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Send your e-mail to mclennan@artsjournal.com




The problem with newspaper coverage of the arts in San Diego as elsewhere is that arts coverage has become tangled with boosterism. In many cases critics are discouraged from writing honest reviews, especially of presentations by major local institutions. The pressure to write glowingly of mediocre productions comes from two sources: the socially prominent trustees of of arts organizations and the owners of the newspaper, who are often also prominent in the arts.

Critics are also discouraged from writing anything, news or reviews of amateur arts presentations. In San Diego, for example, a fine orchestra and chorus presents a season of concerts at a 1200-seat auditorium on the campus of University of California at San Diego. The music director and the choral conductor are both on the university faculty, and the section leaders receive a small stipend from patrons. But the rest of the performers are volunteers.

This group regularly fills the hall with people, young and old, students and professors, and music-lovers from the entire region, people to hear excellent readings of classics and challenging newer works. The San Diego Union-Tribune has never published a single review or feature story about this group. Why? The newspaper has a policy of ignoring performances by what it considers "amateurs." This is a disservice to many San Diegans who have no way of knowing about the excellent performances available to them at reasonable prices.

Alice Goldfarb Marquis
San Diego



Bad arts coverage in journalism is just where we deal with the consequences of bad arts. Supposedly nonprofit institutions are run by marketing groups, galleries are investment opportunities, and theater is a way for audiences to give themselves standing ovations for being so discerning as to pay a week's worth of grocery money to give themselves standing ovations.

Why should the arts expect to be treated any differently from any other self-congratulatory big-walleted group? There are still more art critics than chess columnists in the papers.

For the special case of writing on the static visual arts, I have a nascent theory that it was demolished by full color reproductions, thus replacing the stylishness of Pater and Baudelaire by the coffee table book full of unread doctorate-speak. (I look forward to this theory being easily demolished by about fifteen minutes of research.)

But trying to convert curators into football teams just exacerbates the problem. The problem is that they're already trying to be football teams, and football teams (with some exceptions) will always do that better.

Ray Davis
Bellona Times



I can not disagree more with the article on why American papars and media don't give much attention to the arts. For starters, look at even the better papers such as the NY Times and The Washington Post. They mostly promote nothing but Hollywood movies for several pages, because of the cash they recieve for promoting the movies. FULL PAGE ADS! Cut that Hollywood trash in half,and give the other half to writers, artist, and occasional public contributors.

I don't think we should treat art like a sporting event. As an artist, I want people to repspect the work of an artist and to enjoy it because they like what they see. Not because its a competition or event to go cheer for the home team. Art is Art. Leave it alone. Those who like it, will like it, those that don't have an interest in it, can do what ever they like instead.

Just give more space to the arts section of a paper in the interest of those who do appreciate it, not just for local art events but worldwide as well. Expose people to past and present artist bios, and it will attract more interest. You can't please everyone, but it doesn't mean you have to conceed to sports or other sections just because it's more popular to the general public.

Art is known for standing on the outside of mainstream society. Why should it start now to try and blend in like the latest fad or fashion, just to please some shmuck who's biased towards the arts anyway. We can't all be the same, but we should all get our fair share of the paper.

R Marshall



I think the first reason for bad arts coverage is that major metropolitan newspapers do not hire the best writers. They hire arts writers who have previously worked on a daily. That cuts out a huge pool of talented people who could not afford to write about arts for a small daily and work their way up. Great writers help generate interest.

The second reason is the narrowness of the arts assignments. They are written to formula. Newspapers do not give these people the scope that, for example, the New Yorker gave film critic Pauline Kael to write about anything she wanted to. Thus the writer who would take a more comprehensive and holistic view of the importance of the arts to our lives and our world does not go after the newspaper job.

The third reason - and I am just guessing from the results - is that arts reviewers in big newspapers are encouraged to include phrases that can be lifted for an ad. Thus if a Boston Herald reviewer who doesn't laugh once during a comedy calls it a "must-see," the play can buy an ad in the Boston Herald and cite the Boston Herald.

The fourth reason is that arts communities are fragmented and full of internecine wars. The Art Museum wants all the attention for the Art Museum, the Opera only cares about opera, theater people can't get together for five minutes before someone takes offense at an unintended slight.

The fifth reason is the dearth of mechanisms for encouraging new talent in the arts. Original, pathbreaking work in the arts can generate great human-interest stories that draw in new readers, but many of the people who are doing that cutting-edge work can afford to do it only as a sideline. And the organizations that should be nurturing new talent, like the Actors Theatre of Lousville with its Humana award, have been known to solicit big-name movie stars and novelists like Joyce Carol Oates for original plays. What is that all about?

Caroline Ellis
Wayland (MA) Town Crier



Mr. Lavin in his article on arts coverage reflects his own background and that of many editors, which are much the same. To equate sports and the "arts" is stupid and Mr. Lavin knows it.

The page coverage only reflects sales and nothing else - if 24 yahoos buy a paper describing some dim wit hitting a ball over the fence and only one paper is sold to a person wanting to know about the performance of Miss X or Mr Y, why then who are you going to cater to?

Perhaps Mr Lavin's sentence should read - Clearly the editors of papers all over America realize sports sell papers . When I was quite young - I'm way over 43 - I remember my father asking - 'do you and mom want to hear Rubinstein?' I would. It was an event. My father also enjoyed hockey when hockey was still a sport. Sport was an entertainment only and taken as such. The arts were special - something that fed the soul - and essential. One could do without hockey for one night, but to miss Tebaldi in recital...!!

