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
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. . “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