflict.

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August 30, 2007

Partying with Artists

Bridgette Redman

I'm going to depart from both of the two planned entries that I have in partial draft for today's post.

Instead of talking about weightier issues, I'm going to tell you about a party I went to last night. And if you'll bear with me, you'll see that it's not totally off subject for Flyover as the party had to do with both art and journalism.

The soiree took place at the historic Gem Theatre in downtown Detroit, in a beautiful section of the city near the new field for the Lions. More than 200 people packed into the cabaret-seating style theater enjoying a cocktail reception, a show, and then a dessert reception.

The show was the Oscar Wilde Award Night, sponsored and produced by a Detroit weekly, Between the Lines, to recognize excellence in local professional theater. The newspaper puts on an excellent party and representatives from the theater community from Detroit, Ann Arbor, Jackson, and Lansing turn out to celebrate.

The three reviewers from the newspaper reviewed 96 productions from 31 different professional companies. When announcing the nominations, Don Calamia, staff arts critic wrote:

For despite the second worst economy in the nation that seemingly kept a noticeable number of paying customers out of the seats and a governor who reneged on several million dollars of previously promised grant money, not one theater that Curtain Calls reviewed over the past few seasons shut its doors for financial reasons - despite numerous rumors to the contrary.

Instead, the Williamston Theatre set up shop in a sleepy little town near Lansing, and Who Wants Cake? snuck into Fabulous Ferndale with The Ringwald, a renovated home all its own. And StarBright Presents Dinner Theatre doubled its venues, one in southern Oakland County and another in northern Macomb County.

Call them crazy - and you wouldn't be the first - but these brave souls reflect the attitude of ALL Michigan thespians who believe the mitten state is a great place to live, work and raise a family - despite some major obstacles. So they stay and struggle - oftentimes for little money and even less recognition.

The staff at this newspaper understand their community and the environment it works in. More than one person expressed genuine surprise at receiving an award because, as they said, they didn't know anyone knew them. There was an amazement and gratitude that someone saw them and recognized their work.

For any in the journalism world who might wonder whether the arts community has noticed the cutback in arts coverage, let me share a moment with you. The master of ceremonies asked the newspaper's publishers to come to the stage to give out the publisher's award of excellence. Before the two women arrived at the lectern, the audience was on its feet, giving them a standing ovation. They recognized the commitment this newspaper has made to its art coverage and were eager to express their appreciation for it.

Earlier in the evening when I was talking to those same publishers about how thorough their arts coverage is, one of them said, "We're gay, we have to cover theater." A nearby actor came back with, "No, you don't have to, that's why it's great that you do."

Between the Lines is a newspaper that recognizes how vibrant the theater community is and how much coverage matters. Earlier this year, Calamia went to the publishers and said, "We need to do more." This from the critic who reviewed more than 70 shows, outstripping the two Detroit dailies and every other newspaper in that town. The publishers agreed with him. So they're soon launching Encore Michigan, a Website that will contain daily updates with new reviews every Monday morning.

Between the Lines is a shining beacon lighting the way to what is possible for newspapers to do. They demonstrate how to be part of the community while providing outstanding arts coverage. They understand their role in the ecosystem. While the artists may not always like what they say, they're grateful that someone is out there talking about their art, letting them know that they were heard, and telling others what is happening.

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August 2, 2007

Art for money or money for art?

Bridgette Redman

Our readers often inspire me as much as our colleagues. Something that resonated with me this week was Steve Durbin's comment on Joe Nickell's post. He said that "people work for their passions, as well as for money." I'd have to agree with him. I'm not sure there is anything other than passion worth spending one's life blood and precious time for. I know that one of the reasons I do corporate writing is to subsidize the type of writing that I want to do--including arts writing.

Someone whose work has long resonated with me is Dorothy Sayers. She once wrote a play dealing with the topic of work and why we do it. Given that she considered art to be her work, I find it particularly germane to the discussion that has been going on here. She argued that we need to "estimate work not by the money it brings to the producer, but by the worth of the thing that is made."

Certainly artists and journalists alike will often say that they are called to a higher purpose than simply a bottom line. I need to make enough money writing so that I can continue to write--which means feeding my family and paying my bills. I'm not writing so that I can get rich (I wouldn't complain if that were to happen, but that would be a pleasant side effect, not the end goal).

Many artists would tell you the same thing. They're not creating so that they can become filthy rich, they're creating because they have to. To not create would be to psychically damage themselves. There is economic necessity that must be met, but as Sayers promotes, payment should be that which allows people to continue doing the work that they're doing.

This is often at odds with the capitalist society we live in. It's certainly at odds with the exaltation of acquisition above all else. It's perhaps where art often suffers the most as it is difficult to "possess" a performance.

When I was very young, my father was careful to ensure that I could distinguish between political and economic systems--and, because it was in the midst of the Cold War and we attended what I later learned to be a very conservative church--that none of them were good or evil; they were just ways of doing things.

However, our culture doesn't always draw such fine distinctions and we often try to apply our economic system to our politics and our politics to our culture. Rather than allowing them to influence each other as part of an ecosystem, there is a tendency to force one system's philosophy upon the other, to believe that what works for one will work for all.

