A new relationship
At the Milwaukee Rep last fall, executive director Dawn Helsing Wolters walked me to the door after I’d interviewed artistic director Mark Clements. Something was on her mind. Finally, as we were about to part, she got it out:
“Do you think that the press and the arts ought to have some different sort of relationship? More like a partnership?”
I’d been thinking about exactly that since I’d left the Journal Sentinel in August of 2009. The ethos in that and all traditional newsrooms is: If your mother says she loves you, CHECK IT OUT. You’re supposed to be endlessly skeptical, and journalists mostly should be. Plenty of politicians and business people exploit the rest of us from behind smokescreens of lies.
That ethos carried over to the features department. So as the music and dance critic at the JS, I wasn’t supposed to be friends with, say, with the director of a dance company or the conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Mostly, I wasn’t. But sometimes I was — on the down-low. Wouldn’t want My Dinner with Andreas (Delfs) to get back to the newsroom. Frowned upon.
But come on. My degrees are in music. I play the guitar every day. I was a theater major for a long time and almost became an actor. My wife is a painter (and art professor at UWM). It’s natural for me to have friends in the arts. And of course I will write about them.
But what do you do when your friends make bad work? Walter Kerr, an important New York theater critic from 1950 to 1990 and a playwright of some accomplishment, answered thus: “My friends don’t make bad work.” A great punchline, and one with some truth to it. Critic and artist become friendly because they resonate on the same aesthetic wavelength. Still, things go wrong. Kerr answered the question more soberly on another occasion. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like: I tell the truth. I give my friends two weeks to be mad about it. If they’re still mad after two weeks, then I’m mad.
As a class, I admire artists for their commitment. Hans Moede, decades ago when he was chairman of the Milwaukee Ballet’s board, told me that money motivates most people, but opportunity to dance motivates dancers. Dancers, like everyone else, need to make a living and would prefer to be better off than to be dirt poor. But over 30 years I’ve observed that Moede’s observation applies generally in the arts, even among arts administrators. Down to the lowliest intern in the costume shop, it’s mostly about the passion.
On the institutional level, the arts can be political, but the arts are not politics. The arts are business, but a peculiar kind of business aimed at zero profit. It makes no sense for journalists to approach arts administrators as if they’re operators of elder care facilities with 109 code violations. Some administrators are better than others, and plenty of them make mistakes, but almost all of them put their souls into it.
In the old days at the paper, when the PR people for the MSO or the ballet or whatever called me pitching a story, the relationship was in a way adversarial. Space was limited and I was a gatekeeper. And the ethos of the newsroom was: We can’t care whether or not you sell tickets. We can care only about a good story.
Since I’ve become a part owner and culture editor at ThirdCoast Digest, I’ve changed that attitude. I don’t mind telling you: I’m on your side, MSO, Rep, ballet, Danceworks, Present Music, Youngblood Theatre, Milwaukee Art Museum and on and on. I want you to do good work and I want you to do well with it. We’ve built ThirdCoast Digest around you and we’ve been tireless in our coverage. You are our passion. No other media in town comes close to our quantity, and I’m proud of our quality.
Dawn Helsing Wolters and I met again this summer, this time for quite a long talk about such matters. The issues and the relationship are clearer to both of us now, clear enough to share here.
Our interviews and advance stories give you a forum from which to explain yourself to the public. Our coverage and your advertising get the word out; your ad and service buys help to make it possible for us to go on. And make no mistake, ThirdCoast Digest/Vital Media Group is a business, and it must succeed financially. Part of the business plan is to win the arts readership, a prized demographic that attracts advertisers beyond the arts groups themselves.
So, Dawn Helsing Wolters, the answer to your question is yes: The press and the arts can have a different sort of relationship. ThirdCoast Digest and the arts are indeed partners, by both design and temperament. We know how you feel. The arts are in our blood, too.