FlyOver: July 2007 Archives
A bit of housekeeping: Some readers have tried e-mailing us directly at the address on the right-hand side of this page: email@example.com. Due to a bit of logistical confusion, the four of us were not able to access this e-mail account until today. If you've sent us a message recently, we apologize for not getting back to you promptly. We'll get caught up soon. Thanks!
This week, for my regular Tuesday spot, I decided to crib from the networks and do that time-honored summer maneuver: a rerun. As some readers of this blog may have noticed, we've only been on ArtsJournal since mid-June but our archive has over 140 entries. This blog had a short-lived, alternate incarnation before getting a new name and new home on AJ. Before our blog moved here, we had few readers and even fewer comments. Since one of the pleasures of doing this group blog has been engaging with fellow journalists and arts folks, I wanted to throw out something I wrote previously (in April) and see what people think.
Here it is:
The NEA Institute has had me thinking a lot about the critic's role in his or her community, and how the theater we see relates to our communities. I live in
Tied to this is a concern about how we value art (in the broadest terms, not just locally). A few things have struck me in recent weeks, one of which is a marketing e-mail I received from the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). The e-mail urged me to go see the major Francis Bacon exhibition before it closed this past weekend. It read in part, under a section headed "What It's Worth": "Your $14 ticket provides you with the opportunity to see paintings that are being sold for $30 million at auction. Learn more about the value of your ticket here." That last bit linked to a news item on the BBC Web site about how Bacon's "Study from Innocent X" is expected to sell for upwards of $30 million at auction in May.
There are a couple reasons for MAM's pointing out on the monetary value of Bacon's paintings: it signals to an audience largely unfamiliar with Bacon that this is an "important" artist; it makes people feel OK about spending $14 on their ticket; but the third, and most potentially troubling, reason is that most of us get a kick out of seeing something that we know is worth a lot of money. (To be fair, the e-mail also links to a podcast of curators discussing Bacon, so the effort to provide real context is also there.)
The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist
"When Lafayette Gilchrist celebrated the release of his 2005 album Towards the Shining Path at Highlandtown's Creative Alliance at the Patterson, he wore his gray Kangol hat with the gold piping at a jaunty tilt and stomped on the keyboard pedals with his basketball shoes. He would not have looked out of place in a Run-D.M.C. video, and the rhythms of his compositions hinted at the hours he spent watching hip-hop videos as a teenager in Prince George's County. But as Gilchrist's big hands massaged the keys of his Kurzweil PC88, the Bolton Hill resident did things to those funk and hip-hop beats that had never been heard on MTV..."
(Thanks to Geoffrey Himes of Baltimore City Paper)
Cultural leaders want property tax revenue set aside for the arts
"Cheered on by their allies in government, cultural leaders tried in the late 1980s to snare a fraction of Erie County sales tax revenue as a permanent hedge against budget uncertainty -- their own and the county's. They asked that one-eighth of the "temporary" eighth penny per dollar that had been added to the sales tax to bail the county out of fiscal hot water in 1984, and subsequently extended by the Legislature, be dedicated to the arts. The effort ultimately failed...
Almost 20 years later, the cultural community is gearing up to try again."
(Thanks to Tom Buckham of The Buffalo News)
Great Halls of Fire
The San Antonio Museum of Art has ripped out the nasty carpet, created more wall space, and put a bright coat of paint in the Contemporary Galleries.
(Thanks to Diana Lyn Roberts of the San Antonio Current)
'Portraits' of History
More than 2,000 portraits of returning survivors, relief workers, and rebuilders recently became this self-published, glossy, hardcover oral history coffee-table book.
Thanks to Michael Patrick Welch of the Gambit Weekly of New Orleans)
Telling It Straight: "Twice Told Tombigbee Tales"
Mills devotes chapters to the "Three Kings of Tombigbee Country" (Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus), former legislators Butch Lambert and Jerry Wilburn, former state Supreme Court Justice Armis Hawkins and Mill's life as a young legislator staying at the old Sun-N-Sand Motel.
