Who cares about arts criticism in Washtenaw County?

In my past life as a staff arts critic for The Ann Arbor News, I sometimes worried that my hard-fought battles to articulate my responses to shows might be, in the end, little more than a self-indulgent (albeit personally satisfying) intellectual exercise.


But then I'd run into the occasional person who took my reviews to heart. For instance, I once had lunch with my father and his former boss, and before we even sat down, my dad's boss peppered me with questions like, "Why didn't you care for The Mountaintop? I really liked that show. I mean, I read your review, but I really want to talk more about that show with you."


So while not every Ann Arbor News subscriber read the paper's locally produced cultural reviews, those who did often had strong reactions, and felt compelled (and downright excited) to extend the conversation further. Yet because of the revenue struggles news outlets have faced across the country, arts critics have been among the first journalists shown the door, rendering regional reviewers nearly extinct in many markets. And here in Washtenaw County, many in the arts community are bemoaning the effects of that transition.


"Any community with a real arts scene is really losing a lot by not having critics," says visual artist and University of Michigan (U-M) professor Mark Tucker, who also founded Festifools. "They're part of a triangle of need. First, you have to have something going on artistically; then you have to have an audience; and then you have to have people providing credible criticism to cultivate patrons and hold artists' feet to the fire, so they're not just making shlock."


Startups and struggles


New projects have risen in recent years to try and fill the local criticism gap, but the results have been a mixed bag. In March 2015, Ann Arborite David Kiley assumed ownership of EncoreMichigan.com, a website largely dedicated to Michigan theater reviews. (The site was originally launched by Pride Source Media Group, Livonia-based publisher of Between the Lines, in 2008.)


Kiley, who is communications director at the U-M Ross School of Business, has long harbored a passion for theater. He took over the site with a business plan for future profitability in mind, but he says that goal is "very elusive, and it may not ever happen." Kiley aimed to raise money from various sources, including advertising and marketing for the theater community itself.


Despite Kiley's best efforts, that vision remains unrealized. Over the years, EncoreMichigan's stable of writers has included several former local newspaper theater critics (including myself, former Detroit Free Press critic Martin Kohn, the Lansing State Journal's Bridgette Redman, The Oakland Press' Judith Cookis Rubens, the Kalamazoo Gazette's Marin Heinritz, and The Grand Rapids Press' Sue Merrell) who still long to practice their craft. But they're paid little, when they're paid at all.


"Just as theater companies rely on grants to pay their bills, so probably will arts sources that aim to provide news and information," Kiley says. "Our website is in the process of converting to 501(c)(3) status to apply for arts funding."


Susan Isaacs Nisbett is a former National Endowment for the Arts fellow in arts criticism who's reviewed classical music, opera, dance, and theater not just for The Ann Arbor News, but The Detroit News, the Miami Herald, and The New York Times. She tried launching her own blog, A2 Downbeat, after MLive cut all arts freelancers loose in 2015, but her last post was in February 2016.


"I don't like writing for no money, and it was really hard to get people to follow me to the blog," Nisbett says. "People would tell me, 'We miss your reviews,' and I'd say, 'I did this on my blog,' but judging by the numbers, which were pretty low, I don't think most of them ever went there to look. Generally, the demographic that most often read the reviews I wrote in print, which is to say older readers, didn't make the transfer to reading online. Or they took longer to get there. … So I don't know now how much people really miss [local arts criticism]."


One relatively new local online venture is approaching a wholly unconventional model for producing cultural reviews and other arts coverage. The Ann Arbor District Library's arts and entertainment blog, Pulp, is funded as part of the library's production budget: money set aside to produce content and events for library patrons and the greater community. Those who write for Pulp are paid as freelancers.


"On the one hand, it's an extension of the Ann Arbor District Library's overall mission to provide information, access, and entertainment for our patrons," says Pulp editor Christopher Porter. "On the other, it's about making sure the rich arts and cultural scene here is appreciated and documented, when coverage of these worlds is perceived to be in lower demand in the clickbait age."


But Pulp still faces the difficult task of first getting noticed by the community at large, and then becoming a regular part of local residents' online local news consumption habits.


"People are starting to find the site, particularly those folks who are part of the arts community," Porter says. "But there's plenty of room to grow with the general public."


"I regret every mean thing I ever said about a theater critic"


The University Musical Society (UMS) endeavored to offer its own solution to the criticism deficit by establishing an online "lobby" in 2010 where patrons could submit their thoughts about a show. (Now, patrons may simply leave comments on an individual event's page.) Even so, UMS programming director Michael Kondziolka is one of many Washtenaw County arts producers who mourn the loss of local arts criticism in mainstream media platforms.


