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NAJP and AICA: The future of arts criticism begins now

The Internet was created by the Defense Department as a hydra-headed hookup network that would be hard to shoot down with one “bomb.”

As I said in the previous post, Libby and I were in panel discussion-land over the weekend. We were in the audience Saturday at the PMA and participated in a panel on the same topic Sunday in New York. Discussions both days were about the future of arts writing — in newspapers, magazines and online. And both days at both venues energy was high and so was the anxiety level– on both sides of the stage — as people talked alot about Google, web statistics, sales and revenue, and the idea of reading online (they called it cherry-picking stories) instead of reading in the real world. One big item was the idea of surveillance and how everything you read online can be monitored somewhere. But when you read a paper or magazine in the real world, no big brother is looking over your shoulder.

And there was talk about what your computer may look like in the next ten years. Futurist Ellen Ullman said it would be a hand-held device like a cellphone. Read an interview with the writer and computer engineer here. (On the other hand, another futurist the next day said your computer may be in a piece of paper…or a book). I like that idea a lot better.

Saturday’s panels, supported by Pew Trusts, Mellon Foundation and Henry Luce Foundation, were organized by the National Arts Journalism Program (NAJP), the Columbia University fellowship for mid-career professionals looking to retool, focus and move forward. (NAJP’s currently on hiatus but we heard that they’re regrouping to make a comeback.) Sunday’s panel was sponsored by the Association of International Critics of Art (AICA), a slightly different audience although one panelist, Jeff Weinstein, actually overlapped and appeared both days at both venues.

I’m going to cherry pick some things that were said at the meetings just to give a little of the flavor of what was covered.

NAJP Panel — the Artists

Blanka Zizka, artistic director of the Wilma Theater, talked broadly about how now, unlike in the past, she is seeing less effect at the box office of either a positive or negative review. In general, she indicated that her box office numbers are down and she couldn’t explain it except that her audience is aging and young people were doing other things with their time.

Philly, the local portal to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and other things.

Louis Massiah
, executive director of Scribe Video, said he’d like to see more criticism that was less about art as a consumable pleasure and more about the merger of art and life. He talked about art as being cultural work and spoke of broad, socially-themed architectural criticism as a paradigm of what he’d like to see.

Janice Price
, President and CEO of the Kimmel Center agreed that she’d like to see more critical writing that was essays and thought pieces — big picture writing is what she called it. She thought with those essays they would reach people they’re not reaching for their programs. She cautioned that the equation of art with business and how much money the arts brought in to the city was a double-edged sword. It might help get funding for the arts but it probably wouldn’t help get more audience.

Dito Van Reigersberg, co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company said he’d like to see collaborative art reviews of his dance/theatre/circus/multi-media shows. More than one point of view is needed to deliver the whole of what they’re doing. Of course no newspapers can afford to send two reviewers to see one show and then have two reviews of the same show.

Panel 2: The Journalists

Jeff Weinstein, culture editor of Bloomberg news and former fine arts editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer opened the panel with this provocation: Print is Toast; Main Stream Media is gone; and Cyber hordes are running rampant….Do we need criticism? … The arts have changed and how must writers and media change to respond?….Are art blogs at print media websites the “farm team” for the print publication? All excellent questions that provoked great discussion.

Surveillance of your clicks is an issue to many people. Who’s watching what you’re reading online?

Sam Sifton
, culture editor of the NY TImes said they were a little slow in climbing aboard the blog wagon. They’ve been venturing slowly but they have to speed up alot soon. He said he never looks at his stats. The only thing he looks at is what is the most emailed story of the day. And that truly confuses him (because it’s often some marginal/niche story). About cherry picking, he said better site design would help bring back a kind of slower, more serendipitous way of reading.

Jeanne Carstensen, manaaging editor of Salon said as the oldsters of the new mediaa they’re now competing with blogs. They’re committed to criticism but they don’t do fine arts criticism because the numbers (statistics) are driving their coverage…to movies, book, politics, video. She called it the tyranny of the stats.

Elliott Wilson, editor in chief of XXL magazine told of breaking in to the hip hop media by creating his own zine. His magazine now includes an online site and a blog, although he was resistant at first. He knows the numbers online matter and he’s following them.

Craigslist, the free listing service that is competing with newspaper advertising — and winning the contest.

Kurt Andersen
, host of Studio 360, the only national radio news magazine said they decided at the get go to mix up high and low culture coverage. His favorite example of this was a piece on heavy metal music and Wagner in Germany where they jump cut between audio clips of the metal band Ramsteen and some Wagner. He, like other panelists, thought that the speed of the internet was a challenge. How can you deliver thoughtful commentary three times a day? How can you deliver a review an hour after you’ve seen or heard a piece? How “baked” will the writing be?…The argument for arts coverage cannot be reduced to a democratic argument. At base it’s an elitist argument…The internet is permanently changing things. The internet will cut out serendipity.


Tyler Green, creator of Modern Art Notes blog, said we live in an on demand culture and newspapers are now incorporating that. They will figure it out eventually. Blogs are about links and conversation and it’s not really a fight between blogs and the print or other media. … The first screen gets read by 90% of the readers and the second screen gets read by 60%….Advertising potential on the blogs is in its early days. It will take off. About the idea that criticism is being buried in the print media, he said that the LA Times has put art critics on the front page 3-4 times recently….that is, their review pieces, not reported stories by the critics. And here’s Tyler’s post about the panel.

I’m going to leave it there for the sake of brevity. Libby or I may be able to post more later about what were very interesting discussions. Bottom line, everyone, from those online to those waiting anxiously to get on board, acknowledge that everything is in transition. And they — like all of us — are anxiously awaiting the next big shift in the cyber tectonic plates. What comes next, truly that’s the question.