Recently by John Rockwell
When I first floated the fantasy of an arts publication, I didn't assume it would be an NAJP production, tho I have no problem with that and would happily avail myself of any advice/help NAJP members can provide. Egged on by Peter Plagens, the NAJP board discussed this idea at our last teleconference meeting. Members were sympathetic but dubious, and unwilling to invest much of their own limited time in a project with such a dim chance of realization. Me, too, what with book projects and other ventures on the horizon. It was decided I would send an e-mail to all members asking if anyone wanted to join a committee to further discuss the matter.
Bob Christgau and I also had dinner recently with Joe Levy, who has considerable magazine experience. He suggested some ideas and avenues toward people to approach for advice and money. His thinking was that it would best fly as a prestige print monthly or quarterly, however wide-ranging the arts covered. It could also have an online presence, of course.
Upon further reflection I have decided to post this in ARTicles instead of sending it out to the entire membership -- because it's easier and because the NAJP membership list is seriously out of date and no one has the time to update it. I, too, am doubtful such a venture could fly, without a munificent endowment provided by a single philanthropist, as opposed to a shifting consortium of foundations, each of which would have to be appeased.
So: If anyone reading this wants to get together via teleconference to discuss it further, fine (tho I won't be back from abroad until Aug. 22). I would be especially interested in anyone with an MBA or hands-on experience in the upper levels of magazine publishing, with practical ideas about funding, business models and such. If the membership is as hesitant as most of the board, I could pursue it on my own, on the model of Lapham's Quarterly or The Believer. Or I could let the whole idea die a graceful death.
When I first posted my little idea about finding a philanthropist with a spare $20 million to endow an arts-journal publication, I figured I might stir up some discussion. It worked, a bit, tho not a real tsunami of ideas, let alone dollars. Some of the respondents just wanted jobs, which is understandable in this economy in this business. Others suggested that the very idea of such a quest was naive.
Upon reflection, and with the petering out of responses, I realize now just a few, only a few, things. One is that the publication would almost certainly be on line; the Internet is cheaper than print, and less imagistically musty. Two, the premise was not wrong: most serious on line publications have serious backing. Three, just floating the idea seems demonstrably unlikely to summon forth that backing.
What a nascent publication needs is someone with enough energy, dedication, passion and business acumen to make it happen. A blend of ambition and idealism. I am not that person; among other liabilities, I haven't the business acumen. So if a philanthropist or idealistic investor is the cart, a vigorous young and smart entrepreneur is the horse. Or, if you wish, if the publication is the truffle, we need an entrepreneurial truffle pig. Or if the editor is to be a George Balanchine, we need a Lincoln Kirstein. Horse, pig, human, we need someone who is willing and able to devote their time and talent to bringing such a publication into being.
One other thing: I remain convinced that there is still a place in our brave new electronic world for real arts journalism, criticism and reporting. Sure, lively new business models and interactive, community-based publications that engage artists and arts organizations and the arts-loving public in new ways can be seductive, and maybe might work, at least as part of a new publication. But forget not the older virtues of arts journalism: reporters able to dig out solid information about what's going on in the arts today, and critics of distinction who can establish themselves in the public eye as authoritative voices in their fields.
God knows there are enough of them out there, hungry for work, or maybe just hungry. Traditional commentary and reporting have found a place on line in the political and general-interest realms -- one thinks of Salon and Slate and and Truthdig and ProPublica and Politico and many more, some of which cover the arts but only as part of a larger mandate.
Maybe a new arts publication could be an expanded site previously devoted to aggregating stories from publications that generated their own content. Maybe ArtsJournal could be that, if Doug McLennan's bloggers were paid and to some gentle extent edited, or at least coordinated. Maybe ARTicles could be that. What we need is an online arts publication conceived and edited with a vision and sufficiently underwritten to pay its writers enough to make that calling their life's work.
I remain convinced that such a serious publication, broadly diverse in its blend of the arts but not a slave to its audience, needs philanthropic backing. But instead of one rich person -- one suggestion was David Geffen -- we probably need a motor force (enough with the animal metaphors) who can drive the entire project, with or without an editorial front person (like Robert Scheer or Lewis Lapham). Any volunteers?
The comments appended to my initial "Castles in the Sky" posting are all worth reading. But here's another set of questions for the ARTicles readership:
Could anyone sketch out the basic original and subsequent business models for successful online general-interest publications like Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, Truthdig and the many others I'm not thinking of? How were they first capitalized? By a single endower or a consortium? How much annually do their endowments/investments spin off to support the publication? What's their current total budget? What additional kinds of earned income do they enjoy? How much are writers paid? And any other relevant questions I'm omitting. Having that kind of information in hand would make any approach to a deep-pocketed philanthropist a lot more grownup-sounding!
Me, I think I side with those commenters who think an online publication is more realistic than a print version. Perhaps, for print, we could generate an annual collection, with rotating editors, on the model of the "Best Music Writing of 200X" series. Entries to be drawn from our own online publication and/or from all over.
