AuthorRobert Bettmann

How Much Arts Journalism Is Too Much Arts Journalism?

In 2005 I was a part of a series of conversations with a major funder about how to support the dance community. This funder already supported a number of dance companies and the funder’s consultant wanted to hear about how to support the community collectively, specifically from those of us involved.

Anecdotal and other reports note the obvious: classical dance audiences are aging and declining, and new work seems to have a hard time gaining consistent audiences. Many of us agreed on the need to develop audiences, and out of those conversations the non-profit that I founded started a small arts magazine, Bourgeon. Bourgeon’s mission is to help artists develop audiences, and since 2005 we’ve published several hundred articles by artists.

At least 10 other arts publications have popped up in my hometown of Washington, D.C., over the past decade. Looking at recent numbers for arts participation, I’m forced to question whether or not Bourgeon is having the impact we want to have. Are we growing audiences, or are we part of the problem?

Over the past 15 years, the volume of arts writing published (mostly on online outlets) has increased while, according to a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts study, arts participation has declined. It’s uncomfortable to think that more arts writing is creating less substantive engagement with the arts, but the arts are not the only field wrestling with this issue. As Alice Robb reported (ironically, in The New Republic, last September), “Science has never been so democratic. It’s just not clear whether democracy is what science needs.” There may be no correlation between current arts participation numbers and the increase in arts journalism, but arts journalism played a significant role in audience development during the 20th century.

Writing for WQXR/NPR, Brian Wise summarized the 2012 NEA study of arts participation: “Across the board, arts attendance was down somewhat in 2012, with 33 percent of adults reporting that they participated in a ‘benchmark’ arts event. In 2002, 39.4 percent of adults participated in the arts.”

Internet publication – including blog and social media publishing – has created a glut in arts journalism. That most of the coverage generated is unpaid, or poorly compensated, does not in some ways matter. A ton of coverage is being generated. Absolute numbers are not available on how many articles are published annually, but the number of books published in the United States increased from 247,000 in 2002 to 2,200,000 in 2012, and we can assume a related increase in journalism as the tools for publication and distribution have similarly democratized. News scholar Jay Rosen recently wrote, “In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized – connected ‘up’ to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding.” Some argue that the public just needs reliable filters, but the filters (read: editors at the major news publishers) are marginalized by click-bait Internet publishers, who troll for readers.

The Pew Foundation’s excellent 2013 State of the News Media report describes an erosion of news reporting resources and an increase in resources for newsmakers (including artists and non-profits) to take their message directly to the public. The lines between traditional journalists and bloggers, press and media, have disappeared. As a non-expert member of the public, figuring out what content to trust is impossible. Predictably, new publications frequently compete with rather than reinforce old media viewpoints.

If declines in arts participation can be linked to declines in highest quality arts journalism, or simply that highest quality arts journalism is lost in a sea of lesser quality coverage, there is no easy prescription. Writing last month about the intractable conflict between the staff of The New Republic and its owner Chris Hughes, C. W. Anderson observed, “The way that a culture of measurement, quantification, and virality can coexist with an intellectual culture that takes a more deliberate, longer-term view of political and intellectual life is a problem that is likely to outlast many … publications.”

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the skilled eyes and pens of professional journalists helped develop the bond between creators and the public that built the arts as a professional practice, and arts journalism as a professional endeavor. Preserving existing professional practices today will take truly new approaches, and I worry that audience development investments are going in the wrong direction. More coverage generated from inside the industry will not build audiences. As book publisher Paul Slovak of Viking stated in a New York Times article covering the glut in book publication, “We just don’t have any credibility left.”

Publications, like Bourgeon and others, that substantively engage public participation in 21st-century art and art-making are necessary to prevent further declines in arts participation. We’re not part of the problem, but, we hope, part of the solution. Now if everyone else would just stop publishing!

This piece was originally published January 26, 2015 on the Dance USA e-journal. Thanks to editor Lisa Traiger for commissioning and editing it.

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:

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