"If we're all cast adrift and only listening to a niche voice that aligns to our own interest, that's terrifying," Kondziolka says. "We no longer live in a world where the vast majority of people think they have much to learn. … We live in a time where expertise and knowledge is almost a detriment and not valued. … All we need is the internet to democratize everything, but this democratized universe relies only on the most popular of interests, where everyone gets to weigh in. That's the only way value is assigned."


However, Kondziolka also acknowledges the economic realities driving the situation.


"In the pre-internet world, we were probably all able to delude ourselves in thinking that far more people were interested in having this [cultural] conversation than they really were," Kondziolka says. "We have to be honest about that. And the ability to measure it in a certain way now changes the way we look at it."


Carla Milarch, founder and artistic director of Theatre Nova (who previously spent 13 years at the now-defunct Performance Network Theater (PNT)), once bemoaned the high pressure of having five professional critics show up for a show's opening night. Now she says she'd welcome them with open arms, noting that reviews were one of the main ways that potential patrons learned about a company's productions.


"I regret every mean thing I ever said about a theater critic," she jokes.


Milarch feels appreciative and grateful when reviews of her shows appear in personal blogs (like Ron Baumanis' A2View: Mostly Musical Theater, and my own A2ArtsAddict), as well as multi-author blogs like Damn Arbor, Purple Walrus Press, and Pulp. But because the larger Ann Arbor community is often unaware of their existence, in the end, she says, "they feel like one individual representing themselves, not someone writing with an editorial staff behind them like The Detroit News or the Free Press."


"I'm not trying to demean them at all," Milarch says. "They have taken up the mantle of this critical function that nobody else is doing. I laud them and praise them and thank God for them. But it's a little bit like a teeny-tiny theater company, made up of one founder and three other people, versus the Guthrie. It's even harder for bloggers to do what they do, but at the same time, they don't have the collective gravitas of an organization that's hundreds of people big."


It's interesting to note, however, that Milarch noticed a dip in the power of reviews to affect box office as early as 2010.


"It tracks closely to the trajectory of when criticism started getting cut from newspapers," Milarch says. "In 2005, when [a PNT show] got a four-star review from the Free Press, we'd say, 'It's a hit,' and we'd stop marketing that show and move on to marketing the next show, because the phones would start ringing off the hook and we knew we were made. Five years later, a four-star review from the Free Press still had an impact, but we still had to push, push, push hard at the marketing to ensure a show's success."


Purple Rose Theatre artistic director Guy Sanville disagrees about criticism's impact on his box office.


"People don't come home and read the newspaper anymore," Sanville says. "If we don't show people where to go [for online reviews], they can't find them. … The bottom line is, if we lost [local arts criticism] entirely, it probably wouldn't make a bit of difference in terms of the business we do and where we're at."


That's not to say that Sanville wouldn't miss it.


"I'm a producer," he says. "When someone writes a review, I read it. I read them all, and I would be disappointed if nobody reviewed our shows. Despite what I may say, I look forward to that."


A shift in values


This gets at the heart of the issue: yes, a springboard for deeper discussion about local cultural events has been lost, as has some basic community awareness of the events happening. But artists are also feeling the loss of an objective professional taking creative works seriously enough to think hard about them for a few hours and wrestle those thoughts into written form. Milarch says the loss of local criticism reflects a change in the value our community assigns to the arts.


"On Facebook, everyone's out there just pumping their own events, but it's not the same kind of really thought-rich discussion, led by an objective person who really knows what they're talking about," Milarch says. "So now we're existing more and more in the shadows, being pushed to the fringes. … It's not just about the sheer 'butts in seats' aspect of it. We've lost people making local culture a priority and caring enough to send somebody out to have a thoughtful discussion of the work and of the value we're bringing to the community."


"The artists are so eager to get the feedback from somebody other than their mother," Tucker says. "It's a kind of mirror, and it's very important. … I remember early on, when I was more of an exhibiting artist, a bad review was very motivating. You really do some soul-searching when an expert looks at your work and hates it."


Tucker also pointed out that Ann Arbor is already struggling to keep artists in the community, and that the disappearance of locally produced cultural criticism makes it even harder.


"A lot of the talk is about lack of space, lack of facilities, and lack of opportunities, but I think one of the big pieces that's missing, too, is strong criticism," he says. "To spend as much money as it costs to live here, you might as well go to a city where there's a chance someone will see and critique your work. … If nobody's coming out to see your work, or to start a conversation between the art and the viewer, what are you doing as an artist, exactly? There's no point. Artists need the audience, and who's going to cultivate that audience for them?"


Playwright Joe Zettelmaier, co-founder of Milan's new Roustabout Theater Troupe, has an answer to that – and it has nothing to do with professional critics. Zettelmaier says word of mouth is now king.


"We ask patrons where they hear about our plays, and when it comes to online sources – it's about zero percent," Zettelmaier says. "I would love to be wrong, but I don't think I am, when I say that I don't think formal reviews will come back. We have to adapt to the new world as it stands."


Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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