Art suffers when we force upon it the same economic model that businesses operate under. If their goal must be the making of money rather than the making of art, they're going to fail. This doesn't mean that artists can be oblivious to economic factors or lack in all business sense, but it does mean they must choose their model carefully. How they manage their finances will say something about who they are and whether their art will be sustainable.

Art has traditionally relied much on government support and money from individual and corporate donors. There is an understanding that not all art will be commercially viable and succeed only through the price paid by those who consume it. We've accepted this because there is a societal value that far outweighs the burden of cost that any individual can afford to bear.

Indeed, like education, society reaps the benefit of art even when it is not the direct consumer. My life is made better when my neighbor goes to the symphony, even if I do not. As a member of my community, I want to see our communal dollars support what benefits all of us. I want to live in a society where people share a commitment to creation and to connection. Those are things that will spill over into politics and economics. Those are the things that will bring about a better world.

At the NEA Institute last winter, Ben Cameron talked about how theaters make communities a healthier place. He quoted a study that said high school students who have been in a single play are 42 percent less likely to support racist behavior than those who have not.

If arts were to operate on a purely capitalist model that encourages greater consumerism, it would miss out on its higher calling and the calling that makes it truly relevant and of value to the community.

The money has to be there, but it can't be the reason or the goal. Rather it is the set piece which makes the play possible, not the story itself.

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July 19, 2007

Infusing objectivity with passion

Bridgette Redman

I'm enjoying the discussion far too much this week to change topics.

I'd like to pick up some threads that Jennifer wove into the discussion on Tuesday.

Early in my journalism career I had an editor who pointed out that it wasn't necessary or right to be objective about everything. He said he wouldn't be objective about rape, about murder, or about war. He held that he would be a poor journalist if he didn't hold an opinion about those things.

My father was a community journalist in the truest sense of the word--he was an editor who believed that he had to be a part of the community that he was covering. How could he do a good job as a journalist if he didn't care about the community he lived in and the people who populated it?

So it has never seemed dissonant to me that one should love--and love deeply--those things that you cover. Why would an editor want someone who lacked passion covering anything? When there is no passion, there can be little commitment. When there is little commitment, the writing will be dull and shallow.

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June 27, 2007

Freaks in the Outback are culture, too

John Stoehr

Just as Alex Ross was surprised in a recent New Yorker piece to find good orchestras West of the Hudson River, John Berendt, a former editor of Esquire magazine and author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," was surprised to learn some years ago that New York hadn't yet cornered the market on (God love 'em) America's freaks, weirdoes and whackjobs.

The book, published in 1994, was a phenomenal hit, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for an incredible four years. It brought Savannah to the forefront of American consciousness, it changed Savannah's tourism industry forever (the city rakes in about $1 billion in tourism dollars annually) and it introduced everyone, thanks also to Clint Eastwood's really awful but no less charming and colorful movie, to Savannah's litany of off-kilter characters.

An inventor who strings a vile of poison around this neck and who could spike at any time the city's water supply; a road-rambling country diva who knows every single song by Savannah tunesmith Johnny Mercer; a ne'er-do-well con artist and attorney who covers his bad-check-writing tracks with oodles of charm; and a black transsexual by the name of The Lady Chablis who's fond of "hiding my candy."

The book is arranged around these and more: a voodoo priestess, a bevy of bedecked black debutantes, the Married Women's Card Club, a gay redneck gigolo. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which we refer to around these parts simply as "The Book," has it all, including a mystery: It follows the eight-year trial of Jim Williams, a flamboyant antiques dealer, and Berendt's aristocratic and axiomatic protagonist, charged with killing his as-cranky-as-queer lover.

It's a great book, the stuff of fiction. In fact, a novelistic approach is certainly what Berendt was aiming for. In the tradition of Capote's "In Cold Blood," Berendt, as he confessed after the book's publication, did a tidy job of "rounding the corners" of inconvenient facts, which we can take as fertile ground for heightening the sensational elements of his story, such as the "Greek chorus" of characters, as the book jacket speaks with reverent literary delight.

What I'm getting at is this: As New Yorkers, Berendt, and Ross, express in their writing a gee-whiz attitude toward things they don't expect to find outside New York. I don't believe they meant to do this, but this tone of voice is ultimately patronizing even when its positive (Ross's praising of Midwestern arts groups) and entertaining (Berendt's focusing on a small Southern town's charming though no less marginalized and sad oddballs).

What's worse, though, is that such writers are missing what's really going on in the American Outback. As Joe Nickell notes, the question Ross is missing is what the Indianapolis Symphony is doing for the city of Indianapolis. In his quest to tell a story about Savannah (the subtitle is "A Savannah Story"), Berendt succeeds -- wildly and with wonderfully wry humor and often nail-biting suspense -- in telling his particular view of Savannah, but fails to capture Savannah as it is experienced by the people living here.

Berendt lived here for all of six months.

Let me say that again, with feeling -- six months.

I've lived here for six years. The Savannah I know is unlike the world represented in The Book. I simply don't recognize it. What Berendt did well was tap into the North's long-standing fascination with the South -- its claim to good manners, its gestures of grace and romantic "Gone with the Wind" gentility. As the North became less industrialized, more suburban and less connected, residents of the North -- they're called Yankees here; I'm one of them -- have developed over time a longing for the appearance of simpler times, which are associated with the South and its grand manors, folk customs and cultivation of hospitality.

