Arts writers in hard times: notes from the chopping block

Elizabeth Kramer, an arts journalist who writes for the Gannett-owned  Louisville Courier-Journal, escaped massive layoffs on Tuesday, when the paper shed ten percent of its workforce.

The Courier-Journal Building, now with fewer people in it.

Kramer wrote on Facebook, “Layoffs today at The Courier-Journal were just awful. Out of 50 at the paper, half were from the newsroom, with several in features. I’m still on board, but now the ONLY arts writer on staff.”

Something similar happened in San Antonio in the winter of ’09, when the Hearst-owned San Antonio Express-News laid off 75 newsroom employees, including a veteran arts writer and several columnists who’d been important local voices since I was in high school. At the time, I wrote arts coverage for the San Antonio Current, our alternative newsweekly. Several people including a local TV correspondent asked me whether I was glad to see a staff decrease at “the competition.”

I was not.

No matter how competitive or self-important you are, if you’re an arts and culture critic, you don’t want the whole local arts beat. Or you shouldn’t want it, anyway – you can’t handle the damn thing, not with any kind of justice. You just miss too much, both as a singular viewer of a multifaceted phenomenon, and in terms of time-and-place logistics.

Also and maybe worse, your judgment becomes too weighted in absence of other write-ups. In an ideal world any artist’s work, like any Hollywood product no matter how crappy, should get a bunch of critical eyeballs on it who rate, praise, and complain. Some of these pairs of eyeballs will understand the stuff, or think they do, and others will dismiss it and others will champion it and through all these competing viewpoints, a reader over time cultivates a relationship with certain writers, and with artists, and with their city, and understands the features of artists’ work better, like the theoretical blind guy listening to the other blind guys describing the elephant.

And with the daily paper handling the informational, descriptive and local-booster aspects of San Antonio arts reporting — which is integral to getting people off their couches and into art venues – I was free to work on what I meant to be rigorous analysis and a potentially opposing view, peculiar theories and details and speculation in an undiluted voice. Art shows, particularly the large museum kind, or big traveling exhibitions, provided me opportunity to criticize institutions, curation, funding, trends, and individual works of art, without having to be particularly consensus-minded about it. Also, if there were works or events that didn’t particularly interest me, I knew the daily would probably have somebody on it. (And they do — Elda Silva, Steve Bennett and Deborah Martin at the Express News, as well as Scott Andrews at the Current and several writers at plazadearmastx.com including Ben Judson, Justin Isenhart and Elaine Wolff all work hard and well, but we could use, like, ten more of us.)

Dang, I should be grateful I’m not working retail. And it’s not as though I’m vouchsafing bridge safety or saving drowning people. But critical reviews are a form of currency to working artists, and I take that seriously.

And to stretch the pachyderm analogy: it’s not particularly good for art if there’s just the one blind person passing her hand over the critter.

“Seems big rough and stompy, thank you and goodnight” misses trunk and tusk, those big ears and wise eyes. The elephant is not, as the story goes, a snake and a tree and a fan and a rope, but just another wall.

Man, I love elephants.

 

As Elizabeth herself put it, and way more succinctly: “It’s so frustrating as well because arts groups aren’t doing well either and many leaders are telling me that the reduced coverage is hurting them.”

Since you’re reading this on Glasstire, this state of affairs is likely nothing new to you. I know. And thank God for Glasstire.

My good friend Rick Frederick put on an experimental theater piece last Spring about same-sex marriage and attitudes towards it, dramatized with the help of audience participation. At the end of the evening, as he was thanking the participants, Rick Frederick acknowledged the whole “preaching to the choir” aspect of the project. But he reminded us that “you still have to go to choir practice.”