Thanks to Jere Nash of the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press)
One of the notions that's stuck with me from the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater six months ago is something put forth by Erik Ehn on the first day of the program. (Ehn is dean of the School of Theater at CalArts and also head of the Writing for Performance program.) Ehn stressed the idea of the critic as "co-creator" or "co-maker" of the theatrical experience, not merely a recorder of something frozen. He also argued that it's not the critic's job to sort out good and bad, but to create, right alongside the performers themselves, the meaning of the theater work.
Frankly, I wish I'd felt a little more lively when our group met with Ehn. After waking at 4 a.m. and heading hundreds of miles west to make it to L.A. from Madison by noon--not easy to do, even with the time zones working in your favor--I was drained. I agree with some, but not all, of what Ehn had to say, and that's why I find his thinking so intriguing.
This idea of a work of art being unfinished until a viewer/audience member engages with it is not new, especially to those with a background in visual art. And, on some level, all audience members are always (mentally, internally) co-creating an evening's performance given what they as individuals bring to a performance in terms of life experience, knowledge (or not) of the playwright or script, etc. But I feel Ehn took things a bit farther than the basic truism that we are always co-creating art in our minds along with the artists who've put it out there. Since Ehn was talking specifically to a group of critics--those of us with the privilege of "co-creating" publicly and in print--this idea of co-creating takes on higher stakes.
And not only was Ehn talking specifically to journalists, but to journalists from smaller markets (the focus of the NEA Arts Journalism Institutes). At its worst, co-creating could turn into pandering or picking up slack for plays that fall short of the mark (along the lines of "What they really meant to do was..." or "What they were really trying to say was..."). At its best, however, co-creating keeps us in that frame of mind that truly is criticism, not just reviewing. We think not just about what happened or how well things were executed, but a performance's larger meaning and context.
Where co-creating gets thorny is when our own personal ideas don't match up with the playwright's (artist's, dancer's, etc.) ideas. We may disagree with the ideas being put out there, but still admire the originality, rigor and passion with which those ideas are conveyed--and this is perhaps why it's hard to let go of notions of quality (conveyed, one hopes, in a way that goes well beyond mere "good" and "bad"). I can dislike something on a personal level yet still appreciate its quality or significance.
One final thought from Ehn, worth revisiting at another time, that has also stayed with me: "If theater is a conversation, where are the real conversations [in our local communities] being had?"
...an entry by the prolific Terry Teachout ("Hot Stuff") that addresses some of the same themes we have been of late: reviewing as a type of reporting, and the role of passion in an arts writer's job. Interesting stuff (including letters that Teachout has received), and worth a read.
I'll pick up where Joe and commenters left off yesterday. And heck, I'll even swipe Joe's numbered format for this week's post:
1. I thought it was intriguing that Joe used a sports-vs.-arts-coverage comparison in his first point (sports writing as a type of reviewing). While I think there's truth in these similarities, there's also a gaping difference that often works to the disadvantage of the arts writer. Namely, arts writers are often expected to make people care about / like / understand the arts in a way that would never be expected of sportswriters.
Simply put, sports pages are read by sports fans. These people will know if the sportswriter gets some bit of team history or stats wrong. They already know the rules of baseball or football. The sportswriter can assume the sports reader has a base of knowledge, otherwise he or she wouldn't be reading the sports pages.
Arts writers, on the other hand, are expected to do that difficult dance of making things accessible to the general reader with no specialized background, but also hold the interest of those who do know something about dance, visual art, theater, what-have-you. It's a tough trick to provide background and still have space for original, critical analysis in a review. While there are times when I feel I've pulled it off, there are plenty of times when, looking back, I'm disappointed at how much space I wasted on sketching out a play's plot, for example.
2. Habeas (in yesterday's comments) make some great points. I think what I've written in #1 is connected to what habeas says. While knowing decades' worth of arcane team trivia is an asset for a sportswriter, having in-depth knowledge in a particular arts discipline is sometimes treated as a liability (not at the paper I freelance for, fortunately). Frankly, habeas, your level of knowledge probably scares some potential employers off. They worry, perhaps, that you won't be able to write in this magically "accessible" style (that's an unfounded fear since the clips you already have show whether you can do it or not).
