Twin Cities arts coverage: quality vs quantity

In the last month I’ve added a new feature to State of the Arts – the daily “news and reviews” post which attempts to bring together all the Twin Cities arts reporting in one easy-to-find location. I figured this would be a useful service to readers, and simultaneously would get me in the habit of reading everybody else’s work out there (which ideally, I should always do, but hey, nobody’s perfect).

After a few weeks of posting the daily news, I have to say I was impressed. There are actually far more stories out there than I realized about Minnesota artists, theaters, musicians – you name it. Even dance, known for being the orphan child of the arts journalism world, is getting pretty regular coverage.

So why is it that I constantly hear predictions of the death of arts journalism, and artists tell me that coverage of their work in the Twin Cities is lacking?

That’s the question I posed on Facebook… and by doing so, sparked a conversation far more nuanced and wide-ranging than I had anticipated. Participants included both artists and journalists, and even people who play both roles.

Many agreed that while there may be a number of stories out there, the style of journalism isn’t to their liking. Either they’re glorified calendar listings, booster-ish features or shallow reviews geared towards “should I go or not” decision-making.

Amy Rice, Art Director with Spectrum Community Mental Health and artist/Walker Art Center project director Scott Stulen both cited instances in which someone reviewed a show either without seeing it fully installed, or not even stepping foot in the gallery. Stulen went on to write the following:

There is a need for more critical, smart and unbiased coverage. Far too many press releases turned into promo articles or the “description review”…Competition and more writing, both online and in print creates a healthy art community. There is a vibrant art community in Minnesota, but it can also be complacent and afraid of critical dialog. For artists to grow, we need to be pushed on occasion…even when it isn’t what you want to hear.

Journalists spoke to the combined pressures of both fewer colleagues and a thriving arts community, which makes the notion of “covering” the Twin Cities arts scene seem almost insurmountable. Sheila Regan with TC Daily Planet urged people to pick up their pens and join the fight. Fellow MPR colleague Ali Lozoff (with The Current) asked why give a bad review, when instead you can draw an audiences attention to something worth seeing?

For the most part, there are fantastic emerging artists that need every piece of good press they can get; things that aren’t good are best left ignored where they wither on the vine, since all publicity is ultimately good publicity.

Theater director Charles Campbell says he doesn’t want just a review, but a broader public dialogue about the ideas in an artist or theater company’s work.

Still others, like Cantus’ Executive Director Mary Lee, and MinnesotaPlaylist.com co-founder Alan Berks say really good arts writing should be more like restaurant reviews, with a real passion for detail. Berks points out that when sports writers may say a game was “good” or “bad” but that never implies you shouldn’t go see it.

Really good sports writers make a double play seem somehow geopolitically significant. Are there art writers with the same sense of joy and obsessive passion combined with the same intelligence, arrogance, and style? If so, would that writing even get published in the forms that currently exist?

Berks went on to state that he does believe those writers are out there, but in the current media climate, they’re restricted by either format or time. He says he believes there’s more arts coverage out there now than there was two years ago, thanks to new outlets online.

Susannah Schouweiler with mnartists.org say if she sees a lack in local arts coverage,

it’s in the more enduring, critical essays and think-pieces on a relevant theme.

I think we in the local arts press do both artists and audiences a service by focusing on the big picture – tying together threads and themes, looking at work repeatedly and over time. Frankly, that’s a harder story to pitch to a commercial media entity whose interests tend to be pretty immediate and geared toward getting people to the site/newsstands today — driven by what’s hot *this weekend* — but it’s a really valuable part of a thriving, informed art conversation, I think. And we need to be able/willing to pay writers for that kind of effort. But as a reader, I’d love to see more of it.

So why/how is it that a place like the Twin Cities can have such a thriving arts scene, but the writing about that scene fails to be as dynamic or inspiring? Poet Paul Dickinson posited the most controversial theory – that there are simply “too many artists.” Many disagreed that there could be such a thing, but the comment resonated with something Duluth painter and arts writer Ann Klefstad mentioned – the role funding plays in fueling – or stifling – critical discourse.

Because arts here is funded to a greater degree by foundation and governmental grants than by passionate purchasers, there is less role for critics and discussion in general. The decisions on grants are made by committees, often from outside Minnesota; their choices will be little influenced by popular discourse. Purchasers, however. like reviews, in fact need reviews. Think of how many people would go to movies if there were no movie reviews, only polite previews that said, “this is nice.” Of course consumption of arts of any kind is driven by quality, understood not necessarily as “high esthetic value” but “things people love and find intensely interesting”, but the talk that accrues around such things spreads the word.

So where does this leave us? Artists want criticism, because it helps them to grow and develop their work. But they don’t want simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down reviews. Nor do they want boring academic treatises. Instead they want a lively, interested dialogue that takes the same care and attention with their work as a food writer does with a fine meal or a sports writer with a double play.

Meanwhile arts reporters like myself, due to the dramatic changes going on within the news industry, face tighter deadlines and fewer colleagues with which to share the work load.

It feels as though local arts journalism is caught up in one great catch-22. That is, in order for journalists to have time to nourish a meaningful critical dialogue, they need a dramatic increase in funding and institutional support. But it’s that same longstanding local tradition of cultural philanthropy that may have dulled the conversation in the first place.

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