Why free shows get critical reviews

Yesterday over the lunch hour I walked over to the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul to enjoy a performance by the Artaria String Quartet as part of the Schubert Club’s Courtroom Concert Series. The room was packed to the gills, with people standing in the adjoining hallway just to enjoy this free performance of two of Shotakovich’s string quartets.

As with any of these lunchtime concerts, it felt like an absolute gift to be treated to such a performance without having to pay a penny. So I was a bit surprised when I spotted Pioneer Press music critic Rob Hubbard in the audience, pen and paper in hand. I asked him if he was going to review the show, which he said he was. You can read the review here.

“To review a show that’s being given for free,” I thought, “seems a bit like looking a gift horse in the mouth. We should just be thankful we’re getting the performance at all!”

So, with that in mind, I posted the question “What do you think of a critic reviewing a show that’s free?” to my Facebook page, sure that I would enjoy a wide variety of responses.

Well, it appears I was entirely in the wrong. Here’s just a sampling of the answers which served to put me in my place, and rightly so.

Christi Rodriguez Cottrell writes:

“Assuming the criticism has at least some constructive points, then the company/artist can take something from the critique to improve the quality of future work presented. All in all, I don’t think it matters much whether it’s free or achingly expensive, being exposed to different perspectives, either positive or negative, of your work only makes you a stronger artist.”

Sheila Regan (a critic) writes:

“If the said show is getting grant money, especially from a public source, then it’s not really free. If they pass the hat at the end, it’s also not exactly free.”

Carolyn Payne, executive director at, SooVAC, points out that “visual art critics do it all the time” when they review exhibitions.

Steve Nelson adds “Discretionary time is also a key (and often scarce) asset that arts audiences have to decide how to spend. In that line of thought, a show is never ‘free.'”

Colleen Sheehy, Director of Plains Art Museum, asks “does free mean you can’t evaluate and respond? i don’t think the cost is relevant at all.”

And finally Ben Kreilkamp sums it up nicely: “Why should that matter at all? Reviews are just reports of experiences.”

Thanks for all your wisdom. Let it be known, I shall never question the presence of a critic at a free performance ever again.

Comments are closed.