• Taking Art’s Measure: Part I

The Opening Sally in a Dialog between Stretcher and Readers

By Meredith Tromble

A puddle of reviews in an ocean of exhibitions

There’s a lot of art on display in the San Francisco Bay Area—3600 exhibitions or more per year, depending on where you draw the line between “art” and “dreck.” 1There’s not a lot of art criticism in the San Francisco Bay Area—approximately 135 of those exhibitions will be reviewed (two or three at a time) in the San Francisco Chronicle, and that’s it for criticism in a major newspaper. More people learn about local art from newspapers than from any other source (true across all communities and demographic groups according to a 1992 study by the National Endowment for the Arts)2 so if the newspapers don’t print it, the general public doesn’t know about it. People who care enough to subscribe to Artweek, a monthly magazine covering West Coast art, and the two major national magazines, Artforum and Art in America, can read double the number of Bay Area exhibition reviews. But 95% of local exhibitions would still pass by unremarked.

Not all of those exhibitions deserve sustained attention, of course. No one needs or wants to read 3600+ reviews each year. What they do want is for someone to visit most of the shows, cut to the moving, striking, puzzling, or excellent stuff, and tell them about it. And, occasionally, muster opinions on the big picture, drawing on their experience to articulate general trends or speculate about policy. Is this a reasonable expectation? Is better coverage possible or does the size of the art world make the hope for broadly informed criticism a fantasy?

Peter Schjeldahl, currently the art critic for the New Yorker has been reviewing exhibitions for nearly forty years. When he spoke at Mills College last year, he said that when he started his career as a freelancer, he wrote for a publication that covered every exhibition in New York. The coverage might only be one line, but readers could have confidence that if something remarkable happened in an out-of-the-way gallery, they’d hear about it. No contemporary publication in a major art center aspires to such comprehensive coverage. But some publications do dependably survey and report on a particular sector. A few years ago, Roberta Smith, a senior art critic at the New York Times, assured a crowd at the San Francisco Art Institute that her paper reviews every major show in a New York museum.

In contrast, critical coverage in the Bay Area is hit and miss, sometimes programmatically so. Artweek, for example, has a long-standing policy of reviewing only one show at a particular venue per year. While this does spread coverage around, if the best exhibition of the season opens at a gallery that has already received a review that year, too bad. The San Francisco Chronicle, which publishes the most reviews,3 has only one critic, Kenneth Baker. Through no fault of his own, Baker’s abilities and interests skew coverage for the entire area. For example, in 2004, when at at least forty to fifty alternative spaces mounting regular exhibitions in the region, Baker reviewed two exhibitions at alternative spaces. During the same period, he covered only five exhibitions of prints, five of video works, two or three that might be construed as new media or installation, and no fiber works. Alternative spaces and new media are the core of practice for many artists, so these are significant blind spots. Baker himself has written that the inadequacy of arts coverage in the area is a problem. People outside the area see it, too—when Stephanie Cash, from Art in America, filed a special report on the Bay Area she identified the dearth of criticism as the limit on an otherwise flourishing scene.4

Why reviews?

Reviews are not the only form of reporting on art. Features, news, commentary, listings, and artist obituaries round out Chronicle coverage and constitute the bulk of art reporting in free weekly papers such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian,SF Weekly, and San Jose Metro. (The Bay Guardian very occasionally publishes excellent special sections on visual art.) But, entertaining as they can be, these journalistic forms are not a substitute for criticism. Reviews serve different purposes than other forms of writing—think about the way people use movie reviews. Before going to the movie, the review functions as a filter, restraining some choices and forwarding others. But many people prefer to read reviews AFTER they’ve seen the movie. And that’s about dialog.

Comparing opinions and experiences, matching wits with a critic, is stimulating. This is true whether or not the reader agrees with the reviewer—discussion and debate are basic ways people broaden their knowledge of the world, themselves and others. There’s a catch, though. If the only reviews a reader encounters address shows he or she will never see because they are geographically or socially distant—the process short-circuits. The dialog is never on equal terms; the reviewer is always the authority. and the reader is alienated. Reviews of distant shows can be informative and thought-provoking, but they don’t develop a locally engaged public and they don’t energize locally active artists.

How many reviews would be enough?

How many reviews would it take to turn the situation around? A one-to-one match between reviews and shows would overwhelm readers and would mean, in many cases, throwing good energy after bad. To define a range, one could try starting with the needs of individual viewers. A casual viewer might see only two or three exhibitions a year, and read very few reviews. Approaching the question from this angle, one sees why angry crowds are not beating on the Chronicle’s door demanding more reviews. The people who need reviews are the serious and passionate viewers. And this is, actually, a bright spot. If it could be reached, this audience might be motivated to support the publication of in-depth criticism.

