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June 25, 2009

Conflicting thickets

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.
June 25, 2009 8:48 AM | | Comments (2)


This idea is quite utopian, it appears to me, having consulted with several institutions on their house-organs besides having written "independently" for a couple of dozen publications over 35 years. The amount of dithering and nit-picking that high muckety-mucks and their bureaucratic underlings spend on directing and airbrushing copy and photos is shameless and wasteful; I just can't imagine a combine of heads of cultural institutions calmly passing on the mildest criticism, much less agreeing on the amount of space/attention leveled on their diverse programs. The responsibility of an arts journalist in this scenario is to walk the line, not speak truth to power or analyze from personal insight. Those who proclaim their independence while working for an arts institution are too smug to be trusted -- and if they go out of their ways to demonstrate their independence, that can't be trusted either. Let's not kill brain cells puzzling out this problem, let's just move on to some other ideas.

I actually edit the arts journalism for such an entity, : it's a massive online arts database and arts writing hub for Minnesota artists and enthusiasts which is funded through a generous grant from the philanthropic McKnight Foundation but operated by the Walker Art Center. We publish two to three new articles each week and disseminate a twice-monthly arts newsletter to right at 12,000 opt-in subscribers.

As the editor for the arts journalism on, I'm not actually a staffperson working at the Walker; rather, I'm a freelancer commissioning features and reviews for from other independent, freelance journalists and critics. I certainly don't feel constrained in my editorial tasks and decisions by an overarching institutional ideology or agenda; and in my nearly four years working here, I've not felt any pressure to tone down the criticism.

Actually, I feel freer to assign and publish responsible arts writing than I've felt working for other, more traditional media outlets. I'm not bound by the need for ad sales or slavish concern for reader click-through, thanks to the grant support from McKnight that ensures our future. My bosses just want smart, well-rounded local art journalism.

The packaging of the site's content -- practical information and resources for artists and art lovers and a vast storehouse of artist-driven collections of locally made artwork, combined with independent original arts journalism -- has proved to be a fruitful mix for us, thus far. Indeed, this arrangement has provided an ever more important sanctuary for local critical coverage of the arts here in Minnesota, something especially valuable as column inches for arts writing in our print outlets continue to shrink.

Another nonprofit news outlet around here,, also has what looks like a promising model for future new media arts writing.

MinnPost employs a number of contracted arts writers and critics, each with a different discipline-specific beat, to contribute to their local arts blog, "Arts Arena". MinnPost relies on a public broadcast sort of model--asking readers to become "members" to support the content. Their venture is still in its early years, so the jury's out as to whether such a model will work for the long haul, I suppose. But, so far anyway, there's been a robust show of reader support for MinnPost, too.

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