I had some pretty hardcore choir practice last May in Los Angeles when I participated in the 2010 NEA/USC Annenberg Arts Journalism Fellowship in Theater and Musical Theater, along with 24 other arts journalists from around the country. We were taken to 11 live performances in 11 days, and wrote reviews and criticized each others’ reviews and heard lectures and other things commonly experienced by people whose jobs are seen as important enough to warrant intensive training and feedback. Some of us were from big arts markets – New York and LA, DC and San Francisco and Boston, others of us from critically under-served regions, still others from rural communities. In an article about it, I said:

Here’s what we all had in common: We didn’t make much money, but would rather write for little than do something else for more dough… we wanted to learn how to cover our communities’ art and theater scenes using new media, technology, and — most importantly — by writing better. To that end, the program coordinator, Sasha Anawalt, director of Arts Journalism Programs at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, orchestrated a roster of master arts writers to kick our asses. These included New Yorker theater critic (and longtime staff writer) Hilton Als ( a huge hero and influence of mine); Jeff Weinstein, a popular blogger, a New Yorker contributor, and former managing editor of ArtForum; Doug McLennan, the founder of ArtsJournal.com, the art world’s leading aggregator of arts journalism, and a brilliant thinker at the intersection of arts journalism and the internet; Los Angeles Times book editor and author David Ulin; and more.

This kind of hardcore focused workshop is a real resource that not enough career writers have access to. It was at this NEA-funded writing bootcamp that I met Elizabeth Kramer.  Some of us, including Elizabeth, keep in touch via a Facebook group. We remark on each others’ work, offer support and tips and advice and commiseration about low pay, layoffs, and high workloads. We talk about stuff we love, send shout-outs. This level of continuing challenge and camaraderie is crucial, because few of us know many arts writers. We even rounded up money for a very fine writer from a small town whose partner needed medical care, and who didn’t have health insurance. She’d have done the same for us. Hell, she might have to.

Kelly Klaasmeyer, a 2009 fellow with the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program, cited The Austin-American Statesman’s Jeanne Claire van Ryzin in this article as “one the few remaining full-time arts critics in the country … [who] wryly remarked, “I try not to think about the fact that I have no colleagues.”

It’s easy enough to blame the big media companies for this state of affairs, but Elizabeth Kramer remains pretty sanguine, writing me that

I actually believe that the [Louisville Courier-Journal], for the most part, has wanted to keep its arts writers…. In fact, several years ago, the last time that Gannett had huge numbers of layoffs, most people inside and outside of the paper knew that the three arts reporters had asked for buyouts/layoffs, but the newspaper refused because the management saw the city as an arts town. It seems like arts coverage isn’t fitting well into the business model that traditional newspapers are moving towards, which leaves places like Glasstire and Classical Voice in San Francisco to cover the arts. The problem is that less art gets covered.

Damn straight.

In an interview with the New York Foundation for the Arts, critic Dave Hickey, a Texan, says “I began writing about art because I was interested in the gap between what we see and what we say. Also I wanted to write about things in the world that stayed in the world after I had written about them, so whatever I wrote would remain in a live relationship with its subject.”

That’s some good preaching.

There’s really good art out there, and there are good arts writers. The arts media landscape is like Detroit; desolated and uncertain, but with the unexpected fecundity that comes from enterprising people taking on whole deserted blocks as creative frontier. Right now, it’s the golden age of hard times.

This lady thinks the NEA is "frivolous," remember? Which is pretty weird, since she's obviously a Beuysian Surrealist.

In another post on our Facebook group, Elizabeth said of her continuing employment,  “I guess they needed someone to cover the Louisville Orchestra bankruptcy. Sorry so cynical. So many good people walked out the door today.”

 

 

 

 

also by Sarah Fisch

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6 responses to “Arts writers in hard times: notes from the chopping block”

  1. Meanwhile, did you know the New York Daily News has raised the profile of is arts critics, added a Sunday ctitic’s column, brought back its book critic, started an arts staff blog and devotes nearly twice as much space to its critics as it did six months ago?
    Readers want that interactive, conversational relationship with someone who sees everything, thinks about what to see and where to go and can moderate and mediate word of mouth.

  2. Best Palin pic ever.

  3. Gannett is not generally known for being a forward-thinking news apparatus. Just about two-thirds of the newshole in USA Today is filled with children conversing with angels.

  4. The NEA is frivolous! I don’t want a bureaucrat choosing art paid for tax payer money. We just can’t afford it.

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