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The Disappearing Critic

What will replace newspapers as the source of quality arts criticism?

By Maureen McNamee

 

“Came here Saturday night to see the play A Christmas Carol. The theatre is a little small, lots of walking up stairs if you are seated in the higher rows. They need more bartenders and servers during the intermission though as there were huge lines. They do one thing that I never seen before, you can pre-order your drinks before the play starts and they will be ready for you during intermission. I thought that was an excellent idea to avoid the long lines. Overall, nice theatre, a little dated but the play was good.”

—Yelp review, Theatre Calgary, by Mary S. in Ontario

Is this the future of arts criticism in Alberta? For people seeking an informed opinion on visual arts, classical music or theatre, pickings are slim. The province’s major dailies have cut arts coverage severely, and the free daily Metro favours popular music, movies and TV shows over local shows. Edmonton still has Vue Weekly, but Calgary’s Fast Forward Weekly folded in 2015. CBC Radio’s local arts coverage is inconsistent. Nationally, The Globe and Mail ventures west to review the odd performance, but not enough to provide an informed perspective on the province’s culture.

In the absence of critical analysis, we may be left with online reviews by audience members such as “Mary S. in Ontario,” or commentary in 140 characters or fewer via Twitter.

“Everyone can review something,” says Jessica Goldman, a former Calgary theatre critic now based in Houston. “Everyone can say, ‘I liked it, the costumes were great, the singing was wonderful, it was a great show, go see it.’ Everyone can do that. That’s not criticism.”

Goldman arrived in Calgary in 2010 and soon started her own blog (applause-meter.com) to add “quality critical information” on the performing arts. “When I first got to Calgary there was still a holdover from a time when arts writing felt it needed to be cheerleading instead of critique,” she says, adding the city suffered from a “we’re the small guys” mentality.

During the four years she lived in the city, Goldman became the theatre critic for CBC Calgary’s Eyeopener morning radio program and was a founding member of the Calgary Theatre Critics’ Awards—The Critters—along with Bob Clark and Stephen Hunt of the Calgary Herald and Louis B. Hobson of the Calgary Sun. Goldman covered the local scene on air and online until 2014, when her husband was transferred to Houston. When Hunt, the Herald’s sole remaining theatre critic, lost his job in 2016, she says Hobson was left with the “impossible” task of covering theatre for both dailies.

A theatre critic considers a show deeply and intellectually, Goldman says, looking at the playwright and the company, asking why the play is being staged now, what’s different, what audiences get from it and what questions it raises. Good criticism can be read not only before the show but afterwards for context and perspective. Now, “We’re losing that. And, so all you get is somebody’s opinion in the moment.”

Although theatre is gradually disappearing from the dailies, it gets more ink than classical music or visual arts. The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra presents several concerts a month, but few are reviewed. In August 2016 the CPO paid for a Q&A with Rune Bergmann, the new music director of the CPO, to appear in the Calgary Herald. The newspaper offers the service as a marketing tool that promises to get “brand messages to audiences across a myriad of touch points.”

In Edmonton, an online petition called on the Journal to reverse proposed cuts that would eliminate previews and limit reviews of classical music events. Musicians count on coverage for publicity, says petition organizer Isis Tse, who plays cello in the U of A orchestra and as a freelancer. With just 735 supporters by April, the petition has failed to sway the Journal.

Tse is also student representative for the Edmonton Chamber Music Society, where she works to engage a younger audience—people who tend not to read newspapers. Now they have an alternative. In January 2017 a new website (edmontonclassicalmusic.org) launched, featuring classical music reviews by Mark Morris, a writer, award-winning librettist, music critic and theatre director who also freelances for the Journal.