The limits of numbers and an invitation to discussion

But the goal isn’t a certain number of reviews. If 63 reviews a year could deliver the goods, even serious and passionate viewers would be satisfied. The question is quality: the accuracy of the filtering and the depth and diversity of views represented. As a rough working definition of high quality in a reviewing publication, I will suggest the following: 1) to identify, dependably, month after month, the two or three best shows in town in time for people to see them 2) to connect current ideas with their social and historical underpinnings 3) to present a variety of critical views. Part II of this series will investigate this notion of quality and what it would take to realize it.

In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you. How do you use reviews? Please join the discussion via the “Comment” button at the end of the article.

1. Of necessity, this figure is squishy. No available database catalogs all the exhibitions in museums and galleries, let alone coffee houses, hospital corridors, and other venues at least nominally open to the public. The estimate of 3600 exhibitions, a conservative figure, was arrived at by checking the listings at http://www.sfgate.com for venues and adding other venues known to the author to arrive at an estimated total 300 venues. The estimated number of exhibitions was then obtained by multiplying by 12 shows per year, the most common program. This estimate may only be accurate to an order of magnitude, but at least gives some sense of scale.

2. 75% of people get their information about local arts events through newspapers according to the 1992 Local Area Arts Participation Study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (National Endowment for the Arts. [1993]. “Summary Report: 12 Local Surveys of Public Participation in the Arts.” Research Division Report no. 26). Visit http://www.cpanda.org for more information.

3. The New York Times runs an occasional interview with an artist from the area or feature story about an exhibition eight such stories in 2004. Also in 2004, the San Jose Mercury News published four substantial feature stories on artists or exhibitions by arts writer Jack Fischer. In recent months, Fischer seems to be contributing more frequently to the paper, a hopeful development.

4. Stephanie Cash, “Report from San Francisco”, Art In America, November 2002, pp. 67-69.

Illustration Credits: “The Measuring Artist”
Research and design: Meredith Tromble
Production and printing: Peter Foucault
Model: Esther McDonald


Meredith Tromble is a co-publisher of Stretcher.


I applaud Meredith for bringing this topic to the surface again.

I use reviews to become acquainted with the names and work of other artists in the larger art community. My biggest wish would be to have reviews before or just as a show opens so I could see the work before the exhibition ends. Once the show is closed and unless the artist shows several times a year (don’t we all wish for such exposure) it becomes very difficult to see that person’s work again. Sorry but looking at artist websites, particulary for large scale spatial works, just doesn’t do it for me. For me, there’s no substitute for the real life experience when it comes to taking in what the artist has to offer.

As an installation artist whose large scale work is often limited to alternative spaces, it is very important that such venues get critcal coverage in the mass media. One way to do this may be for critics to formally approach the public broadcasting stations in the Bay area, KCET, KCRB, KTEH to feature a weekly “art critism” spot offering reviews of current shows in established alternative venues in their viewing area. A few really tasty video clips of the work would be needed to tempt the viewer to go see the show. SPARK on KQED simply offers exposure to a wide array of art forms & artists in the community, but they make no attempt to do critical reviews.
There may be even grant funding out there in the foundation world to help that happen.

I appreciate opportunity to get to know your site. Thanks.


I’m glad you’re starting a dialog on the topic of reviews, and you bring up many thought-provoking points in your Opening Sally. I use reviews mainly to find out what other people think about a specific artist or exhibition. If a publication tried to review the two or three best shows in the Bay Area each month, it would need to follow guidelines that didn’t try to spread coverage evenly amongst venues, but allowed writers to cover what they thought was the highest quality.

In addition, the status of an exhibiting site (non-profit, commercial, artist-collective) should not be part of the equation. As an art-writer/curator/artist, I’ve seen some excellent shows in artist-run spaces that didn’t receive the acknowledgement they deserved—-for example, “Labyrinth” at Lobot in Oakland earlier this year. In order to achieve the goal that you propose, a publication would need to be very flexible in its thinking about art spaces, ideas and writers’ guidelines.

Patrice Wagner

How can we change this?

I wish we had an online forum where people could post about local art and exhibits. Moderated to keep out the off topic stuff—but with a very open-minded moderator.

Why don’t you try one here at Stretcher?


As you noted there are too few people reviewing and not enough conduits to viewers. I would add that there are too few artists making appropriate efforts to get reviewed.

It could be that many artists don’t think about the art of the press release or practice good promotional hygiene. It is every artist’s dream to do business with a gallery or museum that “handles” promotion of artists and exhibitions. This is only as good and effective as the museum or gallery. Usually boilerplate stuff.

The reality is that there is a lot of competition for the eye of the few journalists and publications that make sense of art for the public.

Artists are required to become savvy self promoters today, maybe they always have been. It is surprising that “self promotion” is not a requisite of an academic arts degree. A semester long course would have the ripple effect of more artists spamming the media, causing a buzz and maybe influencing the demand for more arts coverage.

There may be 100 great artists emerging in San Francisco every first Thursday night, but the ones who hammer out press releases and promote relentlessly get press to their events (and viewers too).

