Jun 242012

As a long time arts critic for print, broadcast, and the Web, the potential for cultural coverage online strikes me as exhilarating. The challenge for The Arts Fuse is to foster dialogue that articulates the value of the arts in our lives.

As part of our fifth anniversary, we have launched our 2012 Reader Donation fundraiser so that we can pay more of our writers and cover some marketing expenses. For more details, visit and help The Arts Fuse take arts journalism to the next level.

By Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse

A few observations to mark the glorious anniversary:

I talk to classical critic Anthony J. Palmer at a recent Arts Fuse writers’ gathering

In 2007, professional arts coverage around the country was in crisis. New England newspapers and magazines were slashing the column inches for reviews and features, and there was little serious effort to duplicate this vanishing coverage on their online sites.

A venerable journalistic tradition, particularly the memory of the crucial part that critical debate about the arts plays in our cultural discourse, was being obliterated in the mad rush to harvest “reader generated content.” Yes, blogs were burgeoning. Some were pf genuine excellence, but the majority belched forth without editorial guidance, fact-checkers, and in some cases civility. Not all that much has changed.

As a long-time arts critic for print, broadcast, and the Web, the potential for cultural coverage online struck me then and now as exhilarating. In what ways could the old forms of criticism thrive online? How could technology be used to stimulate conversation about the arts? Interactivity promised the creation of new forms of community among critics, readers, and arts organizations as well as opportunities for putting into place exciting experiments that explore how we talk about the arts.

The challenge was to connect the best of the journalistic past with the promise of the future.

I couldn’t understand why the mainstream media were tossing that possibility away, and I was particularly angered by what I saw as the apathy and mediocrity of major publications that were willing to end meaningful coverage of the arts because it demands expertise, commitment, and funding. All too often, readers are given a simulacrum of coverage that amounts to little more than repackaged publicity releases. Savvy online readers, particularly the younger generation, recognize that for what it is.

If the public’s only encounter with arts criticism comes via tweets or YouTube videos, is it any wonder that it can’t articulate or appreciate the value of the arts and humanities? Thus the understandable though self-defeating recourse to coverage that sees that the arts are valuable mainly because of their economic benefits or their potential for gossip.


Theater Critic Ian Thal and Film Critic Tim Jackson chat at the Arts Fuse party.

Five years ago I decided to stop wringing my hands and use the know-how I had picked up while creating and editing the award-winning NPR arts site WBUR Online Arts (2000-2006). I launched The Arts Fuse as a progressive online space for high quality cultural criticism, news, and commentary authored by professional critics and feature writers interested in fostering thoughtful conversation and in encouraging greater participation in the arts and entertainment throughout New England.

In December 2011, we published our 1,000th article, entitled, appropriately, “A Brave New Perspective on the Arts and Sciences: Galileo’s Muse,” a review of the book Galileo’s Muse: Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts by Mark A. Peterson, which was published by Harvard University Press. You can read the review here. I also conducted an interview with the author.

A review of a book that explores sixteenth-century connections between art and science with the goal of challenging our self-defeating perceptions of the divide today? That is the kind of book and review/interview that is very much in the spirit of our magazine.

The challenge for The Arts Fuse, and other edited, online magazines dedicated to standards in cultural conversation, is to foster dialogue that articulates the value of the arts in our lives. Without that, cultural discourse becomes little more than genial marketing, thumbs flung up and down electronically, and box office returns. Arts coverage is too important a job to be left to the vagaries of chance: it needs to be worked out by online arts sites, such as The Arts Fuse, and the wide range of cultural organizations interested in collaboration, in encouraging spaces that feature credible and informative discussion of the arts.

Over 30 writers now contribute regularly to The Arts Fuse. The assignment model I have in place could, with some editorial heft, support the work of dozens of more critics reporting from around New England. I felt that it was crucial to provide serious, informed criticism and features about the arts, not just random blog posts or “tweets.” I wanted The Arts Fuse to be literate, filled with independent, authoritative voices that would not waste readers’ time with rambling, poorly written copy. It would be thought provoking. It would stand for editorial and intellectual integrity. And it would inspire reaction from critics, producers, and consumers of the arts.

Five years on many of my goals for the magazine are within reach. Because of tough times for newspapers and magazines, many first rate arts writers are interested in practicing and developing their craft. (Younger critics are also looking for a place to learn about their craft on the job.) The interest in such a site is obvious: traffic for The Arts Fuse is growing.

Of course, funding has been and remains a tough challenge: I made The Arts Fuse a non-profit organization so that I could take advantage of grants and tax-deductible donations. What I had not foreseen is the baffling (to me) belief among many in the cultural community that somehow—without any support or encouragement—serious arts coverage will spring up spontaneously out of the ground.

