Monday, January 18, 2016

What Dan Zak did

Over the years, decades really, I've been complaining about the way in which the Washington Post treats its own visual arts backyard. If you go back to the very beginnings of this blog, well over a decade ago, you'll find it hard to see a week's worth of postings where I'm not complaining or bitching about something that the WaPo did, or most often didn't do, about our visual arts scene, galleries and artists.

When I first came to the DMV in the late 1980s (1987-1989) it was as a young Lieutenant in the Navy, and in those years I spent most of my summers sailing in the Arctic off the then Soviet mainland at the top of the world, I started reading the WaPo regularly. Back then, the WaPo had a daily section titled The Arts, which covered art galleries, museums, regional visual artists, etc., in addition to all the other genres of the arts.

I left the area for a few years, and lived in Scotland, and then in Sonoma, CA. I returned to the DC area in late 1993, and by then the precipitous decline in the WaPo's coverage of its city's visual art scene was just beginning.

I then began writing about the DMV visual arts scene for a lot of local, regional and national magazines, in the process becoming deeply immersed in the scene itself. In those latter years of the 1990s, the WaPo's Arts Editor was a nice, kind man named John Pancake. I developed a professional relationship with him, and every once in a while we'd meet for coffee and discuss the area's visual arts. It was he who once described deciding to open an art gallery as a "heroic undertaking."

In those years the paper still had multiple columns covering the visual arts, which included the usual Wednesday Galleries column, then authored by Ferdinand Protzman, as well as other ad hoc gallery and museum reviews by Paul Richards. It also included a weekly Wednesday column titled Arts Beat, then authored by Michael O'Sullivan, who as I recall held the title of Assistant Arts Editor. Arts Beat reflected the interests of its author, and essentially augmented the paper's coverage of the DC area visual arts scene.

By the end of the 90s, things began to unravel.

Almost against the will of the WaPo's leadership (as related to me back then by one of the editors of the WaPo Online), the newspaper went on a major expansion of its online presence and also an associated expansion of its printed paper coverage. This included the visual arts, and I was hired, along with Jessica Dawson and others, as freelancers to cover gallery shows for the paper's online site (I wonder where all those reviews are now - have they ever been archived and preserved by the WaPo?).

I can't remember exactly when Richards retired, but his retirement (to Scotland I think) caused all kinds of minor waves for the DC art scene. First, Protzman quit, some say because he was upset that he didn't get "promoted" to Richards' job. Instead, the WaPo began a hiring process and eventually brought Blake Gopnik from his Canadian newspaper to take over as the paper's chief art critic (my titling).

Protzman's departure also brought a need for a regular freelancer to do the Galleries column, and several of those of us who were doing online reviews about Galleries were interviewed. I declined the position once we got deep into it - at the time, as some of you may recall, I was also part of the Fraser Gallery, and didn't think that being a gallery co-owner and a regular Wednesday critic for the paper would pass the smell test with some; but the real victims would be the gallery's artists, as clearly they could never get at WaPo reviews.

Around 2000, Dawson (who had been writing art reviews for the Washington City Paper) was then hired as the freelancer to cover galleries and subsequently Gopnik was hired to cover all the visual arts. 

A few years later Pancake retired, and by the mid 2000s the Wednesday coverage shrunk significantly when Arts Beat was demoted to a twice-monthly column, refocused to cover all the arts, and then eventually terminated. Most of the damage to the visual arts coverage was started by then Style Section editor Eugene Robinson.

It was Robinson who began the process to let Blake Gopnik get away with only reviewing (with one or two very rare exceptions) museums, thus having the nation's only art critic too good to review his city's artists and art galleries. On July 6, 2006, Steve Reiss (the Style section's Asst. Editor) stated online: "As for Blake Gopnik, he is a prolific writer and I find it hard to argue that we should be giving up reviews of major museum shows so he can write more about galleries that have a much smaller audience."

When Robinson left, under the new editor Deborah Heard, the coverage got even worse, with Galleries being reduced to twice a month. That added up to around 25 columns a year to review the thousand or so gallery shows that the DC area gallery art scene had to offer in those days.

A few years ago, when Dawson quit the WaPo (2011) to go to work for the Hirshhorn and in the interim, the WaPo experimented with using a couple more freelancers, but both experiments ended badly from both sides. Eventually they hired Mark Jenkins, who is their current Galleries critic, and who (in my opinion) is the best from all the names mentioned here so far.

What is a constant over all these years and memories, is the miserly coverage of DMV artists and galleries by the world's second most influential newspaper.

And then this past weekend, WaPo writer Dan Zak showed us a brilliant glint of what this coverage could be, if the WaPo "got it."

Zak's The Polaroids of the Cowboy Poet is perhaps the best article that I have ever read on an artist.
Chris Earnshaw is an odd and brilliant and sloppy man who vibrates with great joy and grand melancholy. For decades he has ambled through bandstands, major motion pictures and demolition sites, searching for prestige and permanence, all while being ignored on the gray streets of a humdrum capital.
This work has Pulitzer written all over it, but more importantly, this article is exactly the sort of coverage of the DMV visual artists and galleries, that we've always clamored from the WaPo to do 2-3 times a year - as they do when some celebrity visits the city.

Dan Zak: Well Done! You've not only delivered a brilliant article, but also shown the WaPo and Washington, DC, and the DMV visual arts scene, how it is done.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing this up to my attention. What a brilliant piece of writing in this Post article!


Cheryl Derricotte said...

Thanks for a thorough history of the decline of arts coverage at the Post, Lenny! It was also great to see the photos of the Washington where I grew up. Many fond memories of strawberry shortcake with my mom at the Blue Mirror.

John said...

Well said, Lenny. I really enjoyed reading your account of arts coverage in Washington. The only thing I would argue is your reference to WaPo as the world's second most influential newspaper. I think they've fallen far from that position over the past decade. Cheers, John.