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Publisher Wick Allison Wonders About a City Without Arts Critics
by Jerome Weeks 10 Feb 2009

Several years ago, during a public panel discussing the intellectual life of this city (held at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture), the talk had turned a little glum — along the lines of, ‘What can be done to improve things?’ One simple but significant improvement, I suggested, would be getting more spirited public […]


Several years ago, during a public panel discussing the intellectual life of this city (held at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture), the talk had turned a little glum — along the lines of, ‘What can be done to improve things?’ One simple but significant improvement, I suggested, would be getting more spirited public discussion going. It’s hard to have a conversation with a single voice. Only the Dallas Morning News was reviewing vast sections of the local arts scene. Back then, for instance, the paper had  the only full-time book critic on a newspaper staff in the entire state of Texas. Me.

What is the sound of one reviewer clapping? Or no reviewer? The newspaper book-critic position no longer exists.

So the idea at the time was: Encourage media outlets like D Magazine to cover the arts — beyond what it was doing then, which was mostly reviews of restaurants and plastic surgeons. Got applause from the attendees with that crack but also caught some flak from FrontBurner. They vigorously defended their restaurant reviews.

Now in a column for D magazine, publisher Wick Allison asks much the same question: What can be done — especially now, when the city is about to launch a vast expansion of its Arts District — and there’s very little left in the way of professional criticism? (“Good critics do more than critique. The late John Rosenfield of the Morning News helped establish the American regional theater movement in the 1950s, at a time when cities like Dallas were exposed to nothing more than third-rate traveling companies of old Broadway standbys.”)

Yes, he writes, there are bloggers (ahem). But you generally have to know where to look, so they tend to speak to the already-interested. True, but then Allison fails even to mention the Art&Seek reviews and news reports that have been appearing on KERA-FM since May.  We only have a North Texas listening audience that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

But we’ll let that slide because the publisher of D and FrontBurner humbly admits his own part in this situation. He eliminated the entire arts section from his People City newspapers last year. Glenn Arberry was an intelligent and knowledgeable theater critic for them, a welcome voice in the cultural conversation.

Then Allison concludes with this notable promise:

I do not have a solution to the problem. But as a media owner, I do have a responsibility. At the moment, we are monitoring and talking to very bright people in other cities who are grappling with the same dilemma. When we see an idea that works, D Magazine will do everything in its limited power to introduce it to Dallas. To my mind, the need is too great to merely sit by and watch.

  • Bill Marvel

    The problem is in the way editors and publishers generally — not just singling out Wick here — frame arts coverage.
    Too often it’s seen only as an extension of society coverage (those snapshots taken of revelers at opera benefits) or of the kind of civic boosterism that seems to be part of every publication’s mission statement. Almost never are the arts seen as a potential source of great stories in the way that the fight over, say, the Trinity toll road or the fate of South Dallas or the DISD is a great story. Years ago a major exhibit came to the Dallas Museum freighted with hot controversy that had raged back and forth in the pages on New York papers and of the glossy art magazines. this wasn’t an inside baseball controversy. This was something the ordinary reader could have sunk her teeth into and instantly understood — a good fight over something that mattered. All this went unreported in local publications, which covered the gala opening and offered a short — glowing — review of the show.
    For years the symphony’s audience has been withering away, aging or just dropping out. Meantime, symphony programming has clung to the safest possible paths on the theory that those aging patrons just won’t come out for anything more challenging that yet another Mahler or Symphonie Fatastique. So, we’ve got a dynamic new conductor, but what is he to conduct, and for whom. And why? (By the way, in a multi-million-dollar public building.)
    Publishers and editors understand celebrities and big-budget buildings. Do they understand why somebody thought another mega-blockbuster exhibit might be a good idea for the museum, the politics of getting it here? Whether it was even a good idea?
    Two big-chain bookstores locate across the street from each other in a part of the city that cannot sustain a single bookstore. What’s going on here? The reader of a newspaper or a magazine will never find out.
    These are just off the top of my head. You, Jerome, could probably think of a dozen really hair-raising stories to come out of the arts, stories that would get readers riled up. Because the arts are not just the window dressing a city puts out front to sucker corporate relocations. The arts are how we live, day by day, what we look at and listen to and put into our brains. The sad state of radio is an arts story. The astonishing visual revolution growing out of computer games is an art story. The near-collapse of Deep Ellum is, at its heart, an arts story. Gentrification of the Cedars is an arts story. The look and sound of the city as Hispanics become an ever-larger slice of the population is an arts story. And on and on.
    Publishers, too often, slide art into another compartment of their brain entirely, away from politics schools and immigration and crime and other “serious” subjects.They pay lip service, but they don’t really get it.
    About a year ago a top editor of a very successful regional magazine was having pizza with a group of journalism students. He was asked why his magazine, which has won so many awards for great coverage of scandals and corruption and such doesn’t do very well covering the arts, really covering the kinds of stories that matter to everyone. He shrugged. “You’re right,” he said.
    Then he turned the conversation to other topics.
    More reviews by more reviewers isn’t going to fix the problem. Realizing that art isn’t just what we do when we put on a tux, nibble brie and sip bad wine, or go to check out that hot new conductor — that would be a start.

