We are living in the great age of opinion-writing, of critiques and commentaries, so why have so many of the art critics disappeared from major metropolitan newspapers? (Hint: It's not just fine arts but book and performing arts critics as well.) Perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for artists looking to advance their careers?
For most of the postwar era, and even before that, critics have acted as the conduit between artists and the general public, and artists have relied on reviews to generate discussion of, and interest in, their work. Sometimes, that has led to contentious relationships between artists and critics, but even an unfavorable review produces awareness. As the songwriter George M. Cohan reportedly said, "I don't care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right."
These days, a lot less is being said. Newspapers that used to have full-time art critics no longer do, and the jobs of writers who were hired originally as critics have morphed into general assignment feature writers who may get to do an occasional review.
The declining number of newspaper art critics alarms Eleanor Heartney, a past president of the United States section of the International Association of Art Critics, who described "a trend in publications away from substance. Artists are treated as entertainment." However, the job-downgrading does not reflect an antipathy to the arts but a sense that "full-time critics are viewed as a luxury," according to one major newspaper editor.
However, the lack of art reviews hasn't had an adverse effect on museum and gallery attendance, nor on sales. As one gallery claimed, "younger customers aren't newspaper readers anyway."
Certainly, the disappearing newspaper critic has made the job of promoting artists and their exhibitions much more difficult, leading to different strategies. Shannon Wilkinson, president of Cultural Communications, a New York City-based public relations company specializing in the arts, noted that newspaper executives have found "the level of art advertising is too low to merit paying critics' salaries." She recommended advertising in newspapers and magazines, because advertisers "are more likely to get reviewed, although that's not a guarantee." She also stated that arranging an exhibition overseas, particularly Europe where the major newspapers still have salaried critics, is a way of obtaining critical attention, and "writers in the U.S. pay more attention to artists who have been written up in Europe."
The experience in one city after another demonstrates that galleries don't necessarily require reviews to promote their exhibits to the public and have strong sales. Perhaps, it also reveals that individual artists may not need critics to validate their careers either. Artists often stockpile reviews, which are placed in media kits that are mailed to editors and writers at newspapers and magazines in advance of an exhibition. The kits usually contain a brief biography (in narrative or resume form), images of their work (slides, photographs or a CD-ROM), occasionally an Artist Statement (noting sources of inspiration, the technical process involved in the artmaking, artistic influences or past projects), as well as past reviews and feature articles about the artist. These reviews and articles are important both to editors, want to know that the artist has been deemed worthy to be written about in the past, and to writers, want to know what others have said. Media kits still have their place, but in the new world of declining newspaper readership and growing use of the Internet as a primary source of information, artists, galleries and museums are also finding different, increasingly online, ways to promote themselves to journalists, collectors and the general public.
Marketing to the Internet has proven successful in various realms of the arts, adding that correlations have been found between popular music albums that are mentioned in numerous blogs and increased sales of these recordings, as well as the fact that heavily blogged news stories are more likely to air on the evening news.