Arts Commentary: “The Boston Globe” Has Nothing to Worry About …

Who cares how the chairs are arranged or even who sits on them on the deck of the Titanic-“Globe”? As the popularity of online publications and blogs grows, the “Globe”’s tepid cultural coverage has become increasingly superfluous.

by Bill Marx

Globe arts news reporter Geoff Edgers frets that the latest change in the Boston Globe’s arts section will set off panicked stories about the paper “cutting the arts staff.” Since I was one of those who, about two years ago, wondered about the health of the Globe’s arts section when slots for visual arts, theater, classical music, and dance critics were all open, I want to assure Edgers that I will not harp on that theme again. Nobody cares all that much anymore.

After less than a year on the job, Ken Johnson is leaving the Globe as its full-time visual arts critic, heading back to The New York Times to serve as one of its part-time reviewers. Edgers shouldn’t worry about the fallout, and not only because he says that arts editor Scott Heller will start to interview candidates for the job soon. However, it seems as though is a little bit tardy in starting the hunt. According to Johnson’s interview in Edgers’s story, the critic is already teaching one class in New York and will be teaching another in the spring. He must have set those gigs up months ago.

Regina Hackett at The Seattle Post Intelligencer also thinks that readers aren’t getting the full story:

Tell What You Know

Ken Johnson’s leaving the Boston Globe, which is still spinning.

Johnson was a freelance art critic at The New York Times for years, and he’s going back because he misses New York but has nothing but praise for the Globe and Boston.

Could that be true? The Globe spent a year looking for the right person and hired Johnson in September. That means it took a year to find him, and he spent a year on the job.

Joan Didion said once that the difference between her and the mainstream press is that she tells what she knows.

I don’t know Johnson (a solid critic). But it seems likely that his experiences in Boston weren’t quite as thrilling as he made them out to be in his exit interview. He hearts New York? That’s the reason? It could be, but he needs to explain further. Polite cover-ups are for corporate executives, not journalists.

My feeling is that we might as well settle for the polite cover-up. Who cares how the chairs are arranged or even who sits on them on the deck of the Titanic-Globe? As the popularity of online publications and blogs grows, the Globe’s tepid cultural coverage has become increasingly superfluous. (Johnson may have concluded that he wanted to go back to where visual arts criticism is taken seriously.) Off-the-record, many in the city’s cultural community that I have talked to not only believe that the Globe’s arts section is alarmingly subpar, but that it is growing more irrelevant by the day. Arts lovers justly complain about the manginess of the Globe’s arts coverage. This is sad, but in the long run the end of the Globe’s dominance may be good for the city’s cultural health.

In the past, the Globe arts section boasted circulation clout; an admiring mention in the Globe did some good for arts groups. The quality of the writing took a backseat to the paper’s ability to sell tickets and drum up publicity. The Globe’s influence (some called it intimidation) meant that its arts writers didn’t work hard for stories about what was happening around town: arts organizations catered to the paper’s staff, feeding them scoops and exclusives. Cultural organizations feared that if the Globe were left out of the loop the paper would take retribution on the offending group and cut down on its coverage.

Those days are going fast. The broadsheet’s circulation is dropping like an anchor down a mineshaft. The American Repertory Theater has announced that 15% to 20% of its budget will go towards marketing. How much of that money will be spent in advertising ART productions in the Globe? Probably not much. Groups are experimenting with new ways of generating loyal audiences and coming up with innovative strategies to publicize themselves on the Web. The Globe is no longer the essential bulletin board for local arts information and cultural commentary.

But once the Globe arts section loses its clout as advertising, what is it good for? The section’s dependence on its power as a booster machine has always discouraged provocative writing about the arts. This is not to say there aren’t rebels to the toothless rule, from the Globe’s improved movie coverage and solid classical music reviews to Edgers’s occasional investigative reportage, such as his stories on the financial problems of the Citi Performing Arts Center. But those are exceptions to the wet blanket of blandness that smothers the section.

Of course, the arts critics are not responsible for the paper’s diminished economic impact. I have heard whispered complaints that theater critic Louise Kennedy can’t craft the kind of “money review” that sends suburban readers galloping to a stage’s box office. If Kennedy’s raves don’t juice up sales it is not her fault. Rising ticket prices, uninspired programming, shifting demographics and mounting competition are more likely the blame. Still, the readers who used to hypnotically follow the Globe’s lead about where to spend their entertainment dollars are going elsewhere for their tips.

Hipper, younger, more curious art lovers are looking for alternative ways to learn about the city’s arts online, expecting coverage with more edge than the middle-of-the-road Globe arts section ever fostered. Granted, online arts coverage of the city is uneven, to say the least, but that situation is evolving. The time will come, as the paper’s circulation and clout continues to plummet, that readers will not care all that much about what the Globe’s arts critics have to say. There will be a variety of opinions to choose from elsewhere. The paper’s reviewers will have no recourse but to interest readers with the intelligence, independence, and rigor of their judgments, which is a whole new experience for complacent critics who have had their power handed to them on an inky platter.

Whether the Globe will find a visual arts critic willing to opine doesn’t worry me. We are in a moment of exhilarating though frightening transition, with arts coverage in the mainstream media dying and new forms of cultural coverage evolving online. The battleground for the future of arts reviewing will take place on the Web, with the establishment of sites and blogs with first-rate critical writing that take the arts seriously.

Will mainstream publications fight for the survival of arts criticism? It isn’t clear whether the kind of cultural coverage featured in traditional newspapers and magazines will survive the inevitable migration of print publications to the Web. As the paper edition of the Globe slims down, will reviews of the fine arts be written expressly for Fine arts reviews and features appeal to a relatively small number of readers. Pop gossip – the woes of Britney Spears – brings in armies of traffic. The bean counters may want mass appeal rather than incisive criticism. The coming changes in the critical guard on the Web, rather than the latest recruit for the visual arts critic job, will point to the real future of cultural coverage at the Globe.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three 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.

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