What does it mean when a city of almost three million with a thriving art scene has not a single full-time art critic? That’s the situation in Chicago when just weeks ago Time Out Chicago was bought out bringing an end the print edition, which circulated to 55,000, moving to an all-digital format and along the way losing almost all of their staff of about sixty. This included the city’s last remaining full-time art critic, Lauren Weinberg. I wish her nothing but the best and good luck on her future plans.
This is not to say that Chicago lacks art critics, indeed we have many, and some (like Jason Foumberg) are able to work the equivalent of full-time with various freelance gigs. However, at Chicago’s two major dailies and high circulation magazines there is visual art coverage but no staff critic. Kyle Macmillan made this point recently in the Chicago Sun-Times noting, “While each [of the two daily newspapers] has a full-time critic devoted to theater, for example, art is covered irregularly by free-lance writers.” I hope the irony was not lost on readers; just to spell it out Macmillan himself is a freelance writer covering art irregularly in the Sun-Times. A similar situation exists at the Chicago Tribune where both Claudine Ise and Lori Waxman (and both with connections to Bad at Sports) write about art, but are classified as “Special to the Tribune.”
With art covered in some way, some may ask what the problem is. To answer that straightaway, the problem is that by covering visual art with freelance labor the papers make little commitment to the writers themselves and seemingly little commitment to the Chicago art scene. When the Tribune does cover art it’s apparently “special,” not part of the usual coverage though such coverage appears regularly. In this way it’s the perfect solution for these cash-strapped media companies, they get to keep up appearances of visual art coverage while not actually making commitments to it. One has to wonder how many people these companies are fooling, particularly in the art community, which can sense ingenuity like a disturbance in the Force. The Tribune just emerged from bankruptcy court and are seeking to sell off assets. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Sun-Times doesn’t seem to be breaking revenue records either. Meanwhile, Newcity, with a firm, consistent, and overt commitment to arts coverage guided by Jason Foumberg (and where I occasionally contribute) doubled down on the arts at the height of the Great Recession. The result is a strong and genuine brand identity (even if you don’t like what they write, their commitment is undeniable) and, as revealed in a tweet from Newcity last month, print revenue that is up 33%.
The lack of dedicated staff covering art, e.g. an art critic, leads directly to repeated situations of the visual arts being marginalized within the newspaper content itself, broader civic discussions, and/or panels. Last month the Tribune sponsored a panel discussion titled “Chicago Forward: The Future of the Arts in Chicago” included were “Chicago Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold and [theater] critic Chris Jones as moderators, among [sic] with celebrity chef Rick Bayless, Chicago’s cultural commissioner Michelle Boone, artist and playwright Tony Fitzpatrick and renowned architect Jeanne Gang.” Again we see arts represented, but not by the organizing media company. Or last month also the Tribune had a “Critic’s Roundtable: Violence in the arts.” Missing: one Tribune art critic. What’s interesting is that in researching this I’ve found that the Tribune has no less than three “arts” critics (Mark Caro, Christopher Borrelli, and Howard Reich) but the regular visual art coverage doesn’t come from them, rather it comes from Waxman and Ise. When will one or both of these women be given a seat at the critic’s table? Their qualifications are beyond doubt and obviously they’ve already produced quite a bit of content for the paper.
If arts coverage is marginalized within these media companies, it should come as little surprise that the lack of coverage manifests in larger, undesirable ways. Without several critic voices regularly describing and communicating Chicago’s art scene are we then surprised that International Association of Art Critics-USA (AICA-USA) nominated only exhibitions and institutions on either coast with very few exceptions? Without our major media companies making a real commitment to art are we surprised that journalism seems to not include art criticism more and more often? Without regular writing about contemporary art are we surprised that most people don’t understand contemporary art, support it, or buy it? Without the continual and full support of media coverage in Chicago are we surprised when artists flee to the coasts?
If the Chicago art community wants more, more national and international attention and recognition, more major artists staying in Chicago, more opportunities across the board from sales to exhibitions, it’s time that we demanded our major newspapers and magazines step up and make a commitment. It’s time we had an art critic in our newspapers.