In the past, the place to find out what was happening in the clubs and theaters of your city was the local paper. But as cash-strapped newspapers lay off their local arts critics, the future of arts criticism is up in the air.
Although some people love to hate critics, Doug McClennan, the director of the National Arts Journalism Program, says that critics fulfill an important role in helping communities understand the arts and their role in society. He warns that culture doesn't happen in isolation — and that we need full-time professional critics devoted to getting to know those communities.
"The critic defines the territory, walks the perimeter of that territory and comes back and tells you, 'OK ... here's the interesting stuff I found,' " says McClennan.
Critics can be instrumental in introducing an artist to a community. Seven years ago in Miami, local critics discovered a new choral group called Seraphic Fire and helped the group build a committed audience in the city.
[They] "made a real point to feature us for a number of our performances over the next couple of years, which drew attention to us as an ensemble before we really had any money to do any sort of significant advertising," says the group's founding director, Patrick Quigley.
But it may be harder for the next small new arts group to get that kind of attention, says Lawrence Johnson, the former classical music critic for The Miami Herald.
"In all of southeast Florida there is now no full-time classical music critic employed by any newspaper," says Johnson, who lost his job over a year ago. He has since created a Web site called SouthFloridaClassicalReview.com, which features his criticism as well as the work of other laid-off critics.
"I felt there was a real void. No paper was really covering the region's classical music organizations the way they deserved to be, so I started the Web site to fill the void," says Johnson.
All over the country, cash-strapped newspapers are cutting back on coverage of local museums, theaters and dance groups.
"There are dozens of journalists now starting their own Web sites, banding together [and] trying to create electronic publications, looking at for-profit models, nonprofit models, low-profit models," says McClennan. "Things aren't just falling apart. ... They're ... reordering themselves."
For some small arts groups, the move to the Web is an opportunity. Take the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in San Francisco. It focuses on the work of African-American playwrights, and for many years it didn't get much attention in the local papers.
"The newspapers and the powerful interests were using information as a power. ... That's when we talked about the historical legacy of exclusion and invisibility of people of color," says Executive Director Quinton Easter.
Easter believes that the Web offers him a way to reach out directly to audiences and speak to smaller groups. Still, he remembers the days when there were two major daily newspapers in San Francisco and each one had two critics. When the reviews came out, the phones at his theater would ring off the hook — and if it was a good review it would draw in people who had never been to his theater before.
Easter worries that on the Internet people only seek out what already interests them — and that both audiences and artists are losing out on an opportunity to discover each other.