Arts Commentary: More Cultural Coverage — But Less Culture?

By Bill Marx

The journalistic value of blathering out weekend tips to the ears of the comfortable in a social media world awash with likes is dubious.

The cast of the New Rep production of Phaedra Michelle Scott’s Diaspora!, which ran through October 15.

It made for a tellingly ironic juxtaposition.

Last week, New Rep announced that “after 40 seasons, over 300 productions, and a smash 2023 season, New Repertory Theatre’s Board of Trustees has determined that it is not possible to sustain the company going forward.” Why not? The company is “subject to the same converging realities that have impacted so many theater companies throughout the country: post-pandemic economics, changes in the philanthropic landscape, challenges with the business model of theater, and other factors beyond its control, along with the ending of emergency Federal support for the performing arts.” Also trumpeted last week: GBH is launching The Culture Show, “a one-hour daily local radio program on 89.7 offering listeners a wide-ranging look at society through art, culture and entertainment.” The program will be led by “GBH Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen, who will be joined by rotating co-hosts Callie Crossley, the host of Under the Radar with Callie Crossley; Edgar B. Herwick III, host of The Curiosity Desk; and James Bennett II, a GBH News arts and culture reporter and CRB Classical 99.5 contributor and a panel of cultural correspondents.”

What will The Culture Show cover? Will it dig deeply into the circumstances that put an end to New Rep? (Unmentioned in the theater’s statement was the slow poison of streaming. There are increasing opportunities for theatergoers to see star-filled theater productions from around the world at a reasonable subscription fee in the comfort of their own home. Can a neighborhood theater stand up to such competition? Watch Benedict Cumberbatch as Lear in your living room? Or schlep out to see a local thespian?) Will the GBH program offer serious cultural coverage, investigative as well as critical stories? Or will it be content to do the usual, pump out marketing fodder for diplomatically selected happenings in the arts, serving as a megaphone blaring out news of Boston’s unceasing Renaissance, at least if you believe the tweedledum and tweedledee blarney posted by reviewers at NPR and the Boston Globe. The comments in the GBH press release are not very encouraging. We read that the show will

drive conversations about how listeners experience culture across music, movies, fashion, TV, art, books, theater, dance, food and more, and help audiences make the most of their leisure time by guiding listeners to the best cultural experiences within a day’s drive from Boston. The show will amplify local creatives, profile the homegrown arts and culture landscape, check in with touring productions and tap into conversations about topics in the national cultural spotlight.

Let’s hope that the program is more than just a consumer guide dedicated to assisting listeners “make the most of their leisure time.” I continue to wonder why arts journalism isn’t more like professional news coverage: driven by the same hunger for the facts and serving up the same sharp-eyed analysis. Must the arts be consigned evermore to the triviality of “leisure time”? New England needs a place where serious discussions about how the systems that traditionally nurtured the arts (particularly the small, noncommercial, and independent variety) are breaking down. (Vaporizing is more like it.) The struggles of Boston’s theaters are symptomatic of a much, much larger national problem. In a recent commentary posted in Howlround, the fine writer/critic Todd London offered this sane advice for “the brave and scared” stage practitioners trying to move forward as the walls collapse around them:

… we’re each looking through different eyes. We need the revolutionaries and the incrementalists, institutionalists and individualists. We need all the ideas: the wild leap, the careful tread, the impatience, and the slow steady labor. Some things can be changed from within, some need to be torn down, some need to be born anew. We are all learning which is which.

Viewed from this perspective, it is an exciting but contentiously transitional time for the arts. The mainstream media (NPR, etc.) glom onto conventional success stories when they can find them, but the invigorating but ugly truth is what London suggests — painful changes are coming because some things need to be torn down and others started up. How much of which is up for debate. If the media really want to cover what’s roiling culture — and how these forces reflect our fissuring society — the old “happy talk” model is not going to cut it. The journalistic value of blathering out weekend tips to the ears of the comfortable in a social media world awash with likes is dubious.

Arts coverage is part of the culture, so it is up for transformation as well. One quick suggestion: the public should be brought into the “do or die” conversations among fearful artists. We should hear about their concerns for the future, their ideas for maintaining live theater companies as they are slowly strangled by economics and technology. Music, movies, fashion, TV, art, books, and dance are being ground down by the same venomous “business model,” their subject matter becoming increasingly homogenized, their practitioners impoverished, their potential leaders, according to London, “driven away by snark, vitriol, and privilege protectionism.” If The Culture Show fostered lively give-and-takes that tackled these issues, the program would be making a valuable contribution to community engagement as well as the health of the arts. Why just exist to puff up bottom lines, recycle PR, and fill up the dance cards of fat cat donors? Let listeners hear volatile debates sparked by the far-ranging ideas offered by “the revolutionaries and the incrementalists, institutionalists and individualists.” We don’t need more slick salesmanship.