Visual arts exhibitions are getting even less attention. The Alberta dailies have no one left to critique these, although previews appear occasionally, especially for big shows. Many more are missed, such as the Glenbow exhibition of “Rough Country: The Strangely Familiar in Mid-20th Century Alberta Art” in Calgary, featuring notable artists Maxwell Bates, Laura Evans Reid, John Snow, W.L. Stevenson and Dorothy Henzell Willis. It’s even tougher for smaller galleries and artist-run centres such as Edmonton’s Latitude 53 or Calgary’s Truck Gallery.

Sarah Adams is a visual artist and arts advocate who graduated from the Alberta College of Art + Design in 2006 and now works at the Rozsa Foundation. At school, she says, students discuss each other’s work and share ideas on how to improve it. When students graduate, those critical voices go silent. “Criticism is often looked at as a negative, when actually it’s a huge positive.”

Arts critic, journalist and independent curator Nancy Tousley has been writing about the visual arts since the 1970s, including more than 20 years at the Calgary Herald. She earned a Governor General’s Award in 2011 for her contribution to visual and media arts. In a nomination statement, independent curator and writer Peter White wrote that Tousley demonstrated critical intelligence informed by theory, a strong historical consciousness and a wide range of art production. “Rather than judgmental, [Tousley’s voice] has always been characterized by good judgment and fairness,” he wrote.

Tousley majored in English at Vassar College and took fine arts courses, then attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School and later worked at the museum’s department of prints and drawing. She moved to Toronto in 1975 and worked as a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Two years later she moved to Calgary and started freelancing for the Herald, becoming a staff arts writer in 1980. In 2010 she left the paper and became the first critic-in-residence at ACAD. Today she curates exhibitions and writes for publications such as Canadian Art and Border Crossings.

Tousley describes a critic as an “advanced member of the audience” for art. She says visual arts criticism requires good writing skills, knowledge of art history, an ability to provide context, and the insight to engage with a work at all levels: aesthetic, cultural, social and sometimes political. “The best arts criticism is not about handing out a report card.”

She has watched as arts coverage disappeared from newspapers. “It’s one of the first things to go in tough economic times,” she says.

“The best arts criticism is not about handing out a report card.” —Nancy Tousley

Theatre critic Liz Nicholls left the Journal in December 2016 after more than three decades. That followed the January 2016 departure of Stephen Hunt from the Herald after 10 years there. The Critters folded that fall. Since losing his full-time job, Hunt has been hired by Herald owner Postmedia as a freelancer to write branded arts content, including the Rune Bergmann article. “It’s kind of like getting divorced and then continuing to date your ex,” he says.

This year the High Performance Rodeo hired Hunt as its writer-in-residence to cover and review shows in the January 2017 festival. To counter the obvious conflict of interest, managing producer Ann Connors gave Hunt free rein to write what he wanted, even if it was negative.

Hunt acknowledges it was a “strange situation.” Although Connors stayed true to her word, he says he felt more likely to “self-censor” his reviews. But he argues that if nobody provides local coverage, shows that don’t have “brand recognition” risk being overlooked. “I’m sure what it eventually leads to down the road is… less adventurous programming, less small stuff, a tougher time for emerging artists.” For example, Hunt says Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera, a show by a young artist coming out of the National Arts Centre, wasn’t polished but was worth seeing because the artist showed great potential. “They’re original—and the original is what’s going to go away.”

Hunt, whose criticism tends to be more gentle than scathing, has since been hired as writer-in-residence at Rosebud Theatre.

Funding of arts criticism by non-profit organizations is being tried on a larger scale as well. In October 2016 the Boston Globe announced a pilot project in which the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation would help it pay the salary of a music critic for 10 months.

This type of arrangement reflects the desperate situation facing critics and arts organizations everywhere, but it raises red flags about conflict of interest. Jessica Goldman says the idea makes her “very wary” because it leaves writers beholden to their funders. As a critic she maintains strict ethical standards and does not socialize with people in the theatre community. The no-fraternizing practice was her one “bone of contention” with her fellow former Critters—Hunt is married to an actress and Hobson writes and directs plays.

