FROM AN ART CRITIC’S PERSPECTIVE

by James Auer

Printed with permission of James Auer and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that no matter where I am, I should be somewhere else, and no matter what I’m writing about, I should be writing about something else.

It’s part of the writer’s dilemma: There are always 20 times as many possibilities for stories as one is able to cope with at any given moment.

Some people recognize and accept this; others don’t. I try to assure unsuccessful applicants for articles or reviews that there’s always tomorrow, but hard feelings persist, and regrets linger.

Dealing with the media is an art in itself, and that’s something artists often don’t understand. Putting oneself into a reviewer’s moccasins isn’t the easiest task – particularly for creative people who, for reasons of personal and professional survival, often have a rather high level of self-worth and entitlement.

So here are a few tips for working artists, gallery operators and even ordinary citizens who are new to dealing with the press:

• Realize that both newsprint and staff time are limited and expensive, and writing stories takes effort. Alerting the press early, and convincing the press that your story will interest people, are essential. Nothing is automatic in the news business.
• Don’t expect the reviewer to show up at your opening. Openings are social events, not professional occasions. A critic can’t give proper attention to the work at an opening, and should not deflect the artist from his or her public. Art is best contemplated in isolation, if not seclusion.
• Once you have made contact, don’t pepper the reviewer with calls. A brief, cogent query letter and follow up call inquiring about the possibility of a review or interview are generally sufficient.
• Don’t fire off an invitation, bulk rate, at the last minute, then expect the show to be listed in every available space in the newspaper. Put a first-class stamp on the invitation and, if at all possible, include along with it a brief news release—typed, not handwritten – listing the opening and closing dates, full title of show, media involved, names and backgrounds of exhibitors, reception details, viewing hours and a telephone number to call for information. Phoned-in information doesn’t count; e-mailed news releases (and photographs) do.

(My e-mail address is jauer@journalsentinel.com. The e-mail address of Elaine Rewolinski, who handles most of the weekly listings, is erewolinski@journalsentinel.com. The e-mail address of Mary Louise Schumacher, who often writes about the visual arts, is mschumacher@journalsentinel.com.)

• Don’t send a newspaper unsolicited envelopes containing photographs, clippings, letters or pamphlets that can’t be replaced. Publications such as the Journal Sentinel receive a deluge of material every day. Most papers now require that all materials submitted by news sources must be copies that can, if necessary, be lost. Consider such copies an investment in your career.
• Remember that reviews are written primarily for readers, not news sources. People want information – fact and opinion – that will help them decide what to see and purchase. Furthermore, newspapers are part of the mass media, not specialized art publications targeted at an elite, ultra-aware audience. Therefore, the vocabulary used will be aimed at the intelligent, unspecialized reader. Don’t expect self-limiting artspeak – or extreme length. Important: The quality of a show is not necessarily reflected in the amount of space devoted to it.
• Don’t try to sell a story idea on the grounds that “it’s my turn” or “you did it for her, so you should do it for me.” Analyze the potential story and make it clear to the writer or editor why the story will enhance the value of that day’s editorial product. What are its newsworthy elements? What is it adding to the art scene? What’s new about the work, or about the person who created it? Be diplomatic, but also be informed.
• Finally, realize that any mention of the visual arts, whatever the topic, favorable or unfavorable, long or short, helps everybody in the art industry because it raises the profile of the medium, its practitioners, dealers and promoters. Even if you personally aren’t in the spotlight at the moment, that spotlight hits everyone, if only tangentially. It raises popular awareness. And that is the name of the game.