Mr. Lavin knows his audience. Creativity is a lonely thing and certainly does not need some dim wit asking "how do you feel ....etc." That's for baseball players who really believe that when their little pinkey is dislocated the whole world must stop and take note .

And that is were you get 24-pages of banality. Say "ballet" to the 24-pagers - the response would be most interesting. That Mr Lavin would rather see a good play than a football game borders on high treason. But it does show there is some hope for him yet.




Chris Lavin has given us a lot to consider, and for this I thank him.

As a freelance writer who contributes stories on classical music to The Globe and Mail in Toronto, I'm sympathetic to his criticism of "review-centric" arts coverage.

Too often reviewers indulge in a kind of plumage display of expertise, dwelling on the minutiae of performance: "The strings fell slightly behind the beat in the Adagio, and brass section was too loud in the Finale." So what? There are bigger and broader issues out there, and writers who engagingly address larger issues do their art forms (and their readers) a service.

And like Mr. Lavin, I've always found the notion that writers should keep a distance from their beats in order to "preserve their objectivity" a little too convenient. The whole story is rarely found in press releases - the closer the contact with artists, the closer arts writers get to the truth. As well, I like his comparison of arts groups to "a cross between the Kremlin and the Vatican." It's only too true.

So why does the editor from San Diego make me nervous?

Maybe it's because he 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. (By the way, Chris, the word is "playwright," not "play write.") His 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'.

I care deeply about classical music; I have dedicated my life to it, and I feel that my commitment is an essential driving force behind my work. I would not write about dance: there are thousands of people in my city who know and care more about it than I do. The gig rightfully belongs to them.

It scares me to think there are editors who consider expertise and commitment on the part of their writers as "a barrier to the range of what they can easily take on."

Colin Eatock
Toronto, Canada



Lighten up people. Why does writing about the arts have to be so serious? Certainly sports writing can be serious - with all that money, the stakes are so high - but a good sports columnist conveys his passion and sense of fun about the enterprise. And he writes for people who are serious in their passions.

So much arts criticism has dumbed down to rote accounts or unsophisticated blather that turns off anyone who knows anything and bores everybody else.

Critics so often take themselves so seriously they're hard to take seriously. And where's the sense of proportion? I don't really care how many notes so-and-so missed. Tell me about how the artist is engaging with an idea. If you can't make writing about creativity fun, you ought to be doing something else.

Harold Jamison
New South Wales



Lavin makes several excellent points: there's much more to arts coverage than the performance review, and arts writers in general could do better at conveying the sheer thrill of art; but as far as the analogy to sportswriting is concerned, I think Lavin has it exactly backward.

Sports writers do not write for "a broad audience" - they are allowed to assume that their readers are knowledgeable about sports, and to write accordingly, including in-depth analysis and technical terms. Arts writers are not allowed to assume this.

Tell sportswriters to aim their football coverage at someone who knows nothing about football - because to write only for football fans would be inaccessible and insidery and elitist - and see what the reaction is.

Gavin Borchert
Classical music writer
Seattle Weekly



Sports are seasonal. Arts - and there are many of them - are year-round. There are sports that can be seen on TV. How many plays, musicals, opera, art exhibits etc can be viewed on TV on a daily basis?

Fred Lapides



According to a year 2000 survey of 37,0000 newspaper readers and nonreaders nationwide, conducted by the Readership Institute at the Media Management Center at Northwestern, men and women read newspapers in roughly equal numbers. Men, not surprisingly, spend more time with the sports section. Women spend more time with the Sunday arts and entertainment sections.

Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business and the professions, surveyed the Fortune 500s in the year 2000. Among the publishing companies surveyed were Gannett, Knight-Ridder, Times Mirror and the New York Times. The finding was that in the publishing industry, women account for just 18 percent of board members and a mere 25 percent of top executives.

Mr. Lavin, with men being the big readers of sports coverage and 75 percent of the senior decisionmakers in our business being male, I would suggest to you that the shrinking of arts coverage is not a bad writing thing. It's a guy thing.

Gwendolyn Freed
Arts writer,
The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)



Mr. Lavin's article should be required reading by artistic directors, managing directors and press directors at every not-for-profit theater in the country. Not that I agree with everything he says (since many features editors have told me that arts coverage is limited by a shrinking news hole for features in general), but because his clearly and provocatively stated ideas address the great danger that most theaters have already fallen prey to: speaking only to "ourselves," namely the people who are so dedicated to the arts that they can't understand an "outsider's" point of view. I'll be e-mailing this article to a lot of people.

Howard Sherman
Executive Director
Eugene O'Neill Theater Center



WHO'S TO BLAME FOR BAD ARTS COVERAGE? Has coverage of the arts gotten worse in America? If more people go to arts events in a given week than to sports, then "why is the DAILY sports section of some newspapers 24 pages on a regular basis while the WEEKLY arts sections are small, and obviously, one-seventh as frequent - if they exist at all?" San Diego Union-Tribune editor Chris Lavin delivered a speech last week to the Association of Performing Arts Service Organization and charged there's plenty of blame to go around - arts organizations who haven't learned the art of promotion in the way football teams have, and editors and critics who don't know how to tell stories and are unable to speak to a wider audience. "Reviews, almost by their definition, are narrowly focused - they speak to the theater community and to people who attended the show or are considering attending a show. I don't believe they attract the eyes of the non-theater-going community nor do I think they are generally written in a way that makes the art form more accessible to a broad newspaper or television audience." Poynter 05/14/02

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