There’s no telling what happens when the press does attend though, but it’s always a good policy to have an enticing press kit ready so your name gets spelled right in a review!

3600 events?...sounds like a opportunity for a massive rich media portal to me. ;o} 10% or 15% of this is not an undoable amount of work, but the question then becomes what it always has been: how does the average viewer navigate all the choices and find what they want?


DC Spensley

I appreciate this dialogue, since I have often been frustrated with the very limited coverage in the chronicle and the after the fact reviews in Artweek. I read the reviews every friday in N.Y times, love that there are 1/2 dozen reviewers that seem to really get out there to galleries, alternative and museum spaces. I would love to be able to go to a space like this and look up reviews based on the neighborhoods in the city, hayes valley, mission, downtown..etc. And I would like to read these reviews from a hand full of different people to get a broader perspective that simply one person’s taste.  Leigh Barbier

Yes, I totally agree that the Bay Area is weak in this department. We have a vital art community here that is mostly ignored. Only the few chosen get reviewed or written about. I feel that Kenneth Baker is limited to what he reviews. Artweek tries as well as Artnews, Artforum and Art in America are linited as well. I think that you have some good idea’s. Being pro-active will get things moving in the right direction. I appreciate you writing about this problem.

Thanks, Heather Wilcoxon

Thanks for the excellent anaysis, Meredith. The Bay Area boasts as talented a group of artists as are found anywhere in the world, yet we are unable to support more local art magazines?

Kenneth Baker, as you note, has pointed out this publishing void time and again, and his analysis is understandably (since a huge amount of pressure is placed on him) right on target. I commend Artweek and the tabloid weeklies for their coverage, which is often excellent, but find that too much other art writing aims either too high, for the specialized art academic audience, or too low, for the arty-party crowd. One exception to this is the excellent, but little-known “works + conversations” published in Berkeley, which is thoughtful and artist-centric—a refreshing change from the who’s-up-who’s-down commercially-oriented mags.

I write about art from time to time and would welcome a discussion with other artists and writers on what might be done (website? PBS? a collaborative between artists, writers, curators, nonprofits, galleries and museums?) to ameliorate the situation, which I find frustrating and even disgraceful, considering the resources of this area.

Timely and important subject. Thanks again.

I wish I had been able to join this conversation earlier. The problems with Bay Area art coverage, and in particular art criticism, identified in Meredith’s essay and the following comments are in large part the same problems that formed the impetus for a web site begun by Joseph del Pesco and myself in Sept. 2005. We founded Shotgun Review (www.shotgun-review.com) with the intention of redressing many of the issues raised here.

The site functions something like a blog only there are numerous authors. The authors’ contributions are self-initiated. This allows, we hope, for a diversity of voices as well as distributing the burden of covering what seems to be an art scene that is only becoming more plural. The content of the site is limited to reviews of local art events and exhibitions. In the past reviews have ranged from 300 to 1500 words in length, though we are now encouraging our authors to limit their reviews to 500 words. We now have a “featured review” each month that will generally be a more extensive essay.

I’m heartened that this conversation is being had and that there is interest in more and better art criticism for the Bay Area. I hope that Shotgun Review can, in part, start to satisfy this desire. We are always looking for more readers and authors. Anyone interested in writing for the Shotgun Review can contact us via the web site.

-Scott Oliver

I find myself today wanting to help spur national and international attention to the bay area visual art scene. Big dreamer, certainly I am, crazy, oh ya, but I have a deep feeling I can spur this on, not my art, and not alone, all of us stomping in unison for attention and respect and developing a critical review infrastructure that can accomplish serious analysis of artist and the region as a whole.

dream #1 starting point. Recruit a big (probably rotational) team of artists and writers willing to go to shows and seriously review the work, unafraid to speak intelligently about there opinions and experience, whether the review hurts or helps the artist, and producing artist interviews. (we will do this for free). the biggest problem with this art scene affecting the patrons, world at large is information that it exists at all, and that its existence matters greatly to the community and to the evolution art art in historical terms. Together as a community we will create these needed solutions. I will work on a more refined version of this dream and let the art community contemplate along with me. Recruiting all artists, writers, critics, dealers, galleries….. “If one person stands up and screams poetry he is a crazy idiot, if two together clammer they still are fools, if ten holler in unison- you have increased it to ten fools, if 100 do it- then you begin to have a gripe forming, if 300-500 people sing together, then you have a movement that can change the bay areas importance in the international art world. I can see it clearly now, the clouds are gone.

both my sites are under construction, began it a few days ago, check it now and check it again in a month (it will be finished)

Thank you for listening.

anyway I can help you let me know.


I am glad you are addressing this issue. I also wish we had an online forum on Stretcher. I look to Stretcher, to see what is going on in the “Art Scene”. So how to fill the void?
Pat Bruning

Super agreed!!!
I do ~30/40 a month in a super short format, open for commentary and discussion… I’ve done ~300 in a year of operating in this manner, please take a peek!