Because I am nothing if not interested in the state of arts criticism, I can’t end without wondering if there will be any evaluators, aside from the inevitable bubbly enthusiasts, on The Culture Show. WBUR’s online arts magazine The ARTery is no more — it slid quietly into oblivion and there were no (apparent) mourners. Reviews and features on local events are now placed on the radio station’s web page along with national coverage. The Culture Show will offer a panel of “culture correspondents.” Will they have the freedom to correspond about the mediocre as well as the triumphant? Despite what you read, the subpar continues to thrive in the arts, as it always has. Mediocrity is the kudzu of culture and it needs to be vigorously identified by critics, among others. George Bernard Shaw spoke of the “ruinous privilege of exemption from vigilant and implacable criticism.” Time to end decades of that kind of “privilege protectionism” in Boston’s media and hear from some discarded revolutionaries — vigilant and implacable critics.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Mark Favermann on October 24, 2023 at 11:58 am

    A very thoughtful and relevant article.

  2. Gerald Peary on October 25, 2023 at 11:10 am

    The Culture Show is dead on arrival with middlebrow, maddeningly uncontroversial Jared Bowen at the helm. I hear him regularly on radio with Margery and Jim and there has never been an art event which he has not viewed positively and endorsed wholeheartedly. He is never critical of anything. Mush, mush, mush.

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on October 25, 2023 at 11:41 am

      DOA is a good thumbnail for my feelings, but the thrust of the piece is how irresponsible GBH’s calculated blandness is at a time of crisis in the arts, as books, film, theater, etc find themselves crushed by economics and technology.

      Independent creativity is under assault. It is sort of like the newspapers and magazines ignoring Israel’s war against Hamas to talk about future opportunities for tourism. Shouldn’t what is happening to diminish arts and artists be covered? Rather than consumer picks? Happy talk about the winners no longer cuts it.

  3. J Plunkett on October 25, 2023 at 11:11 am

    For those looking for more in-depth discussions and information for artists, please check out TransCultural Exchange and TCE TV, which is broadcast on Boston Neighborhood Network Media and is also available on

    TCE TV offers news for artists on programs that exist for them in Boston, across the nation and around the globe, as well as critical commentary on relevant topics, such as the historical problems of government support of the arts, which are discussed in the first 2 episodes.

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on October 25, 2023 at 11:46 am

      Sounds admirable. Full disclosure: I have been invited to be on an episode of the program to talk about The Arts Fuse. But my challenge for arts journalism remains — we need much more than “in-depth discussions and information about artists.” We need debate about the crisis in culture (and possible solutions) seen from a variety of perspectives that we aren’t getting now — “the revolutionaries and the incrementalists, institutionalists and individualists.”

  4. Mary Curtin on October 25, 2023 at 2:13 pm

    “Is There a Future for the Nonprofit Arts Model in the U.S.?”

    “One could ask whether extinction is necessarily bad or just necessary. As Charles Darwin observed of selection pressures, ‘We need not marvel at extinction; if we must marvel, let it be at our own presumption in imagining for a moment that we understand the many complex contingencies, on which the existence of each species depends. … The appearance of new forms and the disappearance of old forms … are bound together.’ Extinction and evolution march hand in hand.”

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on October 25, 2023 at 5:29 pm

      Hi Mary:

      An interesting column, which hits at some of the same points as Todd London’s. I want to quote a sentence you don’t:

      Might the replacing of old models in the performing arts be a good thing that allows new, forward-thinking, flexibly adaptive organizations rooted in innovative performance models a chance to emerge?

      Critics and arts journalists need to answer that question. They cannot shirk it. Trusting in the invisible hand of the market is not good enough. In what ways can the new and innovative be encouraged? What is the role of critics and arts journalists in exposing the decay of the old models? My point is that in this age of instability, in which the homogenized has the upper hand, clinging to the role of a consumer guide is not enough. Thus the retro-rhetoric of the aim of The Culture Show.

  5. Jan Hanvik on October 26, 2023 at 3:57 pm

    I don’t know J Plunkett but second their recommendation of TransCultural Exchange and TCE-TV, and Bill’s response. (Thanks for responding!) Bill’s note seems to imply TCE-TV does NOT offer “in-depth” nor deal much with individual artists nor with “a variety of perspectives”. We all have offers to link up with 100s of arts organizations. I have focused as much effort as I can on TCE precisely because it DOES address all those areas. I’ve attended 2 conference in the Boston area & 1 in Quebec City. TCE is adamantly local AND global, and keeps the focus on linking individual artists’ needs to resources. TCE-TV is new, and shoestring, but with a great track record of keeping individual artist & global opportunity and resources findable at a local level. Sorry I can’t make the Nov 2 event. I have an event in NYC. But wish Bill and Arts Fuse and New Rep and TCE and the arts environment all artistic and fiscal health.