  • Catherine Womack sent this e-mail to me at my home address, so I asked if I could re-post it here:

    Wick Allison and Jerome Weeks,

    I couldn’t decide which post to comment on, so I decided to email you both!

    Allison, I really enjoyed your commentary on the importance of critics as well as your description of what makes a good critic. You touched on some huge issues in this article concerning the arts in Dallas and some that I have spent a great deal of time considering. I agree that critics are much more than reviewers or commentators. They can inspire discussion, educate, and (as you pointed out in connection to John Rosenfield), often make new and exciting things happen in their area.

    I am a recent graduate of the Meadows School at SMU (MM Piano Pedagogy and Performance) and am currently working on an MM in Musicology at SMU as well. I teach piano privately and music history at Colin County Community College. I also blog about music, politics, art, etc. (you can find me at http://canoninadifferentkey.blogspot.com). I’m relatively new to Dallas (I’ve been here almost 4 years now) and am very interested in seeing improvement in the arts scene in Dallas. This city has potential and, as you mentioned in reference to the Center for the Performing Arts, a lot to be excited about in the near future.

    I came across your article, not through D magazine, but through Jerome Week’s blog at Art and Seek. In fact, I frequently learn about/read/find information about what is happening in Dallas (and the arts at large) through blogs. I subscribe to Art and Seek’s blog, Scott Cantrell’s blog, etc. I often find I end up reading articles in D Mag and the Dallas Morning News after first finding them through the blogosphere. I mention this in response to your statement that “blogs are no solution.” I agree that they are not THE solution. However, if blogs are where the conversation is at its best (or exists at all) and if it is where critics head when their print jobs are gone, then I think it deserves much more than a cursory examination.

    You mentioned in your article that you frequently find out about “goings on” through print media. I don’t. I find out almost exclusively online. Neither way is wrong and neither is better. I find that people tend towards one or the other based on their lifestyle, habits, etc. The problem is not that there are two outlets, it is that the two are distinct at this point with little cross-over; this causes an inevitable breakdown in the larger conversation. I think the conversation would be greatly enhanced by a more complete blending of the two. Right now, a few newspapers will have a token “here’s what is going on in the blogosphere” section. But they rarely print interesting blog postings or directly address conversations in that arena.

    I’m not writing to provide a solution. Just adding my two cents…

    Thanks again for your article,

    Catherine Womack

  • Thanks for both of the thoughtful responses. One point, Catherine: Not to speak for Mr. Allison, but I think he says that “blogs are not the solution” because the solution for him as a publisher would involve some sort of aggregating site that would garner advertising revenue, enough to support a decent staff.

    That is, if you have dozens of individual blogs out there all going on about individual arts interests in the North Texas area, how is the average person going to find what he/she’s interested in when a) they might not even know they’d be interested in some new play or gallery opening and b) they have to go to one blog for the interests they DO know, one for classical music, another blog for galleries, a third for dance, and so on. Serious arts criticism and a determined overview of a particular arts community requires staff and that requires paying people. That’s one reason newspapers have been in trouble and one reason they’ve been shedding employees at a mad rate. It costs money to cover the arts well and with some stab at thoroughness.

    One (partial) solution is what we have here at Art&Seek — a blog with a searchable calendar/database and with feature reviews and news reporting — all connected to radio and TV presentations. But we’re still a comparatively tiny outfit and that’s one reason we invite the community to participate with blogging, and the way the calendar is set up, they join in anyway, in effect, by creating and updating their entries in our database.

    But then, we’re not a commercial outfit. I suspect our non-profit set-up probably wouldn’t appeal to Mr. Allison.