But zippity do dah, it ain't.

Berendt also taps into an implicit condescension among outsiders that Savannah, and by proxy the South, is not equal in terms of culture. And by culture I mean not just art, literature and the life of the mind; I mean freaks, weirdos and whackjobs. Pointing out that Savannah has characters isn't much of a revelation to those who live here. Eccentrics live here, eccentrics live in New York, eccentrics live pretty much everywhere. The Lady Chablis pales in comparison to Divine (does anyone remember the ending to John Waters' "Pink Flamingos"?).

Berendt was bedazzled by the Lady (and let's face it, who wouldn't be?) because Berendt loved the delicious contrast between Chablis' ribald humor (her memoir is titled "Hiding My Candy," i.e., her penis) and Savannah's genteel grace, which was a contrast made entirely out of Berendt's imagination. He doesn't realize the socioeconomics of political power, race and class in the South, combined with a fiercely protected (sometimes at the point of a gun) sense of individualism, have conspired to create a climate rich in eccentricity.

Eccentrics thrive here in part because they are alienated and made voiceless by a cabal of (mostly white) power brokers who reinforce the status quo. Over the decades, those who didn't fit in or who were actively barred from the American franchise (as all African Americans were for generations), people, I think, tend to go crazy. The societal pressures to maintain a sense of individual decorum in the North don't exist in a South that institutionalized segregation for more than a century. As long as you didn't cross the color (or, let's not forget, class) line, you could be as odd, deranged or sociopathic as you like. Even homosexuals, like Jim Williams and his dead hustler, didn't have to live in the closet as long as the closet was inside, not in public.

That's what Berendt missed. Unfortunately, writers like this are blinded by what they think they already know about the American Outback, which is too bad. There's more out here (good and bad; for better and for worse) than you think.

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June 20, 2007

Why the Savannah Symphony Orchestra is gone

John Stoehr

It was during a recital by super-diva Isabel Bayrakdarian, perhaps one of the best known voices in the world thanks to her soaring soprano contributions to the soundtrack of "The Lord of the Rings" and to a recent dance club hit called "Angelicus," that I learned what might have gone wrong with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra.

By the time Bayrakdarian performed at the Savannah Music Festival this past spring, the orchestra, then the most important cultural institution in this historic city for almost half a century, had been bankrupt with no sign of re-forming for almost five years.

During intermission, I found myself engaged in a conversation with a former member of the symphony's board of directors. At the time, she knew me, but I didn't know this woman personally. I knew her by reputation only. She is a prominent figure in Savannah's cultural and philanthropic circles. I'll call her Linda.

As Linda and I gabbed about festival performances past, present and future, the topic of conversation turned to the lost symphony, as these conversations often do in the wake of the its 2003 Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which required complete liquidation of assets, with no chance of reorganization under legal protection. At one point, Linda made a comment that illuminated one of the key reasons for its collapse.

"My social life was ruined," Linda said.

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June 19, 2007

Thoughts on an increasingly freelance industry

Jennifer A. Smith

My fellow blogger John Stoehr recently forwarded the rest of us a piece Greg Sandow wrote for the Wall Street Journal ("Yes, Classical-Music Criticism is in Decline: But the last thing the industry should do is blame the press," June 16). In that article, Sandow explains the decline in classical music criticism from his perspective and argues that the recent flurry of outrage (among some) about cuts in positions may be a bit misguided.

Although I'm of a different generation than Sandow and have a different background as a writer, I also have mixed feelings about arts journalism cuts. While of course I generally feel it's a bad thing--having fewer people getting their critical voices out there can't be good, and I feel for anyone losing his or her job--we must look at the reader's perspective. Some papers have argued that freelancers will fill the gap left by cuts in staff-writer positions. While time will tell if that truly happens (and that's a crucial "if"), cutting staffers does not automatically mean less arts coverage within the paper. As a freelancer myself, I think there are positive and negative aspects to current trends.

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June 17, 2007

Critical Relativism

Joe Nickell

Every day in my work as an arts journalist in Montana, I think about the standards by which I should assess the art that I confront here. Montana theater is not the same as New York theater, for reasons not only of scale but of culture. While in Los Angeles for this year's NEA arts journalism institute in theater, listening to big-city theater journalists and critics talk about the particular challenges of their jobs, this became an even more poignant issue for me. My job is not like their jobs, because our theater is not like their theater and my culture is not their culture.

When I returned to Montana, I was asked to write an essay about my experiences at the institute for Montana Journalism Review, a publication of the University of Montana's journalism school.

I chose to use that soapbox as an opportunity to dive into the issue of what I now refer to as critical relativism. The essay was just published this week. Rather than rehash what I wrote, I thought I'd share the whole thing.

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June 14, 2007

Being an arts journalist in Lansing

Bridgette Redman

Attending the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Theater and Musical Theater was a defining event for me.

