Monday, January 22, 2007

If you don't get it

In 1999 the Washington Post sent out a letter to all their subscribers detailing some major changes in the paper which were designed to improve the newspaper itself.

The letter, signed by Donald Graham, the publisher of the Post, asked for feedback and opinions, and so I wrote them the below letter. In the letter I not only expressed what I thought were shortcomings in the WaPo's arts coverage, but also gave the WaPo several ideas for improvement.

Sadly, since then coverage has only become worse. The "Galleries" column is now published about 20 times a year instead of weekly, and "Arts Beat" is also no longer weekly, but apparently ad hoc.

All of the names mentioned in the letter have since left the Post, retired, or been replaced, but by a freelancer and by a chief art critic who does not write about Washington, DC art galleries and artists.

If you don't get it, you don't get it.

January 27, 1999

Donald E. Graham
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Mr. Graham,

Thank you for your letter dated January 24, 1999. I'm eagerly looking forward to the new "improved" Washington Post.

Since you asked me for my opinion on how the new, improved Post can serve its readers better, I'm hereby sending you a few comments and some facts which may be of interest to you, and which may in fact help you in the future as you continue to improve the Washington Post.

One area of the newspaper, which continues to receive local attention and acute criticism, is the Post's lack of coverage of the metropolitan visual fine arts scene. While the Style section and the Weekend magazine combine to deliver a complete, in-depth coverage of many of the genres which make up a city's cultural life, (such as music, movies, theatre, opera, architecture and our museums) the Post continues to ignore largely the visual arts as defined by the art exhibited and the artists of the Greater Washington, DC area.

The immediate gut reaction of the Style editor might be "but Ferdinand Protzman covers the galleries on Thursday?" Yes, that is true and that answer may reflect the lack of understanding to the key to the problem. Not Protzman, but the fact that his weekly column is the only mention which local galleries and artists routinely get in the Post.

The "Arts Beat" column, which also appears on Thursdays, does on occasion cover a visual arts event, but that is the exception, rather than the rule. If we switch over to the Weekend magazine, it does not take a lot of research to discover that in the last few years (yes years) the "On Exhibit" section, although having a masthead which proclaims it to be about "Galleries, Museums and Art Spaces" has not covered a single fine art gallery in this city in years. It is devoted exclusively to museum shows in our city and other cities.

This lack of "participation" in the development of our city's visual art scene is shameful in a city which boasts over 200 art galleries and which once had one of the most vibrant local visual art scenes in the nation. What makes it even more astounding is the brilliant coverage that the other cultural genres receive from the Post.

Museums (or "dead artists" as living counterparts often refer to them) get brilliant coverage in the Post and I applaud this! With one of the best museum scenes in the world this is commendable. Thus, three of your art critics (Jo Ann Lewis, Burchard and Paul Richards) all write about museum shows and on very, very rare occasions write something which is "local" in nature. This is the exception, rather than the rule; it may happen once or twice a year. They even cover museum shows in other cities. These writers do not write about local art galleries -- only Protzman, and we must wait for his words to be decanted once a week, to read and breathe local visual arts.

Movies are reviewed or discussed nearly every day in Style and it is not unusual for the same movie to be written about (by different authors) in Style and in the Weekend section on Fridays. The same goes for theatre; even though there are more art galleries than theatres in this city, and the public is more exposed to them than to the theatre, every play in every recognized theatre gets exposure and reviews. The same goes for music, be it live, stage or recorded. This is all good, but it again highlights the huge differences in the coverage as compared to the local art galleries and visual artists.

Why is this phenomenon unusual? Because other major newspapers, especially papers as powerful as the Post do not act in the same manner. The Post is the only major newspaper that I know of which does not have a galleries art critic in its staff (as you know Mr. Protzman is a freelancer). I have been told that the New York Times has eleven gallery critics writing for them, The Seattle Times four, the S.F. Examiner three and the L.A. Times four.

Washington artists and art galleries deserve better. In fact, they deserve equal print space. Art criticism and art reviews are not easy to write; yet a variety of skilled critics do exist in our city, so the writing talent is here; this is not an excuse.

Your reading public deserves better. Mr. Protzman's weekly piece is just not enough and it's only one point of view. This is not healthy for our artists and for our art scene.

Several weeks ago, at the Art Symposium sponsored by the Washington Art Dealers Association, one of the representatives from the Post made the statement that the "reason that art galleries do not get reviewed in the Post is because they don't advertise." I refuse to believe, even in today's austere economic environment, that this could be the reason.

What is the reason for this lack of coverage -- especially when compared to the brilliant job which the paper does for the "other" local arts in general? In my opinion the reason is that the editors of both Style and Weekend do not feel that your reading public is interested in art galleries and local artists. They want to publish "only" what they feel their public wants to read. Even if this were correct, which I doubt it is, I think that this is not the attitude and goal for one of the world's greatest newspapers.

Why does this concern me? Three months ago I was contacted and commissioned by an ad hoc group of local artists who commissioned me to do a one year study on the coverage of the Washington Post to local art galleries and then quantify that coverage in terms of proportion to other arts coverage. The initial results, some of which I have mentioned in this letter, have been particularly astounding.

Secondly, I am deeply involved in the city's art scene. I am a member of the D.C. City Arts Projects Program Advisory Panel, an artist, a gallery owner and a regularly published regional art critic.

As such, I encourage you to perhaps think about refocusing more attention to our Washington artists and galleries. There is a variety of ways in which this can be done and my suggestions are:

(a) Assign one week out of the month to local gallery coverage in Weekend's "On Exhibit" section (or take 'Galleries' off the masthead).

(b) Keep Mr. Protzman's weekly "Galleries" column on Thursdays.

(c) Nicole Lewis' "Arts Beat" should not echo what has already been covered by music critics or theatre critics, etc. Devote at least 50% of that column, which runs concurrently with "Galleries," to visual arts. Keep Thursdays focused on Art Galleries (which it's supposed to be its focus anyway).

(d) Pick up a "pool" of local art critics and assign a different one each week (also on Thursdays) to write mini-art reviews to augment Mr. Protzman's more elaborate, in-depth art criticism.

(e) Six times a year assign one of your museum art critics to do a piece on a local gallery show, or local art movement, or local gallery groups, etc. Something flavored by the local arts.

(f) Have local art critics and even Mr. Protzman write more reviews and just "publish" them in your excellent web pages.

There were over 30 pieces written about the van Gogh exhibit by the Post, ranging from front-page coverage to the business section. This shows that someone at the Post recognizes the interest in your reading public about the works of art which hung so vociferously at the National Gallery; I submit to you that this same interest can be kindled for the van Goghs of the future.

Thank you for your attention,

F. Lennox Campello

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