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What Can Arts Organizations Learn from Comic-Con? (Part 3)

The Impact of Arts Criticism and Citizen Bloggers

This is the final entry in our series "What Can Arts Organizations Learn from Comic-Con?". For the past two days, I've hosted a conversation between three local arts administrators who've been attending Comic-Con for years. I invited them because their perspective is informed by the non-profit arts community in San Diego, a love for and dedication to the traditional arts, and a passion for Comic-Con and the popular arts. I believed that combination would be useful in considering what arts organizations can learn from Comic-Con's successful model. I'm happy to say I wasn't wrong. Tyler Richard Hewes, the Executive Director of Orchestra Nova San Diego, Dalouge Smith, the President and CEO of the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, and Edward Wilensky, the Director of Media Relations for the San Diego Opera all took time out of their busy schedules to share their valuable insight. I'm so grateful.

ANGELA: I’m wondering how the state of arts criticism is impacting your ability to create dialogue and meaning for audiences. With fewer critics writing today, there’s less discussion happening around a particular work. This isn’t the case in the popular arts, where movie and tv “critics”, fans, etc. are a dime a dozen on the web. It seems like the dialogue happening around classical music, opera, and the performing arts isn't as far reaching as that for the popular arts.

EDWARD: I’d argue there is more discussion now with the popularity of social networking sites. That’s not to say critics aren’t important and there is something to be said for the voice of experience, the voice of knowledge, the voice of consistency -- a "cultural gatekeeper" if you will - especially on a local level. We need to remember that the majority of our patrons are local so local coverage from a consistent reporter is incredibly important to maintain. Still, I also know that new audiences, younger generations, listen to the voice of the community vs. the voice of the individual.

We can again learn from Comic-Con here: treat the bloggers on the same footing we treat the traditional media. Here at San Diego Opera, we accepted a few years back that people were going to write about us no matter what. So instead of having them outside writing in, we brought them in so they could write out. We were one of the first opera companies that I know of to have a “Blogger Night at the Opera” (we copied it from San Francisco Symphony…I’m not that original) and it was a wonderful success. That’s not to say invite every blogger or social media reviewer out there – you need to pick and choose, find out who the tastemakers are and invite them. But no, I actually think there is more discussion going on about our product these days. I think it is exciting because we get to hear what the average ticket purchaser thinks and the entire community gets to engage in a dialogue.

TYLER: This is really interesting because I would disagree that there are that many true critics online. While I love Topless Robot, /film and Ain't It Cool News, I don't consider them true critics but rather fans voicing their opinion. While some of the individual writers on each site are insightful and very knowledgeable in their respective areas, I still don't think they are as well versed in the traditional critical role. What they are doing well is creating buzz and discussion - if something is slammed really hard on Ain't It Cool News, chances are the production is in real trouble, but that is when they move from being critics after the fact to, at times, interfering with the creative process and commenting on a film as it is developing.

Now in the case of critics who cover the traditional arts, I think we are approaching a crisis point - right now there is too much content for the dwindling numbers to accurately cover and the next generation of bloggers and commentators have not really come to the fore. There are some individual successes (Angela being a good example, SDNN.com as well), there are many more cases of folks who are just out of their depth covering performances and doing more harm than good to both their readers and the groups they report on.

I still read the NY Times theatre, opera and classical sections on a very regular basis - even though they are covering performances 2000 miles away. I do this because I enjoy reading about different interpretations of art, different approaches to text and different productions. Just because we in San Diego are seeing a lack of major criticism, doesn't mean it has lost its place in the creative conversation.

I think Ed makes another good point - with the rise in social media, individual's opinions are more easily shared across a larger swath of folks. If someone talks about something being great on Facebook, that individual recommendation will have more resonance (for some) than a traditional review in a newspaper or magazine. During Con I was constantly checking on blogs I follow to hear about the good panels and coverage of things I wasn't able to hit. I was also getting updates from my friends on Facebook telling me what was good and what to avoid (and what lines just are not worth it). The legitimacy of bloggers is important to acknowledge as we move forward with our audience communication.

ANGELA: I often hear theater companies and museums lamenting the amount of criticism happening locally. The context, comparisons, historical knowledge of a work of art is all so important to building a community dialogue. I’m not a critic, I’m more of a reporter/producer who covers the arts but I read my New Yorker and other publications every week just so I can see how John Lahr or Sasha Frere-Jones or Peter Schjeldahl are writing, interpreting, and thinking about the arts. We’ve lost some of that critical voice in San Diego and I can only assume it has an impact.