The other day Laura Sydell was in town and she and I got together at Bob Christgau's for a mini-NAJP board meeting/social hour, more the latter than the former. But we did find ourselves talking about yes, arts journalism, and how best to map out its shaky path into the future.
What we decided was that one way to enliven the profession would be to start a publication, in print or online or both, with a real staff devoted to arts journalism in all its facets. To do that, we figure, would entail real money, ideally provided by someone who cared enough about the cause to provide an endowment that would spin off enough money annually to subsidize such a venture. That wouldn't preclude further income streams, contributions or advertising, but it would provide an ongoing base of support. The notion of engendering such a publication on a purely commercial basis seems long gone.
The various models that emerged from the "summit" Doug McLennan organized at USC a few months ago would be a start, but we'd like to build on them to create an actual publication of our own. The Goldring arts journalism program at Syracuse, the one Joanna Keller runs, was made possible by such a donation ($20 million, as I recall). We need another Goldring. More than we need a foundation, no matter how generous Pew was to the old NAJP. Foundations can (and maybe should) cut off their support at some point; they don't provide the kind of basis for the future that an endowment does.
So the questions for the readers of ARTicles are these: Think about anyone you know (or about yourself, if you happen to have a spare $20 million plus) who might endow such a project. And think about what that project might be. We would rather envisage the publication we want, one that would best serve the arts and arts journalism and arts journalists, rather than let a philanthropist determine the project. We'd like to inspire an endowment with the brilliance of our ideas, not beg for one, vaguely.
We have a potential basis for such a publication in this blog, and a potential editor in Laura Collins-Hughes. But maybe a publication is not the way to go. Maybe such a big (if still phantasmagorical) endowment would be better spent elsewhere (I mean to support arts journalism, not to feed the hungry, however important that may be). Anyone have any bright ideas?
So what do I know from technology? Nothing is what I know from technology. But I am bemused that someone took it upon themselves to hack ArtsJournal, thus de facto bringing it down.
I don't mean to make fun. It's a serious inconvenience for Doug McLennan, who the last I heard was laboring away to fix the problem. What interests me, however, is why anyone should bother to cause such a problem in the first place.
ArtsJournal is not, say, the Huffington Post or the Drudge Report (sorry: THE DRUDGE REPORT). It doesn't attract huge numbers of people with a violent political agenda or just readers or hits or whatever we call them. It's just a nice idea that helps a fair number of people keep up with arts news and makes Doug some money. Benign capitalism in action.
So why bring it down? I suppose someone could have a personal animus against Doug, though that seems improbable, since he's a nice guy. Maybe some people just like causing trouble. Maybe there are destructive robot hacking devices on autopilot that nose their way around the web blindly, destroying whatever they can.
But maybe someone out there hates the arts. Now, that's the most intriguing scenario. The arts matter! Somebody cares, albeit negatively! Will ARTicles be the next victim? We all complain about the implosion of arts journalism, and here's a case where someone thinks it's still important enough to attack. Gives one hope, in a weird sort of way.
Saddened to hear from Mark Swed of the death, Friday afternoon, of Alan Rich. Alan could be cranky, eccentric and needlessly ad hominem. But many of his targets were dead on, and he was always an impassioned critic with wonderfully intense, personal tastes -- many of which I shared.
I always felt a certain parallelism with him, sometimes in reverse and 15 years younger. We both went to Harvard College and Berkeley for grad school, and felt at home on both coasts. His progression was bolder, though, in that having established himself in New York, he went back out to California and became a champion of west coast music, new and otherwise, when it wasn't yet fashionable to do so. When I lived in LA in the early 70's, I was bemused at how the locals were constantly proclaiming LA the new, happening arts city. They were premature then, but it all came true eventually, and Alan had a good deal to do with that, reaffirming the easily overlooked role of sympathetic criticism to the nurturing of a local scene.
Alan had ears. The first time I ever heard of Philip Glass was as an eager reader in California in the late 60's or very early 70's and Alan was still the critic for New York Magazine. Then, when I was in New York and he in LA, I was constantly enlivened and informed by his reports from the west. While his long career might be seen unsympathetically as a downward slide, in terms of the declining prominence of his outlets, he kept on listening and writing. His reviews were sometimes provincial and full of special pleading for his adopted home. But they were always lively and acute, right to the end. I will miss him, and so should American music.
I was pleased for her and for the profession of paid dance criticism when Sarah Kaufman won this year's Pulitzer Prize for criticism. But there are two anomalies to her well-deserved win.
First, she's one of the last of a dying breed. Apart from her and Alastair Macaulay, my successor at the NY Times, who else is a full-time staff dance critic in American journalism anymore? Maybe readers will write in with other names, but there aren't many.
Second, Sarah flies refreshingly against the grain in her aesthetic. And she has a nice taste for polemics. As she pointed out in a Washington Post piece last May -- one that triggered a roundtable discussion in Dance Magazine -- a Balanchinian orthodoxy hangs heavy over American dance and American ballet companies and American criticism, when you add in the more prominent regular freelancers. It sometimes seems now that the entire American modern-dance tradition was just some sort of blip in the history of dance, which is the history of ballet, and that the myriad experiments and innovations in European choreography are mere vulgar trash. Yes, a few historical oldsters win guarded respect, and Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown and Mark Morris have their cautious admirers. Most of these veterans have choreographed for ballet companies or had their work adapted by those companies.
