AuthorRobert Bettmann

The Stain of Censorship on the Washington DC Jewish Community Center and the Firing of Ari Roth

Ari Roth, longtime Artistic Director of Theater J, the resident company at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC), was fired recently, and summarily escorted out of the building by security.

Unusually for this sort of transition, Roth’s firing has been covered in the New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times. A letter, signed by sixty Artistic Directors from around the country, covered by Peter Marks in the Washington Post (12/22) states, “It is absolutely clear that Roth was fired because of the content of the work he has so thoughtfully and ably championed for the last two decades.”

A post on this site a few months ago notes that as a business your reputation “is the most valuable stock you own,” and if the DCJCC is not what it seemed to be under Roth’s theatrical leadership, his firing may mark the beginning of a significant decline.

There has been a lot of coverage about the recent closing of DC’s Corcoran Museum and School, and the financial troubles that necessitated it. Those troubles can be traced back to a damaging PR incident perhaps not unlike the Roth firing. In 1989 the Corcoran leadership cancelled a planned exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photography under pressure from conservative funders. The planned retrospective was eventually shown at a much smaller venue, and recruitment of Corcoran leadership, including Board members, suffered because of the negative public attention. The Corcoran never recovered, and the DCJCC could suffer the same fate.

Regardless of what we think of the role of any community theater to stimulate dialogue, the Corcoran experience makes serious public investigation of the firing of Ari Roth important. The DCJCC has lost a brilliant and popular director, playwright, and dramaturge; the institution itself has been damned. But perhaps that was a rush to judgment.

This piece was originally published January 11, 2015 on the commentary site, Editorial IV. Thanks to Joseph at Editorial IV for contributing to the piece through his comments, and publication. Check out the live post on Editorial IV here

What is the Future of Arts Journalism?

Arts journalism is changing rapidly. Newspaper coverage has shifted, and the number of blogs and small magazines covering the arts has grown exponentially. While it’s uncertain what the structural changes in arts journalism will mean for the arts over the next twenty years, changes are happening and affecting audience participation.

As an artist, editor, arts writer and arts advocate, I was right at home moderating the “Future of Arts Journalism” panel at the recent Dance Critics Association (DCA) conference held in downtown Philadelphia at the Gershman Y. The DCA was created in 1973, “when a group of dance critics attending a Philadelphia arts conference saw a need for an organization that represented working dance critics.” The annual DCA conference draws leading arts writers from across the country for a weekend of panels, performances, and trainings. As she has before, critic Elizabeth Zimmer led the “Kamikaze Dance Writing Workshop”, which is a two-day boot camp for young and aspiring dance critics, and as he has before DCA Board Chair Robert Abrams organized the conference volunteers, and panelists.

The “Future of Arts Journalism” panel included Michael Norris, interim executive director of the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Merilyn Jackson, Philadelphia Inquirer dance critic, and Lois Welk, DanceUSA Philadelphia executive director. During the panel, Michael Norris noted that newspapers and classical arts organizations are similarly suffering from aging and shrinking audiences. Merilyn Jackson articulated that making a living as an arts writer can’t be a goal of professionals today. And Lois Welk brought in Clay Shirky, who argues that dialogue, not content, is now king.

Attendees agreed that today, as opposed to even ten years ago, there is uncomfortably both less and more criticism written by professional writers. Individuals that have been covering our profession for generations are being drowned out, and silenced. Will a similarly professional pool of dance critics exist to convene in twenty years?

Looking back on the panel, I’ve come up with a small set of questions that I think can help advocates investigate the impact of arts journalism in their communities:

1. What are the changes in content serving the arts in your community? Do the changes in content matter, to whom and why — artists, arts writers, the public?

2. Is there a historic relationship in your community between arts participation, and a community of independent evaluators/arts critics?

3. Are there differences, for your community, between coverage written by a talented 25-year-old, versus a talented 50-year-old with 20 years of writing experience? What are those differences?

4. How are the changes in arts journalism asymmetric in impact to communities of color, women, emerging artists, and/or classical artists in your area?

Advocates should push to ensure that communities invest in mechanisms to support the arts journalism necessary for a healthy arts ecosystem. Additionally, advocates can support best practices in the field for the next generation of critics. As just one example, the magazine that I founded has for four years managed a ‘Student Arts Journalism Challenge’, designed to identify and support talented young arts writers.

The business model that once supported a career in arts writing no longer exists. Arts journalism is arts education for adults, and advocates should spend more time considering the impact of arts writing within the arts ecosystem, and shaping future supports for the field.

Read on Americans for the Arts ArtsBlog here:

” For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” ~Vincent Van Gogh

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