TYLER: The dwindling ranks of arts reporters and critics is very worrying I think-in part because it tells you what little value the various media outlets place on the arts. It is also worrying because the limited group remaining that do still offer criticism can hold a disproportionate amount of sway over the groups they cover. I'm all for the democratizing effect including more voices (including amateur bloggers and well-read arts reporters) will have on the criticism scene.

DALOUGE: I think the majority of arts organizations are interested in coverage more than criticism. A pre-story on an orchestra performance is better for ticket sales than a review after the weekend’s concerts are finished. If the production of an opera or play runs for more than a weekend then we want to see a review so it keeps the story of the production in front of people. The value of the story in a newspaper or on tv is its ability to reach wide numbers of people. We haven’t actually had much of a critical dialogue in pubic about a playwright, composer, or performance in nearly two decades. We do have national conversations about visual art occasionally – Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster comes to mind. But the conversation has not really been focused on criticism. Instead, its legal status and impact on the election are discussed. New technology used well can give organizations direct contact with broad audiences and be more timely in generating attention than the old media. The examples you’ve given from Comic-Con demonstrate that the exhibitors there have found new ways to leverage success from these tools.

EDWARD: Dalouge is right here - I'd much rather see coverage than criticism, I think it serves our needs much, much better, especially in the sense of educating the public. I'm not saying that reviews don't help, and are not wanted - we see a marked spike in sales after a review runs. But then I always thought the best criticism wasn't always the criticism I agreed with, but the criticism I wanted to tear apart and debate -- criticism that made me think, made me face my own limitations as a listener and ultimately, made me learn something new. I think all of our local critics still provide that. Opera is such a niche market anyway, I always have had a small pool to work with so in a sense my critic list expanded as the role of newspaper became decentralized and other venues like SDNN and VOSD joined the party.

But if we're going to try to make the arts like Comic-Con, we need to find a place for the "citizen reporter" as well. They speak to a different audience and I think that's the audience we're all trying to tap into. Opera has their version of Ain't It Cool News in the form of Opera Chic, The Opera Tattler, Parterre Box - these are the tastemakers in our field.

TYLER: I agree that coverage is much more desirable than criticism, but my thinking has always been I'll take what we can get. With all coverage dwindling from the traditional sources, it is up to the arts world to follow the Con model and bring in those new voices and new media. If the "citizen reporter" is going to be a major force in the arts world, we need to give them the tools and give them the access they need to come up with compelling content.

ANGELA: Thanks to all of you for participating in this discussion. Any closing thoughts?

EDWARD: Thank you Angela, Dalouge and Tyler for this opportunity. I enjoyed it very much and learned plenty from this. I think much of that excitement you read in our responses has to do with the fact that we love talking about what we do and we all love Comic-Con. And that's it in a nutshell. We need to find the ones in the community who love what we do, engage them and have them speak on our behalf. This can be bringing a friend to a performance, or blogging about a play, or forwarding a YouTube clip from the opera. I'm incredibly hopeful, and completely convinced that we will reach new audiences. It is a time for reinvention, probably overdue, and that's very exciting.

TYLER: Thank you, Angela, for bringing us together and Dalouge and Ed for a really great discussion – it's really fun to discuss our passions - both classical and comic-al.

I agree with Ed that the future for the traditional/high arts is very bright in attracting new audiences - it is just a matter of being willing to learn new media and be willing to experiment and not bog ourselves down with pre-conceived notions of who we are talking to. I think Comic-Con has a great model for us to follow on so many fronts, from education to marketing to how we use new tech (anyone else download the Comic-Con app for their iPhone?) - we are very lucky to have this amazing San Diego resource from which to learn.

DALOUGE: Thanks, Angela. It’s been such fun participating. I absolutely expect we’ll keep reaching new audiences. Part of doing that means changing how we find and interact with them. Comic-Con’s variety reminds us that there is no single homogenous group of people but a mix of communities that overlap and interact. The more successfully we understand each community and develop programs and relationships that meet them on their own terms, the more engaged they will be with our work. If we assume that all we have to do is change our marketing message or create micro-marketing messages for each distinct community, then we’ll continue to struggle. No one would have believed Venezuela could have a robust classical music culture 30 years ago other than the founders of El Sistema. It didn’t develop because of marketing. It grew because participation in El Sistema changes people’s lives. Comic-Con didn’t grow because of better marketing – it grew because of its ability to grow and adapt to the changing Popular Arts landscape. This is the challenge for non-profit arts organizations. The question that stands before all of us is whether or not we’ll commit ourselves to changing lives over the long-term and adapting to the evolving landscape around us as we do.

Event: Book and a Beer with Author Woody Tasch

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  • Friday, December 11, 2009
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