By Chris Lavin
Special to Poynter.org
On any given week in San Diego County, arguably more people attend arts events than professional sports. I’m sure this is true across America. Movies, theater, dance recitals, and concerts collectively draw large numbers.
Then why is the DAILY sports section of some newspapers 24 pages on a regular basis while the WEEKLY arts sections are small, and obviously, one-seventh as frequent – if they exist at all?
Some in arts groups probably believe it is bad editorial judgment that allows for this obvious disparity in coverage. Clearly the editors of papers all over America have increasingly come to judge that sports has earned its strong and defining place in the community. And it looks as if they’ve concluded that the arts, while still warranting coverage, are clearly more marginal, attracting an influential but narrow segment of the community.
But if the editors are correct — and I think we are — was this always true or has something happened over the years? Did the sports people simply have an innate advantage in the battle for the hearts and minds of the America public — or were they smarter about how they sold themselves to the country? I think we need to consider some of the long traditions that I believe may be standing between the performing arts and a more resilient relationship with their potential constituencies.
When I was quite young — and I’m only 43 now — I can remember my father telling of meeting up with his old Fordham classmate Wellington Mara. Mara owned the New York (football) Giants. He would give my father a fistful of tickets and ask him to spread them among the people of Westchester County to get them down to the Polo grounds. He couldn’t give them away.
Today, there is a waiting list for New York Giant season tickets. Sportswriters attend football practices, do athlete profiles, cover and analyze each year’s draft picks. The coach’s moods, the players behavior, the quality of the turf, the prospects of the weather is accessible to the journalists and pored over by fans who know and understand the intricacies of the nickel defense, the three deep zone, the H back role and the quality of the quarterback’s lateral mobility. At the Super Bowl, the NFL worries not only about the game, but it closely guards the place it has claimed for itself in American culture. The NFL execs are masters of self-promotion because they know they have to be. They remember when it wasn’t so and if they need a reminder, they can look at Major League Baseball after the strike or the NBA after Larry Bird/Magic Johnson/Michael Jordan left and a new generation of tattoo-ed, corn-rowed urban toughs changed the league’s image.
Contrast this with some of the fine traditions of theater and symphony and let’s start with the journalists. Many of them are hired not solely for their journalistic skills but for their familiarity with the fine points of the arts themselves. That’s good and bad. If the arts writer – and most of them do – see themselves as experts who can only write about the subject of their art, there is a barrier to the range of what they can easily take on. And, in my experience, many arts critics see themselves as critics first, story-tellers second. Some actually keep a distance from the performers, directors and theater executives to “”preserve their objectivity.” Getting the full range of stories that capture the drama of making art is difficult even if the arts organizations were interested in seeing that full-range of stories. I’m not sure they really are.
When compared to the open access a sports franchise allows, most arts organizations look like a cross between the Kremlin and the Vatican. Casting is closed. Practices closed. Interviews with actors and actresses limited and guarded. An athlete who refuses to do interviews can get fined. An actor or actress or director or composer who can’t find time for the media is not uncommon. How would a director take to a theater critic watching practice and asking for his/her early analysis of the challenges this cast faces with the material — the relatively strengths and weaknesses of the lead actor, the tendencies of the play write to resist rewriting? How often have journalists either ignored or been kept from financial problems that plague many arts organizations until a “crisis” makes publicity — late as it is — unavoidable.
The art of making art, I believe, is more interesting than the routine that both the artists and the journalists who cover them seem to be essentially locked into. We announce a season. We advance a show, perhaps in a weekend section. We attend the show and then we write a critique. And frankly, at every newspaper I have worked at, most of the energy has been reserved for the “”review,” though in most places that story runs late, short and inside the paper.
Since coming to the Union-Tribune I have been locked in a pretty strong debate with my 12-person arts staff about reviews. I believe they have a place and are essential to a well-rounded arts coverage. But I have said to them, and I still believe, they are only a part of the coverage and not necessarily the most challenging journalism we can do in trying to explain the arts institution’s key place in the quality of life in San Diego County. Reviews, almost by their definition, are narrowly focused — they speak to the theater community and to people who attended the show or are considering attending a show. I don’t believe they attract the eyes of the non-theater-going community nor do I think they are generally written in a way that makes the art form more accessible to a broad newspaper or television audience. The cast likes or hates the review, but either way little is being done through reviews to share what it is about the arts that instills so much dedication and hard work by the performers and the critics. There is little story telling done about the drama of making art nor of the lives of the people who dedicate themselves – often in obscurity — to reach a professional level.
I sometimes feel the arts community quietly enjoys the fact they have become to varying degrees like clubs for the rich and highly educated. Let some performer come along and do for opera what Carl Sagan did for astronomy — make it accessible, digestible, dare I say popular — and pretty soon you’ll be hearing the carping of the true aficionados saying what plebeians these interpreters are and how they are more “popular” than talented.
As someone who, as a kid, carried towels at New York Jets practices, was a basketball player in high school and am the brother of an All American woman’s basketball player, I might be tempted to say let the arts find their marginal niche in town while everyone runs off to the high school/college/pro football games. Perhaps nature meant it that way. But what motivates me to make arts journalism better is my own memory of an October in London. I was a college senior and was living on Cromwell Road, a few miles from the West End theaters. I had a student card I could present at any theater and get any vacant seat for 2 pounds 50. On a Tuesday night I watched Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and was inspired by its brilliance, its witness, its very dark cynicism. I can still recite every line. On the next night, I saw Amadeus. I left the theater so agitated I walked the six miles home. What angered me: The great realization that I related more to Salieri’s mediocrity than to Mozart’s brilliance. Those are lessons I had never learned through more than 15 previous years of basketball practices and catechism classes. Even today, I’d much rather see a good play than a good football game and I’d like to see our coverage of the arts reflect why that is.
Chris Lavin is senior editor for special sections at the San Diego Union-Tribune. He wrote and delivered this speech last week to the national convention of the Association of Performing Arts Service Organization, a national group of arts service organizations.