There was some provocative discussion along these lines a few years back in ArtsJournal, on a page I've long had bookmarked since there was so much good stuff. Here's a tidbit from a letter by Colin Eatock dated May 2002 that hits it on the head:
"[An editor under discussion] appears to distrust expertise--at least in the arts. Presumably he believes that a sports writer should know all about the nickel defense and the three-deep zone, whatever on Earth they are. But arts writers are suspect if they know more than the average reader--or perhaps more than their editors...[A particular editor's] idea of the perfect arts journalist seems to be someone who approaches theatre, jazz or visual art with equal indifference, and not too much book-learnin'."
3. As for habeas' point about "creating more pulpits and opening up the field": I also agree. This is why I think freelancers can be so crucial; they can be a way for papers without a staff writer competent to cover a certain area to access that knowledge (assuming they have a budget for freelancers). Of course, this is still unsatisfying for the freelancer who would love a full-time position--and I don't know what the answer to that is. Perhaps one of my co-bloggers can take that question up; as I write this, I'm too tired to!
Curbing exodus of graduates
Maine gets creative competing in the 21st-century, knowledge-based economy: "Any resident who earns an associate or bachelor's degree in Maine and then lives, works and pays taxes in the state is eligible for a maximum tax credit of $2,100 per year, or a total of $8,400 for the four years of schooling. And there's this twist: The new law that takes effect in January allows employers to make the loan payments for graduates they employ and claim the tax credit."
(Thanks to John Kostrzewa of the Providence Journal [Rhode Island])
Street shooter: Pioneering photographer Marty Cooper turns her camera on a struggling Baltimore neighborhood
"When Martha Cooper first spied the green and white of the empty sidewalk chairs, matching the trim on the Fulton Avenue rowhouse, the photographer had one reaction: She vowed to come back and meet the person responsible. On a block in Southwest Baltimore lined with empty homes, she knew, a splash of paint is a promising sign of street life. Marty Cooper's presence itself speaks to the street's stealthy vitality. A New York-based photographer, Cooper, 64, became a hip-hop pioneer by documenting graffiti and break dancers. Now, the traveler who has passed through dozens of countries and communities has returned to her hometown to chronicle 'a neighborhood over time.'"
(Thanks to Stephanie Shapiro, Baltimore Sun)
A moving summer experience: Jacob's Pillow is a stellar showcase for the best in dance
"Jacob's Pillow has always been a unique environment. With its bucolic setting and its celebrated history, being at Jacob's Pillow is as close to dance heaven as one can get. That environment has evolved for 75 years, starting in 1931, when dancer, teacher, choreographer and modern-dance pioneer Ted Shawn purchased an abandoned farm... Since then, Jacob's Pillow has been a summer retreat that showcases some of the world's leading figures of dance and movement."
(Thanks to Frank Rizzo of the Hartford Courant [Conn.])
Music licensing companies come calling for royalties
Coffee shops, bars, and other establishments that provide a venue for live music are questioning whether they will be able to continue as licensing companies hunt down royalties.
(Thanks to John A. Torres of Florida Today)
A few weeks ago, I had a brief conversation about local arts writing with someone I greatly admire. A third person had asked me how often I get letters in response to what I write in the local alt weekly, and I told him it didn't happen that often. Mostly (as one might assume) people write in when they're unhappy with something in a review; the positive comments I get are more likely to be personal notes directly from artists, not something published in the public sphere. At any rate, I asked these two educated, connected people why they don't think more people write in to papers about arts coverage and one of them responded, "I'm more likely to write in about a political issue. That gets me more fired up."
I hear her. Politics are one of my other main passions in life, and the times in recent memory I've sent a letter to the editor, it's been about a local or national political issue. But this got me fretting again about one of my pet issues: why don't readers write in more to their newspapers about arts coverage? Especially now, in this time when many are lamenting cuts in arts journalism positions, why don't people send in letters to show editors they're reading arts coverage? Whether the comment is a positive or negative one about a writer's work is of less interest to me; it's like that adage that any PR is good PR. What I want most is to see that readers care about the quantity and quality of the arts coverage available to them.
