A Critic’s Perspective

Artists and arts institutions aren’t the only ones who have to worry about engaging their community. Critics, used to leading with their opinions suddenly find that the vast audience wants to engage…

About Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips has written 2 posts in this blog.

Michael Phillips is the film critic of the Chicago Tribune. Previously he was the Tribune's drama critic, a post he also held at the Los Angeles Times, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Dallas Times-Herald. At the beginning of his career he was arts editor of the Twin Cities weekly City Pages, where he also worked as film critic. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and lives on Chicago's northwest side.


  1. It’s great to hear a critic’s perspective. I could not agree more about the final point. Although it does not yet seem to be the norm in all arts organizations, many leading organizations have become increasingly skilled at listening to their audiences and have used what they learn to think about how their art can play a larger role in the lives of those audiences. That does not mean chasing blockbusters, or even looking at box office numbers (or surveys) to try to determine what’s going to have appeal and planning accordingly. It means bringing a listening ear and creativity to the data. Leading organizations take what audiences tell them–be it in surveys, focus groups, the box office, traffic patterns–and think about what that says about the lives of the real people who provide that data and then thinking about how their art can enrich those lives. This thinking about the broader context (beyond what people say they want) enables arts organizations to develop programming that surprises and engages, and to create art that is truly relevant. If we take audiences too much at their word (or box office receipts) or look for them to spell out what they want, we may be able to satisfy them, but we have little chance of surprising or delighting them. We won’t have much new to offer.

  2. In this discussion, we’re pretending American arts organizations are confused about their role as cultural leaders, when in reality the issue is that they can’t fulfill that function because they lack the resources.

    I don’t know of any artists or arts institutions who are confused about the need to lead the public while engaging with them. It’s just that they can’t lead, because they don’t have the money necessary. In regard to the examples you mention, the overhead of a theater company is much smaller than for an orchestra or opera house, so theater folks can afford to be more adventurous and provocative, but they too face similar problems. Same story with art films.

    As part of its bankruptcy plan, the management of the Philadelphia Orchestra has said it is going to program more pops concerts and film music – which is like using a race horse to plow fields. After the San Diego Symphony came out of bankruptcy in the 90s, it spent the summer months essentially working as something like a pit orchestra for Las Vegas-style shows. The symphonies in Detroit and Colorado are lowering salaries, and abandoning orchestral formations for larger parts of the season and presenting lighter, chamber music concerts in alternative venues and schools. These patterns are seen in orchestras around the country.

    None of them are doing this voluntarily. They need the money, so they are lowering their artistic standards.

    There is an endless supply of provocative art in Europe because their public funding systems allows them to experiment. With their much cheaper ticket prices they could be filling 95% of their seats, but many of the opera houses literally use about 75% as a target for seats filled, because it creates about the right balance in the availability of performances and the programming of more rare or avant-guarde works.

    If you starve artists, many will abandon artistic integrity and their leadership roles. So why are we pretending we are confused about leadership when the actual cause of our problems is our private funding system which doesn’t work?