Before that fortnight, "arts journalist" was not really a tag I used. If I had to describe myself, I would call myself a writer, leaving out adjectives because I was pretty eclectic in the writing that I did. By day, I'm a textbook writer, writing curriculum content and training materials for the hospitality industry. I also do a great deal of freelance writing ranging from business writing to ghost writing to theater reviewing to performing arts articles to book reviewing.

While arts writing--whether it was about books, theater, or other performing arts--was my passion and my love, it was (and is) the least lucrative of the writing that I do. I write about the arts to feed my soul and I write about everything else to feed my family.

The Arts Institute, however, transformed much of the way I approached what I do as well as expanded my view of what is happening in the rest of the country. For years, I had been awed by what I saw theater doing in my community. Every year there is a new organization, many of them doing stunning work. While some people complained that resources were being spread too thin, most groups have thrived and audiences have grown. People have begun to speak with pride about the arts community in our town--even though few outsiders would ever think of arts and Lansing, Michigan in the same sentence.

I learned that throughout the country, arts communities were experiencing similar growth. More and more people are creating art with less and less money. In fact, if the people who spoke at the Institute were representative, it seemed that the arts communities in smaller cities were much healthier than those in large metropolitan areas that depended on big budgets to be successful. Perhaps that is because it becomes more about the business than about the art. More likely, though, the answer is far more complicated.

I returned home with a renewed enthusiasm and a determination that I would be an arts advocate both in my hometown and wherever else I wrote. Too many exciting things are happening to have them be ignored or go unchronicled.

There are exciting stories taking place in small cities and towns across the country. It is a testament to people's need for art and their need to create. I'm looking forward to helping to tell these stories.

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June 13, 2007

The arts out here? More complicated than you think

John Stoehr

I was a poor graduate student studying Shakespeare's comedies, sitting in a muggy apartment in Cincinnati, and probably smoking an "ultra light" cigarette, when I got the call. "It's so beautiful here," she said. "You would love it, John. They have seashells in the sidewalks."

My future wife, Gretchen, had just won an audition with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra. Now, flushed with that post-audition glow, she was falling in love with this old port city's 18th-century architecture, stately squares, live oaks, Spanish moss and penchant for decorating concrete with oyster shells. Like many old cities in the South, it was all about the charm.

Over the next year, we would end up living in two different cities, but we felt it was worth it. The disproportion of the number of orchestral musicians in the U.S. to the number of jobs for them is huge. When you win one, you don't turn it down, no matter how meager, which this was. Besides, Savannah, situated on a bluff on Georgia's subtropical coastal plain, and affectionately nicknamed the Hostess City, was 20 minutes from the beach.

Three years later, facing a $1 million-plus deficit, the management for the Savannah Symphony Orchestra stopped operations. Within days, there was talk of Chapter 7 bankruptcy, meaning complete liquidation of assets. A month later, there were pleas to the "community," meaning the city's "patron class," to give $450,000 to bail out the SSO. By April, it was over.

The SSO's collapse was one of six orchestra bankruptcies in 2003, many resulting from shockwaves still reverberating through the post-September 11 marketplace. San Jose, San Antonio, Tulsa, Colorado Springs and South Florida all saw their orchestras fall apart. All, however, have reformed in one way or another. All, that is, except the Savannah Symphony.

Such is the life of art in the American Outback, the area of the country between the Boston-New York-Philly-D.C. megalopolis and the cities along the West Coast. As the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, I have witnessed numerous occasions when artists pour their hearts into something just to see it misunderstood, undervalued or taken away.

But a life in the arts here -- whether doing it, observing it or consuming it -- is not all tragedy. There are enough TV news anchors lamenting the decline of high culture to last a long, long time. Here in "Flyover," we don't do that. Instead, we look at the arts in the American Outback as they really are, and what they really are is far more complicated than you'd think.

Continue reading "The arts out here? More complicated than you think"

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May 29, 2007

Blogging and criticism

Jennifer A. Smith

Richard Schickel's recent condemnation of bloggers as critics/reviewers (L.A. Times, May 20) has certainly been raising the hackles of arts writers in the blogosphere. While his views are passionately held, I believe they're also misguided and don't take much note of the changing media landscape. Part of the reason arts criticism is winding up on the Web is decreased space in local papers. Those who have something to say are simply finding another way to do it, and many of them (contrary to Schickel's view) are highly qualified writers.

And frankly, there are several advantages to arts writing on the Web, namely the chance to have more (and better quality) images than you'll find on newsprint, and the increased interactivity allowed by commenting. I'm frequently lamenting how seldomly readers of print publications write a letter to the editor regarding arts coverage. With blogging and other Web coverage, there is more of a chance for that immediate back-of-forth of real conversation.

The best response to Schickel I've seen so far is by Jerome Weeks, who writes the book/daddy blog on ArtsJournal.com. Rather than reiterate many of his excellent points, I'd rather direct readers there (to the entry "Just who is this guy?"). It's worth the read.

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May 15, 2007

Thin-skinnedness, a reaction

Jennifer A. Smith


Wow, John. That letter is a doozy. Since you responded to something I wrote last week, I thought I'd use your post as a point of departure for mine this week.


