Last week the Brooklyn artist space National Sawdust announced it had hired away Steve Smith from the Boston Globe to start an ambitious new culture journal. Smith is a former NYTimeser, a serious journalist, and an ambitious hire. So why? According to Smith:
Our new journal initiative is not meant to be an alarmed response to that changing status quo, but rather to foster awareness of the brilliant abundance of fresh artistic expression that surrounds us all, and as much as possible to enable creators to tell their own stories in their own words.
Sawdust joins a number of other arts organizations in recent years to start new arts publications. In part this is in reaction to reduction in arts coverage in the press. It mirrors something that’s happening in the for-profit world. Major brands such as Coke, Walmart, and Marriott, discovering that traditional advertising has become less effective and knowing that storytelling shapes opinion, have started their own newsrooms to tell their stories. But in the arts it’s potentially something much more.
So Who’s Telling Your Story?
In the old media world, artists worked to get the attention of critics and journalists, whom, they hoped, would write about them and bring attention. Independent critics worked to contextualize the arts world, shine light on noteworthy artists and projects and spark discussion about what it all meant. The collapse of journalism means that public discussion and contextualization have largely disappeared from public view.
If you’re an artist or arts organization, the responsibility for telling your story to the public now falls on you. So how well are you telling it? Is your story an afterthought, an add-on, or a carefully considered and well-told tale that represents and puts what you do in context?
Yes, Your Work Does Speak For You. But…
So the St. Louis Symphony has a turnaround year under its new executive director. But how is the orchestra telling the story? In the business press it’s a story of financial recovery. The orchestra’s excellent PR department writes a press release, but it’s PR, and it’s by definition self-serving. If the orchestra had first-rate story-tellers of its own, telling stories about the larger orchestra world and placing what the orchestra is doing in a larger context, the story might be something else entirely.
Other arts organizations have been working at versions of the model National Sawdust is trying.
The Baltimore Symphony hired arts journalist Ricky O’Bannon to “embed” in the organization and tell stories about orchestras and classical music. These aren’t just stories about the Baltimore Symphony. One of Ricky’s first efforts was to create a database of all the music performed by American symphony orchestras in the upcoming season and do an analysis of the programming. You could see where the Baltimore Symphony fit into it.
The Chicago Symphony created a music magazine and hired former Chicago Sun-Times arts editor Laura Emerick to produce it. Several other arts organizations have hired arts journalists to tell their stories and put their work into larger context. This isn’t PR; it’s arguing a context, a way of locating an organization’s work in the larger world.
Who’s Leading Your Field?
Leaders drive conversations. Leaders contextualize their field and articulate what’s important and why. They argue for ideas, critique what could be improved or changed, and make the case for a point of view, for an aesthetic. They show how their work does this. It is the primary evidence of their ideas.
I would argue that while arts managers spend much time debating the business of the arts – how to develop audiences, raise money, sell tickets, build community – our artistic debates have become anemic. Where are our best artistic ideas being proposed, debated, and argued over? Where are the bad ideas being challenged and discarded? The internet made the business of the arts somewhat more transparent, but the artistic conversation is still largely diffuse and publicly shapeless. It’s ironic, because fan communities for entertainment franchises have sharply debated and helped define those franchises (for better or worse) and made them more powerful than ever before.
So what does it take to be a leading orchestra or theatre or dance company? Of course it starts with great work, but it’s more than that. There are many organizations that do great work. But being a leader means articulating what’s important to the field, for your version of it. You have to argue for the art form and why it matters (and what your place in it is). That’s more than PR, more than marketing. It’s leading by example and giving others reasons to buy into it.