One of the many ideas floating about to reinvigorate arts journalism is consortiums of local arts institutions sponsoring some sort of online art-journalistic presence. Such a consortium would include listings, of course, and advertising and features, and also criticism. But as Doug McLennan reported to the NAJP board in one of our recent conference calls, no one model for just how it would work has yet emerged.
There are all kinds of issues, many boiling down to money. But the one that piques my perhaps cynical curiosity is how you ensure independent criticism when the objects of your criticism are paying your salary?
The case of Opera News magazine comes to mind. This is a publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and the guild is a creature of the Met. Despite the occasional quixotic efforts of various editors to establish a truly independent voice, it just won't happen; whoever the general manager du jour is, he/she won't tolerate his/her own publication attacking it. And rightly so, though the GM needn't come down on the poor editors as crudely as Joe Volpe used to do.
Even if independence were somehow achieved, the readership would still rightly regard criticism of the Met in Opera News with suspicion. Perception trumps reality. One can read the magazine with periodic pleasure, despite its basic middlebrow focus now (stars! stars!). Its reviews of everything but the Met (and, maybe, the City Opera) can be of interest, as can the CD/DVD reviews, book reviews (unless the book is about the Met), features, etc. But the Met, no.
So how would a local consortium handle this problem? If, say, we're talking LA, how would the Getty (which already has a reputation for being sensitive about criticism) respond to a consortium critic attacking the museum's leadership or a particular show? Poorly, I bet.
Could some sort of independent fund or foundation pay the arts writers, to which the institutions would contribute? What would stop them from ceasing payment if there were an economic downturn or an annoying review? Self-interest, I guess, if the online publication had established itself as a success.
In other words, if it had countervailing power. Barnes & Noble has a publication, and theoretically an aggrieved publisher could complain if it felt unfairly treated. But there are a lot of books, meaning one negative review of a Random House release, say, wouldn't affect that company or B & N that much.
Barnes & Noble is very powerful; it would seem unlikely that Random House would jeopardize itself by withholding advertising or book deliveries. But there is no real equivalent in the nonprofit arts world. Is there? 'Tis a puzzlement, and I, for one, will regard anyone who comes up with a solution with admiration and awe.