That Kaufman would challenge the Balanchine/ballet orthodoxy so boldly, and then win the Pulitzer, might be interpreted as a message. Except that one wonders just how attuned the Pulitzer criticism panel and overall board are to this polemical tension. Maybe they just thought she was a good critic.
Now, fresh from her victory, Kaufman has followed up with a review in this past Saturday's Post in which she blasts a Washington Ballet triple bill as "a demonstration of the stultifying effect that the national Balanchine obsession has had on new choreography." That's her lead. She ends her second graf with: "But it's clear that when the Kool-Aid chalice was passed around at the holy communion of neoclassical groupthink, Armitage, Fonte and Liang" -- the choreographers in question -- "drank deep."
I espoused similar views during my tenure as chief dance critic at the NYT (both of us pay due homage to Balanchine's genius; it's his latter-day influence and pedantry that are so troubling). Amusingly, I was also attacked as a sexist. Kaufman concludes her lead graf with: "Crotches -- cranked open, screaming at you to notice -- hit a new expressive high mark," and remarks later that a dancer "flashes her crotch at us a few more times." I tell you, girls can get away with this stuff while us boys get blasted. Life is SO unfair...!
My eye was caught the other day by news that a legit theater in Chicago had been renamed for the longtime local theater critic Richard Christiansen. It is not exactly unprecedented for an aisle-sitter to have a theater named for him (or her, though I don't offhand know of any examples of that). In New York alone there are theaters named for Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson.
What, if anything -- other than respect for a longtime fixture of a local or national scene -- does this mean? I suppose one could fret about the erosion of the adversarial relationship supposedly prevailing between judger and judged, or reporter and reported. Though that seems a particularly American fetish, one being eroded in tough economic times by the loss of staff jobs and the need for freelance critics and bloggers to branch out into public relations, arts administration, or worse.
Basically, though, I think it's a nice thing to do, and far better than theaters (or seats or cornerstones or passageways to the bathroom) named for donors or corporations who demand gold-embossed recognition in return for a mingy gift. I have been appalled at the names of corporations and rich individuals on the titanium panels of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Auditorium in Los Angeles, or the fascistic array of corporate logos and banners festooning the grand lobby of the Wortham Theater Center in Houston.
In New York there are theaters named for Broadway moguls (Bernard B. Jacobs, Gerald Schoenfeld), donors (Mitzi Newhouse, Alice Tully, Avery Fisher, Andrew Carnegie and on into the night), actors (Lunt-Fontanne, Helen Hayes, the Barrymores), playwrights and composers (August Wilson -- or is that one in Pittsburgh? -- Eugene O'Neill, now Stephen Sondheim), even a cartoonist (Al Hirschfeld).
So why not a critic? It may enfold them or their memories rather too clammily into the embrace of the theater community (dreaded word for an adversarial critic). More kindly, it's honorable recognition of the important role critics can play in the fostering of art.
Ooh, I do like this (by David Cote in the Guardian online, as posted on Artsjournal):
We critics, reviewers, consumer reporters - call us what you will - are the dung beetles of culture. We consume excrement, enriching the soil and protecting livestock from bacterial infection in the process. We are intrinsic to the theatre ecology. Eliminate us at your peril.
Me, I have a somewhat more elevated image of the critic's role -- something to do with celebrating art in all its diversity, having a vision of what art really is (as opposed to what pedants claim it to be) and what it might become, helping others share my enthusiasms, and such. But lively writing is lively writing, and Cote wrote lively.
Well, we're back, and to judge from the March 1 postings, we're a lively crew, full of beans. Plus a gentle facilitateuse in Laura, who will ride herd without digging in her spurs (love those metaphors).
What we are, whether this will be an assortment of comments or a conversation, will evolve in time. From the outset, there were differences of emphasis among the original ARTicles bloggers. Most of us saw the site as a place to comment ABOUT arts journalism, and especially the issues surrounding the senescence of print and the rude birth of Internet journalism. Others, especially those without a regular blog of their own, put more stress on the actual practice of arts journalism, writing directly about the arts, though Bob Christgau did tie in an arts-journalistic angle most (if not all) of the time.
The March 1 postings, especially those by Wendy Lesser, Larry Blumenfeld and Richard Goldstein, seem to me to have shifted the balance more to the arts and away from arts journalism per se. Which is not a bad thing, though as I say, maybe themes and conversations will sort themselves out from the initial conceptual white noise.
Whatever works, since arts journalism as traditionally practiced is not working. If ARTicles becomes a site readers turn to for good writing about artistic events the writers have encountered, with no further comment on how the arts-journalistic profession has responded to those events, fine. Me, I hope to keep more of my focus on the secondary art of arts journalism, and to save whatever I may write about the arts themselves for my Rockwell Matters blog -- when and if I revive that.
The key is to have this conversation, and I'm proud that we have been able to attract such a bustling crew of new contributors. Let's keep the momentum going!