Friday, July 16, 2004

Tyler Green's interesting online discussion with Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz, plus Saltz's article in plus Nate Lippet's article in Seattle's The Stanger magazine (thanks AJ) have made me think about our local art critics, local media and the effect of art criticism on our galleries, artists, etc.
I am not sure about NYC or LA or Chicago, or even wonderful and beautiful Seattle, but after putting up well over 100 shows between the two galleries since 1996, plus reviewing another couple of hundred or so for magazines and newspapers and radio, and having been at the receiving end of many, many reviews, I have the following observations, purely from the perspective of an independent commercial fine arts gallery. 

(i)  A Washington, DC review has practically zero effect on gallery sales. In almost ten years of selling artwrok in the DC area, I cannot recall a single sale that took place solely because of a review in any of our local media. I can and do recall several major sales that took place because of a review of David FeBland in Art in America magazine, but even that collector (from Princeton, NJ) was attracted to the image in the review and became interested in the artist as a result of it - not the review itself. 

(ii)  A Washington, DC review has very small effect on increasing traffic to the gallery. This is still surprising to me. In fact, I would place the following types of mentions in our local press in order of increasing foot traffic to come and see the show. Most surprising of all is the fact that I have noticed, that a mention on the Post's Weekend section in the first page "Our Picks" column drives more traffic (in fact exponentially higher) than any other media mention anywhere. Also of interest, a little mini-review or mention in the Post's freebie newspaper (the Express) will also bring in more people to the gallery than a proper review in the Post! Anyway here's my listing of possible local media mentions in order of traffic augmentation:

1. Washington Post Weekend Section "Our Picks"
2. Washington Post Express mention
3. Washington City Paper Major Review
4. Washington City Paper City Lights Small Review
5. Washington Post Sunday Source mention
6. Washington Post Style "Galleries" review
7. Washington Times review
8. WETA Around Town "Best Bet"
9. Georgetowner review
10. Gazette review

I've left out radio and TV because they are so rare to obtain. In the few rare times that we've received either radio or TV coverage, it has created huge interest in the exhibitions. Too bad it happens so seldom.
(iii) From a purely professional and artistic perspective, a review in the local press can have a huge impact on an artist's development and career. In fact, a review in the Washington Post or the Washington Times - simply because of the fact that they are (in a provincial sense) "national newspapers" can and does deliver a very significant punch to an artist's career and resume. In that sense, a major review in the Post or Times, and to a lesser extent the WCP, can and does become an important marker in an artist's career.
I've seen this time and time again. It may take months or years to "see" the effect - but it is there and it is a profound footprint in any artist's (or gallery) ability to establish a presence.
Changing the subject a bit...
I believe that art criticism should have teeth - why not! In fact, the sharper the better!
What I cannot stand is lukewarm criticism: If you like a show, then be passionate about it! If you dislike it, then destroy it! Like this totally brutalizing review  of these two artists a while back, or like Blake Gopnik's total destruction of J. Seward Johnson.

That's the way to write about something that you don't like! Not a half-assed, lukewarm criticism where three quarters of the piece is a bio of the artist, and the other quarter describes the art.

But if art criticism should have teeth; it should also have passion to jump in and really, really like something and tell us why.

I cannot recall the last time that I read a local art critic write something along the lines of "this is a spectacular show" or "this is one of the best fill-in-the-blank that I've ever seen" - you get my point?

It does take cojones to write a negative review of a local artist, someone that you may run into later. And it is true that often the victim takes it personally. Or the host...

A few years ago I wrote this small piece for some local papers (it was also eventually picked up by the Washington Post). Soon afterwards I was getting hate phone calls and emails from Twombly fans and even from the NGA. In fact, after that piece, I have never been invited to another NGA opening since!

More later... super busy with the Georgetown gallery opening tonite - we have a really good show juried by Kristen Hileman, Asst. Curator for Contemporary Art at the Hirshhorn. She selected about 20 artists from over 1,000 entries received from all over the world.
Opening is from 6-9 PM and catered by the Sea Catch. The three other Canal Square galleries will also have new shows and will be open from 6-9 PM.
See ya there!