Living hundreds of miles away from you, I have no firsthand knowledge of Savannah's theater scene, but so many things come to mind as I read this angry, impassioned letter. Perhaps what strikes me most is the underlying notion that you, as an arts writer, must somehow be a booster ("...if the local press presented us in a more... supportive light while letting the public judge the work for themselves"). While writers should never be vicious, we are in the business of journalism, not public relations. Telling you to "buy a ticket and ride the ride" also bothers me. Are you supposed to be a passive observer who just shuts up and lets an experience wash over you, with no right to your own reaction?


Decent, thoughtful critics, even when they're negative, do care about the cultural life of the community. No one I know relishes writing a harsh review. And even when you hope your words may spark local discussion, your intentions as a writer can be misconstrued. I know that you, and all of us, want the arts to be a vital part of our communities, something that people show up for and care about as passionately as people care about sports in this country.


I guess the question left for all of us is, how can we write thoughtfully and constructively about our local cultural scenes without making people feel attacked? And is there really anything we can do when people feel attacked even when there is no basis for it? I think most of us consider ourselves a part of our local cultures, not imperious outsiders, but it is clear the arts writer's role is not always welcomed.

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Thin-skinnedness in the Outback

John Stoehr

Below is a letter I received in February from a theater director in Savannah. I won't name the person because he did not want to have the letter attributed to him. I have argued with myself about posting the letter. I'd like to avoid personal beefs (and this writer, as you can tell, has a whole slab of beef against me and has for some time).

However, I feel there may be something constructive here. We arts journalists in the American Outback have to deal with many things, one of them being a kind of thin-skinnedness. If, in a review, you say the sky is blue, someone might slam you for disliking the color green.

At the same time, we are under increasingly pressure to cover the arts as news. To do that we have to nurture sources. But what happens when one of your sources is one of those thin-skinned people with a personal beef against you and your efforts to carry on a critical conversation in the community? What then?

Here is a shortened version of that letter.

February 23, 2007

John Stoehr,
I am writing this personal note to you (not intended for publication) as someone who has been an avid reader of the Savannah Morning News since the day I moved to town (over four years ago). And though I enjoy reading about local theatre in town, I must admit that every time I see your name at the start of a theatre piece I cringe. Invariably, you serve up a glorious black eye to local artists and the organizations they are working for.

I must admit, I do not have the slightest idea of your level of expertise. I think every person connected to theatre in Savannah would love to know exactly where you studied theatre, and any another scholarly merits that might give your theatrical "critiques" validity. I imagine that anyone who claims to know that "The Savannah Theatre is the best theater in town." (SMN/2/19/07) must be incredibly intimate with all the local theatres and the work they do.

Other remarks that seem to cast dispersion on local theatres such as "Savannah has other groups of course-community theaters, a children's theatre and a seasonal festival group. None so far, however, has had the staying power of Savannah Theatre, nor have any of them established a cultural climate considered to be the life blood of the city, something as essential as a St. Patrick's Day parade." (SMN/02/19/07) leave me speechless.

Perhaps you would enjoy local theatre more if we bared more body parts and threw beads at you. And as far as staying power is concerned, the Bureau of Leisure Services has kept the City's theatre up and running for at least the last ten years.

I hope I am not leading you to believe that I have anything against the St. Patrick's Day Parade or the Savannah Theatre. Quite the opposite: I love Irish-American traditions and happen to think the performers on Bull Street have talent oozing out of every pore. They are very special performers. Notice, I can compliment them without kicking any one else.

I could go on, John, but I think you get my point. To those of us in the local theatre community (and we have all been greatly distressed by your self-entitled role of connoisseur) we recognize that you either don't get what theatre is truly about, or just plainly don't like it. Whichever the case we challenge you to either buy a ticket and ride the ride or, respectfully, put a sock in it.

I believe in the power of the press and the influence it can have, for boon or bane, to local artists. It would benefit us all if the local press presented us in a more authentic and supportive light while letting the public judge the work for themselves.

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April 30, 2007

My business is rejoicing, my business is rejoicing

Joe Nickell

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast; it can also, I've learned, wake a baby.

On Earth Day -- Sunday, April 22 -- my wife gave birth to a nine-pound boy. As a lifelong lover of classical music -- and of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony in particular -- the story of how our baby came into this world is almost eerily fitting. Read about it, here.

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March 21, 2007

The arts: everywhere, nowhere, and where-the-hell?

Joe Nickell

I've been toodling around the Web today, trying to add the arts pages of newspapers around the Inland northwest to my list of bookmarks.

I say, "trying," because I've been thwarted at nearly every stop, and simply saddened at others.

Top story under the catch-all "Entertainment" link at the Idaho Statesman today? This story, about a certain restaurant's cheese steak. Local arts stories -- or, I should say, the one local arts story -- is buried on the page below the AP entertainment wire feed.

Meantime, over at the Spokane Spokesman-Review site, I just find myself plain lost. As best I can tell, their only online arts stories are consigned to the blog entries of their correspondents at their hipster online feed, "7". And most of those entries are little more than calendar listings and such. There's good arts writing there (and I know there's good writing at the Idaho Statesman as well; my old pal Dana Oland is there and she's no slouch!), but it's not just hard to find; it's almost impossible.