Blogs and websites are also filling some of the void left by shrinking newspapers. Goldman sees their potential, but says the challenge for readers is figuring out which ones are worth reading. “The concern, always, is the quality—and how you find the quality.”

The stories and reviews on Hunt’s blog (thehalfstep.live) also appear on a local arts and lifestyle website (theyyscene.ca) run by Mike Bell, a former music critic at the Herald, and Kari Watson (the two previously worked together at Fast Forward Weekly). In Edmonton, Nicholls started a theatre blog (12thNight.ca) featuring theatre previews, reviews and features.

Hunt says he is happy to write reviews for his blog and share them with theyyscene.ca when he is being paid by an organization to do so, but he can’t keep it up at the same rate when he isn’t. He says a fund should be established to pay bloggers who write about publicly funded Canadian art.

That’s the idea behind a manifesto published in January 2016 by the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, of which Hunt is a member, calling for the creation of a Canadian Council for Critics. Under the proposal, the council would receive 1 per cent of the Canada Council for the Arts budget—about $2-million—to give small grants to bloggers. “We as a country have decided it’s in the public interest to create publicly funded Canadian art. Our children go to school and study to join the arts sector, which is now a multibillion-dollar national industry that employs thousands of people,” wrote Hunt in an October 2016 Globe and Mail op-ed. “If bloggers… podcasters and freelancers are willing to write about that art at a time of diminishing cultural criticism, it’s in the public interest to create a framework, at a modest cost, that allows them to do that.”

Other organizations are exploring different ways to support writers. From September 15 to 17, Contemporary Calgary is planning to host a national symposium on critical writing in the visual arts. Calgary’s Rozsa Foundation, which is dedicated to building capacity in the arts, is working to create opportunities for visual artists who are interested in critical writing, says board chair and recently retired executive director Mary Rozsa de Coquet.

She says students need a place to write, collaborate and see their words in print, and people need criticism to provide context and make art more accessible. “Increasingly, these kinds of critical thinking skills are crucial for us to move forward as a society…. You want people to be able to look at a visual work and become immersed in it and understand enough of the nuances that they can interpret it themselves.”

Lack of arts coverage leads to “less adventurous programming, a tougher time for emerging artists.” —Stephen Hunt

Sky Goodden of Toronto is publisher and editor of Momus, an online international arts publication launched in 2014 that “stresses a return to an art criticism that is evaluative, accountable and brave.” According to its website, Momus is supported by esteemed collectors and arts patrons and has 500,000 readers.

The shift from print to online hasn’t been smooth as publishers and writers grapple with issues of credibility and remuneration for writers, says Goodden, but discerning readers will take note of a publication’s contributors and track record. The shift online also forces critics to be more responsive, as any mistakes are quickly exposed on social media. “Our audience really holds us accountable,” she says. “You can’t get away with anything.”

While online arts readership is still small, Goodden argues that a mass audience isn’t necessary. “I think there needs to be some perspective in terms of balancing our nostalgia for staff writers and print publishing of print criticism, because in fact it was always niche.” Meanwhile arts lovers can run across a story on Facebook the same way they once did in newspapers.

Goodden sees no reason why an online arts publication couldn’t zero in on a community such as Calgary or Edmonton. So far, however, no substantial alternative to the popular press has emerged in Alberta. For Nancy Tousley, that means we’re neglecting a critical piece of our culture.

Tousley says the arts engage important ideas and issues not just for its audiences, but for all of society—and arts criticism helps facilitate the discussion. When the public has access to a regular critic, that critic’s voice, ideas and attitudes become familiar, which gives people something to measure their own ideas and attitudes against. “The conditions for a dialogue are set up even if it’s not direct,” she says. “And that’s very healthy.”

Without those critical voices? “I think our cultural fabric loosens.”

Maureen McNamee is an associate editor at Alberta Views. She wrote about the arts for 19 years at Calgary’s Fast Forward Weekly.

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