The honchos at America’s large arts organizations, such as the Kennedy Center, now see how mistaken that assumption is, and they are fretting about where all the thoughtful critics have gone. The next step will be for them to come up with ways to nurture meaningful criticism. The Arts Fuse is a model for where online dialogue and evaluation will be nurtured. (To its credit, Mass Humanities gave the publication a grant in 2010 for the Judicial Review project).


Fuse critics Helen Epstein and Brigitte Tournier compare notes at the Arts Fuse shindig.

The biggest challenge for me has been to widen connections with arts institutions and readers, to make use of their ideas for what they see as the arts coverage of the future. It is not that the problem has not been noticed: others, in the media and the arts world, admit what I saw five years ago.

Independent coverage of the arts is an important through remarkably fragile part of the cultural eco-system. And the Web offers an amazing opportunity to strengthen it, if people are willing to dedicate their imagination and time to the task. The Arts Fuse aims to serve as a laboratory: are there ways to combine a traditional approach to evaluating the arts (provoking and educating rather than simply advertising) with the interactive strengths of the Web? The only inflexible element in the makeup of The Arts Fuse is an allegiance to editorial independence and honesty that is essential for a credible reporting and evaluation of the arts.

Working with that bottom line, what do readers and arts organizations see as the direction journalistic coverage of the arts should take?

I have not had many in the arts world take up my invitation to become part of the critical process, to use The Arts Fuse as a lab—some of the experiments may work, others will fizzle. But so what? We have to see what works. I invite ideas and projects. I recently asked the Lyric Stage of Boston to offer a response to the Arts Fuse review of its production of Time Stands Still. The theater thanked me for the opportunity to respond, adding that it was “rare.” Why is that? Why don’t artists become more active in discussing the importance of what they are doing? Engage with criticism pro and con? I must admit that has been the hardest part of The Arts Fuse agenda to develop—for some reason creative organizations are interested in maintaining walls at a time that calls for demolishing silos.


The Arts Fuse has been set up to be a place for civil discussion, for encouraging a multiplicity of viewpoints. Gone are the days of accepting an all-powerful critic perched on top of The Boston Globe, rendering judgments from on high and watching those in docket scurry away after the verdict. Let hundreds of voices be heard, from critics, artists, and arts lovers. Why not a lively review forum inspired by Yelp but with editorial integrity? Build word of mouth from the bottom up, rather than depend for mainstream organizations and media fat cats to generate interest.

The future of cultural thinking lies somewhere between a centralized “Google” critic of the arts and a million opinions on a zillion blogs. One of my responses has been The Judicial Review, whose inspiration is the U.S. Supreme Court. Arts events are evaluated by local panels of “judges,” made up of professional critics, scholars/experts, and audience members.

The “case” is presented to the readers of the cultural selection under consideration—the text of the play, video clips of the film or a dance performance, a recording of the concert, or excerpts from the book. Once the judgments have been rendered, there are summaries of the “Majority” and “Minority” opinions with an invitation to the feature’s readers to respond to the judges, who may want to question each other as well.

The aim is to create and maintain an in-depth, interactive discussion of the issues raised by the arts—social, cultural, political—among academics, critics, artists, and the wider public. The arts that have been covered in The Judicial Review range from books (Gish Jen’s novel World and Town) and dance (Bill T. Jones at Jacob’s Pillow) to music (the Boston Music Festival Concert at Berklee College), visual arts, and the theater (Company One’s production of The Overwhelming).

The Supreme Court calls for “Friend of the Court” briefs. The Judicial Review invites artists themselves to have their say, to contribute to a respectful exchange of views and ideas. Humanities scholars contribute “sidebars” providing the cultural and historical background of the performance, exhibition, or written piece.


I have other approaches in mind, but there are no doubt other great ideas out there for arts coverage. The Arts Fuse exists to be a place where the parameters of the conversation can be poked, stretched, even reinvented. I believe in the future of serious criticism and commentary of the arts because there is an elemental appetite for it. We are born critics, judging ourselves and others from very early on. People naturally want to react to what they have seen and heard, to share their thoughts and feelings with others, to compare their perceptions in ways that hone their judgments. What’s needed is for arts organizations to overcome old fears and break out of stale habits: those who create the arts and those who cover them need to face the challenge of generating places for conversation and debate.

As part of our fifth anniversary, we have launched our 2012 Reader Donation fundraiser so that we can pay more of our writers and cover some marketing expenses. For more details, visit and help The Arts Fuse take arts journalism to the next level.


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