Commentary: 50% of arts journalism jobs were lost in last 5-8 years. What's next?

Rainey Knudson, NEA Art Works blog, 7/22/11

In recent years, there's been a groundswell of recognition about the alarming state of arts journalism. Witness the current collaboration between the Knight Foundation and the NEA; or the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program; or the Warhol Foundation's Arts Writing Initiative. The sense of urgency has resulted in a bit more funding for some writers, which is a good start. The truth is, if we can just crack the nut of paying great art critics a living wage, then the arts journalism of the near future has the potential to be radically more effective, with far greater reach, than the old print model that has crumbled around us. In their conversation on this blog, the NEA's Joan Shigekawa and the Knight Foundation's Dennis Scholl cite a study that found that 50% of local arts journalism jobs have been lost in the past five to eight years. It's a shocking number, but in addition to spurring us all to action, it should also politely beg the question of how vital those critics were if their jobs (and their papers) wilted so suddenly. There's probably a reason that that brand of arts journalism is dying, and it's not solely that advertising dollars are migrating away from print. Arts journalism in the heyday of the daily newspaper got concentrated in the hands of too few people. For some of them, the easiest route was to applaud every show they wrote about, or to only cover their small coterie of friends. Bloggers and web startups said, "We can make this more fun, more entertaining, more vital, for way less money." Now those bloggers and websites are playing an ever-more critical role in arts journalism, and they themselves have to figure out how to pay their writers. The nut's going to get cracked; we're all just figuring out exactly how.

>> You can read the transcript of the conversation between Shigekawa and Scholl here.


August 18 deadline for Arts Journalism Challenge in 8 U.S. communities

Knight Foundation website

Just as cultural institutions pursue new methods to engage audiences in the digital age, so too must our information portals find innovative ways to inspire and engage communities by providing platforms for high quality cultural coverage and criticism. The Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge is specifically focused on eight communities where Knight Foundation invests: Akron, OH; Charlotte, NC; Detroit, MI.; Macon, GA.; Miami, FL.; Philadelphia, PA.; St. Paul, MN.; and San Jose / Silicon Valley, CA. No idea is too unusual. Embedding a nonprofit reporter in a for-profit news organization? Creating a new collective to share professional work on a volunteer basis? Asking the community to decide which arts stories are best and put up the money to cover those? Have better ideas that never would have occurred to us on our own? First round winners [get] up to $20,000 to develop their plans. Second round winners will receive up to an additional $80,000 to implement their idea over a two year period.


Commentary: The affects of social media on traditional arts journalism

Chad Bauman, Arts Marketing blog, 7/24/11

With both publicists and journalists recognizing that the traditional media landscape is changing, it made me think about what's next.

New Play Development: In today's world, before the first review hits, public opinion can be persuaded by millions of tweets, Facebook posts and blogs. It would not surprise me if the major development work for high profile productions starts to occur at smaller venues in more remote areas of the country. My prediction: Places like Virginia Stage Company, a LORT D theater in Norfolk, VA which just recently produced a highly acclaimed pre-Broadway run of Bruce Hornsby's SCKBSTD, will become the new go-to places for development of high profile projects.
Preview Performances: Previews used to be a testing ground that allowed creatives the ability to make adjustments to a production and then try them out in front of an audience. These days, artists and administrators have to be prepared that the first preview will bring instant feedback, and that feedback will have a direct impact on sales. My prediction: Producers will forgo long preview periods, and will in turn rely more heavily upon developmental runs.
Embargoes: Howard Sherman
predicts the [press] embargo "has begun to crumble and that erosion will only accelerate as every single person who cares to becomes their own media mogul and true stars of the medium begin to achieve influence akin to that afforded by old media." My prediction: The use of embargoes between producers and the media will change in the next few years as social and traditional media will compete directly with each over for prominence.
Reviews: When Washington City Paper theater critic Trey Graham tweeted a response to a show that he was reviewing from the theater, it caused
a little bit of a brouhaha. I guess a couple of actors who normally like to avoid reading reviews encountered the tweet, and were upset because a review caught them by surprise as it was delivered via social media, thus leading to a complaint. Theaters can (as of now) embargo reviews based on time, but it is amusing to think that any institution would expect to be able to embargo based on delivery method. My prediction: Many more traditional critics will start tweeting immediate critical reactions so that their responses are competitive in the fast paced environment of social media.


Commentary: What do critics know of theatre who only theatre know?

George Hunka, Superfluities Redux blog, 6/29/11

"What do they know of theatre who only theatre know?" goes Aleks Sierz' cautionary exhortation [on his blog], and it is an interesting question, especially from a critical point of view. Levying a broader cultural body of knowledge towards only one of its aesthetic disciplines may not be necessary, but it is enlightening... it provides a deeper and more subtle context for and understanding of the individual work of art itself. The best critics can call upon this not only to illuminate the work, but also to illuminate the culture from which it arises. This may be especially true for drama and music. In a 1960 review from The Times (UK) about Harold Pinter's early plays, the critic notes:

"To find another artist with whom Mr. Pinter may fruitfully be compared one must look farther afield than drama, or even literature, to Music - to [Anton] Webern, in fact, with whose compositions Mr. Pinter's plays have much in common."

In a 1966 interview Pinter confirms the comparison:

"I don't know how music can influence writing; but it has been very important for me, both jazz and classical music. I feel a sense of music continually in writing, which is a different matter from having been influenced by it. Boulez and Webern are now composers I listen to a great deal."

But for this kind of criticism to be written, it must have critics who have done their homework, and editors who believe that journalism is more than a mere business, and has cultural responsibilities similar to those of a public trust. In a Culture Industry that caters to a fascination with celebrities, however, there's little place for it, and both critics and editors have rejected such criticism as pedantry. In his 1919 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," one of the most important texts of Modernist criticism, T.S. Eliot responds, and what he says has as much validity for the critic as for the poet:

"...What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."

The final line denies most categorically both an Art and a Criticism of Celebrity. Those critics and artists who may be more interested in their television appearances, the growth of their Twitter feeds, invitations to gala receptions and openings, their names in advertisements that follow pull-quotes for popular shows, or in the progress of their own professional careers, take heed.

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