The same is true elsewhere -- including at my own paper, the Missoulian, where you'll find some of the arts coverage under the "Entertainer" link (IF you can find the Entertainer in that endless list of section links); and some of it simply in the daily news section. It just depends how it ran in the paper.

I know that there's tons of stuff happening every week in Spokane and Boise -- the biggest cities in this sparsely populated part of the world. I know, anecdotally, that some of it is pretty interesting.

And now I know how frustrating it must be for people outside of our newsrooms to find out what that stuff is.

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March 14, 2007

The rise of "agenda" journalism?

John Stoehr

Seems the rest of the industry is finally catching up to us. USA Today reports that competition to "own" a niche in the journalism marketplace is forcing some reporters, like ABC's Bob Woodruff, take up a cause. Some feel this is a healthy sign of journalism's future. Others worry.

The "social journalism" that made Oprah Winfrey an international fairy godmother is the new rage in network and cable news, and it's expanding to other media. Increasingly, journalists and talk-show hosts want to "own" a niche issue or problem, find ways to solve it and be associated with making this world a better place, as Winfrey has done with obesity, literacy and, most recently, education by founding a girls school in South Africa.

Experts say the competitive landscape, the need to be different and to keep eyeballs returning, is driving this trend, along with a genuine desire from some anchors and reporters to do good.

In the process, some are becoming famous. And they're allowing news organizations to break away from the pack, as old and new media fight for viewers and readers, says Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"News outlets have found they can create more momentum and more identity by creating franchise brands around issues or around a point of view," he says.

(Thanks to Peter Johnson of USA Today)

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March 13, 2007

Being more than just "more local"

John Stoehr

Many people take dim view of news media
A report points to 'shrinking ambitions' in news organizations but not a fade toward irrelevancy.

"The news media face a challenging, uncertain future as the public's confidence in them continues to slip, according to a sweeping study to be released today.

"News organizations have entered a 'new era of shrinking ambitions,' according to the report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based research group. 'In a sense, all news organizations are becoming more niche players, basing their appeal less on how they cover the news and more on what they cover.'

"Yet media outlets have not adequately thought through this transition, said Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director.

"'If this means simply doing less, the public will suffer," he added. "News organizations have to become smarter and more authoritative in certain areas, even as they pull back in others. And I suspect that means more than just being more local.'"

(Thanks to Hal Boedeker, TV critic for the Orlando Sentinel)

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March 12, 2007

Old tips, but good ones

John Stoehr

No doubt many Art.Rox readers are already familiar with this tip page from the Poynter Institute's website featuring helpful comments on how reporters and editors can take small steps to improve arts journalism.

Notice that most have to do with how to change the way people think and talk about the arts, and the words used when people are talking about the arts, such as "culture" and "pop." I think the discussion is helpful in two ways: It points to the future and it points out some of the old-fashioned thinking we face in newsroom in the Outback. So in case you did miss (it's from 2003), here it is again.

The participants were: Diane Bacha, assistant managing editor of arts and entertainment at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Steven Winn, art and culture critic of the San Francisco Chronicle; and Christopher Blank, performing arts writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Highlights
Bacha: "In most newsrooms, the word 'art' scares people. Let's face it, it just does not have enough Y chromosomes for the average newsroom crowd. It is seen as a nice but non-essential part of the daily news report. The word 'culture' is not far behind, but it's OK if you put the word 'pop' in front of it. 'Culture' is elitist. 'Pop' is fizzy and fun and it means you are OK if you watch a lot of TV. We can talk about why it has gotten that way, and what we've done to contribute to this perception. But let's not. Let's talk instead about how old-fashioned this point of view is, and how we can grab a lot of attention with arts and culture stories if we pay enough attention."

Winn: "The risk of depth is tunnel vision. Over the years, I felt a kind of creeping alienation. No one but a critic attends the theater 150 times a year. I was becoming, gradually and inexorably, self referential. I wrote about theater in terms of other theater, because that was what I was living. Real people, which is to say readers, experience the arts in an altogether different way. They go to movies, read books, visit art museums, go to work and the beach as well as the theater, argue about politics, listen to the radio, watch television, fall in love, love (or despise) ballet. I wanted to write about that, about the way that the arts and the world we live in every day are woven together in intricate, overlapping ways. I wanted to write critically and analytically about those things without being dutybound to review, rank, and finely calibrate my responses to a series of stage productions."

Blank: "1. Try fanaticism for a change. ... Sports writers want you to feel that every game is earth-shatteringly IMPORTANT. I feel this way about the arts in my community. I'm not saying we should treat the subject matter with a velvet glove or go easy on a bad play. But there's a subtle difference in a review that calls a bad show an affront to all art and a review that chalks it up as a loss for the team."

2. "Expand the repertoire. ... Performing arts writers -- me included -- easily get bogged down in a routine of reviewing and previewing traditional art forms. However, more people are experiencing a wide variety of arts that pass under the radar, such as through church concerts or at sporting events. ... Find stories that tell people, 'Hey, you may not know it, but the thing you've been watching is art.'"

3. Speak the gospel, hear the gospel. Being receptive to feedback and open to change is essential. Arts reporters should adapt to the tastes of the community, not the other way around. ... For arts groups, constant shapeshifting is a crucial means for survival. Applying it to arts coverage isn't far behind."