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on October 26, 2023 at 5:49 pm

      Hi Jan:

      I did not make myself clear — TCE-TV is brand new. My point is that hope that the dialogues go beyond “in-depth discussions and information for artists” but deal with larger cultural issues that reach out to the community. Government funding of the arts is one, the diminishment of the criticism and the threat posted by technology, are others. Let’s hope these and other issues are touched on often, and that there is more than a little dissent among the voices. Don’t expect any of those issues to be talked about in depth by The Culture Show, which serves the consumer guide model. What is, is right — and should be supported.

  6. Franklin on October 27, 2023 at 2:18 pm

    Here’s the last season of New Rep in its entirety: DIASPORA!, in which “Sunny, an idealistic black millennial, is writing a history about the legacy of her family”; A Raisin in the Sun; Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart; a dual project involving “Nikta Sabouri, an Iranian-American freelance theater director, dramaturg, actor, and translator based in Boston and Iranian-American writer, actor and singer Isabelle Sanatdar Stevens”; something called “Love Weekend” entailing two black and one Asian performers; and “Reconsidering,” said to be “an embodied discussion of the intersectional experience of women of color through both their spatial and temporal circumstances.”

    Audiences manifestly did not want to be made to don epidemiologically useless facemasks for the privilege of indulging the progressive ideological worldview, right down to the land acknowledgments, with their prolonged attention. A “smash season”? I rather doubt it. But to your point, critics will not dare criticize this material. The fawning coverage of DIASPORA! at BUR and the Crimson speaks for itself. Identity progressivism is patently anti-critical. To question the quality of a production made for ostensibly sound political purposes is to make oneself an enemy of the politics, like it or not.

    So yes, you’re getting this anodyne hogwash from GBH because New Rep programming has become typical across the arts, as is the shared presumption of the arts leadership and the critics alike to tell the rest of us what to want.

  7. Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on October 27, 2023 at 8:30 pm

    I agree that we need criticism, but it should be as tough on the substandard that people want — i.e, Broadway — as what they don’t want. Critics should be independent voices asserting standards, challenging shibboleths on the right as well as the left. . As for the “progressive ideological point of view,” sometimes it is very much what people want — or theaters are subsidized to present it. Funding ran out for New Rep — that doesn’t mean it isn’t going elsewhere, probably to bigger and (even blander?) companies.

    Of course, my commentary was not just about the lack of incisive criticism, but the silence on a cultural crisis — at least in the performing arts — that has to do with the rise of technology and the economics of live presentation. For those who are happy to be entertained by way of screens, theater is of waning interest — doesn’t matter if you are presenting Shakespeare. (Unless there is star-power.) Anodyne hogwash doesn’t have a particular ideological flavor — it is about maintaining the status quo dictated by what the dominate arts organizations are marketing. Criticism/arts journalism should be questioning rather than hawking. Would The Culture Show be as inoffensive if the product was different? Sure …

    • Franklin on October 28, 2023 at 5:13 pm

      That theaters (or the case that I follow, museums) are subsidized to present that sort of material is a huge problem, including for criticism. Again, it’s evident that the audiences don’t support it themselves, though whether they would support something else is a fair question. I tend to agree with you that they wouldn’t, and assert further that the ideological art is a stopgap:

      But it follows from there that the audiences don’t want the criticism about the art for the same reason that don’t want the art itself. Criticism is an advanced phase of public consideration, the first steps of which are the “here’s what’s going on” sort of reports to which GBH promises to default. Recycled PR, as you say. That said, go look at what the Crimson wrote about DIASPORA! and ask yourself if they produced something more stern. Nothing enjoys the “ruinous privilege of exemption from vigilant and implacable criticism” quite like the ideologically approved presentations. Murray Whyte’s archive at the Globe awaits you if you doubt.

      Yes, much needs to be torn down and remade. I tend to think that what and how would be best decided by audiences with their wallets. If criticism goes away so be it.

      • Peter Keough on October 28, 2023 at 6:48 pm

        Leaving corporate advertising, PR, and merchandising to direct where their money will go.

  8. kai maristed on October 29, 2023 at 8:36 pm

    Thanks for speaking out, Bill. Shock and sorrow and more disbelief when I first read of New Rep’s going under. I served recently for seven years on the board of a valiant regional theater that is staring down the same financial gulf. The American model of bloated capitalism holding up cultural institutions has always been riddled with problematics, and now post-pandemic and for a number of other reasons (the not unrelated end of funding decent public education, say) the slip-slide threatens to become a landslide. Broadway is hardly faring better. Public support for the arts may not be a perfect solution but it IS an important part of the solution. Paris has over 400 theaters, both public and for profit, and most nights they are full. ‘Support and promote the arts and they will come.’

  9. kai maristed on October 29, 2023 at 8:44 pm

    ps–I also agree with Franklin about the disservice to audiences inherent in producing second rate or overaged material, simply because it fits the current cultural lock-step buzz. Same goes for criticism unwilling to tackle basic questions of quality.

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