One caveat: I'm talking specifically about print coverage here. One of the great things about the blogosphere (a dumb yet efficient term) is the ease with which it enables give-and-take. Responding to something in a print publication takes a little more work--one can fire off a letter via e-mail but still needs to wait to see when (or if) it will be published. Things are slower and more static.
It should also go without saying that I'm also not worrying about that segment of the population that is not interested in arts coverage. I skip the sports page, they skip the arts, and that's OK. We don't all need to have the same interests. What intrigues me are people like this woman that I know--highly intelligent, culturally involved--who don't usually respond to arts coverage.
Not-so-secret confession: though I met my Flyover co-bloggers at the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater, I'm really a visual art person at heart. I began arts writing focusing strictly on visual art, then branched out into books and eventually theater. For me, writing about visual art presents certain challenges and pleasures that are unique to the discipline.
But surveying the state of visual arts writing in the Outback, I'm a little dismayed. While we can probably all lament the amount of coverage in local media for all arts disciplines, I sometimes wonder if visual artists don't have the worst lot (or at least art vies with dance for that dubious distinction). Either there's a dearth of staff writers and freelancers competent to cover visual art, or editors just aren't giving it much space. When it comes to the amount of coverage, I feel that theater and music generally fare better, and this is somehow tied (in ways I can't fully articulate yet) to their more communal nature - performers and audience meeting together for a shared experience, as opposed to the viewer having a solo encounter with a work of art. That one-on-one engagement with art remains either foreign or daunting to many people.
Also, while many small community theater organizations have a volunteer who handles PR, visual artists have a tough time getting coverage, particularly if they're not in a show at the moment. While it seems reasonable to have that news hook of a current show to justify a profile on an individual artist, that expectation probably is not so reasonable if the artist is living in a smaller community where venues for an emerging or mid-career artist to have an exhibition are few and far between.
Here in Madison, Wis., we've long had two main anchors of the visual arts scene: the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA, previously known as the Madison Art Center) and the Chazen Museum of Art (formerly called the Elvehjem). While MMoCA has its Triennial of contemporary Wisconsin artists and the Chazen does a quadrennial show of University of Wisconsin faculty artists--among other chances at those venues for state artists to be seen--the MMoCA and Chazen focus on artists who are relatively well established or at least accustomed to the workings of the larger art world. Another significant venue, the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, focuses exclusively on contemporary Wisconsin artists and has a strong exhibition program. At the other end of things, there are coffee-shop shows in which you might see something wonderful or something dreadful. It's that in-between level, between the funky local coffeehouse and the accredited, established museum, that is often lacking in cities like Madison. As a result, serious visual artists may find it hard to locate a suitable venue for their work, thus depriving them of that "news hook" that may gain the attention of local media.
There are some bright spots, though: artists are banding together (as I know they are in other cities) to raise their profiles. Madison Area Open Art Studios is an annual event in which roughly 150 local artists open their studios to the public over a fall weekend. It's established itself as a reliable yearly event and draws the expected and well-earned media coverage. But with 150 artists, coverage tends to be on the event as a whole, with only limited attention given to introducing any one particular artist. Group visibility sometimes comes at the price of individual visibility.
As one might expect, coverage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city, fares better. Some examples: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a talented reporter/critic (Mary Louise Schumacher) devoted exclusively to visual art, and the online magazine Susceptible to Images posts intelligent articles and discussions.
I'm not sure I've reached a cohesive, conclusive point on any of this--but that is part of why I wanted to throw this out here on the blog. I'm curious to hear from others in smaller or mid-size cities. How is visual arts coverage in your town, in terms of both quality and quantity? How does it compare to your local performing arts coverage? And if you're a visual artist in a smaller or mid-size city, what is your vision of ideal--or at least good--coverage of the local art scene?