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March 8, 2007

Newspapers as ecosystem

Bridgette Redman

Throughout the NEA Institute, we constantly heard how theater is an ecosystem, not a hierarchy.

I'm coming to believe the same of newspapers, especially when it comes to arts coverage. In Lansing for the past week and a half, arts coverage has focused on the murder of Robert Busby, a beloved artist, businessman, and community leader. His memorial service this past Tuesday drew more than 1,100 people on a cold afternoon in the middle of a workday.

The coverage of the events from the finding of his body to his memorial was truly outstanding. At the daily paper, there were numerous stories (more than 35 in a 7-day period) written from several different departments--feature stories, crime, entertainment, columnists, and the editorial page. There were videos posted on the Website and several mid-day updates each day. Nearly every single story had reader response to it. In letters to the editor, readers described the coverage as giving them solace.

Most importantly, the coverage focused on Busby himself, with only minimal coverage being given to his killer. Instead, the newspaper covered his death, the impact he had on the community, and what his loss is going to mean to Old Town, to jazz musicians, to visual artists, and to theaters. The coverage showed a deep understanding of the community and why this quiet man who was rarely in the headlines before his death meant so much to so many people.

Eight days after his death, the weekly newspaper that used to have its office two doors down from Robert's apartment and gallery came out with its dedication to him. His picture adorned their front cover and I picked it up wondering what more could possibly be written that hadn't already been said. What I found was coverage of a different sort. They printed a lengthy biography of the man, a historical retrospective on his life. They emphasized his role as an artist and patron of the arts.

Yes, the Lansing State Journal and the Pulse are competitors, but in this case, both of them had something valuable to contribute to the biggest and most heart-rending arts story of the year in Lansing. The community would have been worse off without either of them.

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March 7, 2007

What USA Today's new website means to critics

John Stoehr

USA Today launched a newly designed website over the weekend. The overarching aim of the site, according to this report from Editor & Publisher, is to "create a community around the news."

"Using the new features, users can see other news sources directly on the USA Today site; see others readers' reactions to stories; recommend content and comments to each other; interact using comments and in public forums, upload digital photographs to the site; write arts and culture reviews of their own; and interact more with the newspaper's staff."

My newspaper is attempting something similar with its website. So I feel I can contribute at least one constructive comment about this trends in newspapering: This new paradigm of "creating a community around the news" can be good for arts journalists or bad -- to a large degree, it's up to us.

Here's what I mean. Notice the report mentions that readers can "write arts and culture reviews of their own." At a large newspaper like USA Today, where reader demand drives the need for a staffer to writer music and CD reviews, the raison d'etre of the critic is likely unchallenged (we hope, anyway).

However, at a small newspaper, like mine, where arts coverage, especially criticism, is already on the margins, if not marginalized, this new "creating a community around the news" paradigm could ultimately pose some questions. One, for instance, I can easily imagine (in the voice of management): "What are you doing that I can't get for free from our readers?"

This is not to disparage management, mind you.

I actually think this trend can be a sign of positive change, because this newfound interest by the newspaper industry in engaging with readers has been what arts critics have been doing for a long time. Moreover, I think criticism and arts journalism can only improve if we're forced to interact with readers more, to serve as moderators, so to speak, of the arts and culture debate taking place in most cities.

For too long critics have been seen as sitting atop an Ivory Tower. This of course is bosh for most of us. But there are historical grounds for that perception. Perhaps a renewed campaign of engagement can serve two purposes: rebuilding the critic's troubled relationship with his readers and reminding management of the reason for hiring the critic in the first place.

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March 6, 2007

Criticism as ethnography

John Stoehr

A concept that never really got fleshed out, but that has no less left an impression on me from the 2005 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music was that of ethnography.

Why not, as a critic of classical music, write not about the concert but the people attending the concert? Why not democratize the experience, diversify the voices of assessment and enrich the chatter?

That's what Jeffrey Day did the other day when he wrote this article for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.

Day, the arts writer for the newspaper, demontrates a kind of cultural journalism that I'm currently obsessed with -- in which the dominant paradigm is inquiry, not evaluation, though it may be an inquiry that leads to evaluation.

By asking what's important to people about the arts, the cultural journalist is far better able to know how to relate what is critical to his readers.

A more sophisticated form of Day's article might be inviting three or four distinct personalities to a play or art exhibit, taking them to coffee and recording a discussion of the experience for print, audio or webcast.

The critic in this case acts more as moderator than critic, but isn't our goal in telling people what we think to shape and influence discussion? Like a moderator?

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March 5, 2007

'Analytic Journalism'

John Stoehr

At the NEA Arts Journalism Institute, we kept hearing how the future for critics is brighter than we think. Given the masses of information people are forced to consume everyday, someone has to sort it all out, make sense it all, discern what's important. In others, use his or her analytical powers to provide greater meaning beyond the news.

That's just the kind of thing Mitchell Stephens talked about in his latest piece for the Columbia Journalism Review.

A historian of American journalism at New York University, Stephens addresses the threat to traditional newsgathering posed by emerging technologies by suggesting a strategy that we can do even now: by giving readers more than just the news.

As Stephens writes:

"The extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events -- insights, not just information [my bold]. What is required -- if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news -- is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

"Here's more historical precedent: In the days when dailies monopolized breaking news, slower journals -- weeklies like The Nation, The New Republic, Time -- stepped back from breaking news and sold smart analysis. Now it is the dailies, and even the evening news shows, that are slow. Now it is time for them to take that step back."

Elsewhere, Stephens writes of an American newspaper committed to deploying this strategy: The Times Herald-Record, in Middletown, N.Y.

Stephens continues:

"No one is suggesting that reporters pontificate, spout, hazard a guess, or 'tell' when it is indeed 'too soon to tell.' No one is suggesting that they indulge in unsupported, shoot-from-the-hip tirades.

"'It's not like talk radio,' explains one of the champions of analytic journalism [my bold], Mike Levine, executive editor of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York. But it's not traditional American journalism either.

"Levine, a former columnist, had noticed that the analyses reporters unburdened themselves of in conversations in the newsroom were often much more interesting than what ended up in the paper. Some of that conversation is mere loose talk and speculation, of course. Yet 'walk into any newsroom in America,' Levine says, 'turn the reporters upside down, and a hundred stories will come falling out. They know so much about the communities they cover, but they don't get it in the newspaper.'"

I can't overemphasize the importance of this article to our jobs as arts journalists. If we are to matter in the future, we have to make the case for more analytical journalism. We have to make the case for what Joe Nickell, our co-host here at Art.Rox, calls "critical relativism."

Joe just wrote a piece for the Montana Journalism Review, outlining with brilliant clarity the meaning and significance of this concept. He'll likely post something on the article soon.

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March 2, 2007

Bad Arts Writing: Part 2

John Stoehr

I should preface this by saying that we all make mistakes. Certainly, given the pressures of space and time, we have all at one point or another chosen the road more frequently traveled. And I don't single out the errors of this particular journalist for personal reasons.

However, a review Sunday in the Charleston Post and Courier on a performance by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra exemplifies why I believe reviewing as it is popularly understood to mean has a problematic future in the newsroom.

The review, as it is put into practice here, follows the tenets of journalism: what happened, where did it happen, who did it and was it good. It is a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach that falls in line with the logic of consumer journalism -- give the reader value by telling the reader what's worth spending money on.

With this ideology in mind, the critic does not provide context, meaning, observation beyond the event, commentary or insight -- all the things that would give reviews a raison d'etre both for those who did not attend the concert and for those who did.

This is the kind of thing that Mitchell Stephens talks about in his brilliant and convincing article in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

"The extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events -- insights, not just information [my bold]. What is required -- if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news -- is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

"Here's more historical precedent: In the days when dailies monopolized breaking news, slower journals -- weeklies like The Nation, The New Republic, Time -- stepped back from breaking news and sold smart analysis. Now it is the dailies, and even the evening news shows, that are slow. Now it is time for them to take that step back."

I can't add much to Stephens' article, because it is so comprehensive and so insighful. However, what I will say is that the more we write in the fashion exercised by the Charleston writer, the more we are undermining our own jobs.

That's because thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews can be done so much better in venues other than newspapers. Yahoo!, for instance. Perhaps Yahoo! can't connect on a local level, but consider how the Wikipedia model seems to be giving the newspaper industry cause to consider the viability of reader-generated reviews.

Why not? All the newsroom staffers are doing is going to concerts and saying who, when, where and if it was good, right? Why pay them a salary and benefits when we can get the same product for free and get readers to buy into publications, which are "no longer in the newspaper business, but in the information business."

Thus Spake Management . . .

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February 28, 2007

"Critical Relativism"

John Stoehr

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.

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February 26, 2007

Bad Arts Writing

John Stoehr

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.

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Arts Issues for Journalists Archive



February 23, 2007

Newspaper association: Art doesn't matter in Montana

Joe Nickell

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.

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Arts Issues for Journalists Archive



February 20, 2007

Removing the NEA from the Culture Wars

John Stoehr

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)

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February 16, 2007

Breaking News: Yes, but tell that to Wall Street

mclennan

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.

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February 14, 2007

Grammy coverage worth reading

John Stoehr

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.

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Visual Art News - Criticism Archive



"Critiquing the Critics"

John Stoehr

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.

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Theatre News - Criticism Archive



February 13, 2007

Super theater

Joe Nickell

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)

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Arts Issues for Journalists Archive



February 12, 2007

It's As If We Don't Exist

Joe Nickell

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?

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John Lahr lecture notes

Joe Nickell

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.

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Music News - Criticism Archive



Grammy, Schmammy

John Stoehr

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 Day and T.I. -- have ties to the Peach State.

But the record industry hasn't realized how archiac it has become in the wake of new technologies. 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 hit have changed so much that selling a million records would be considered a smash.

Pop music critics have been bemoaning the vanilla flavor of the 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 is 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 -- 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, 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 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and my own paper 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 newspapers 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

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Arts Issues for Journalists Archive



February 11, 2007

What is Art.Rox?

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

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February 9, 2007

To be, or not to be....

Joe Nickell

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.

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