Rx for Poor Arts Reporting?

The Pew Charitable Trusts have declared their wishes to “strengthen both the quality and availability of critical writing and arts reporting,” according to Pew cultural program director Marian A. Godfrey. Earlier this month the Philadelphia-based philanthropic foundation announced plans to put up $3.2 million for a three-year experiment called the National Arts Journalism Program. The program, which officially begins in fall 1994, will be based at Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism under the stewardship of Dean Michael Janeway and also will include the journalism schools of Columbia University in New York, the University of Georgia, and the University of Southern California.

The program is set up to support 12 arts- reporting fellowships annually (three at each school) with a $30,000 stipend awarded each fellow. Program participants will be selected from among the working print and broadcast media and will include journalists and editors covering disciplines such as music, theater, film, dance, and television. The fellows will take a range of courses in journalism, art, and even business; according to Janeway they will also attempt to work closely with one or more cultural institutions near where they are in residence. The group will convene at various times during the year for arts-related symposia and conferences organized in part by an advisory board that includes Los Angeles Times drama critic Sylvie Drake, former New York Times managing editor Arthur Gelb, Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser, New Yorker contributor Michael Arlen, and National Public Radio correspondent Susan Stamberg.

On paper at least this ambitious, credential-heavy effort to improve arts coverage looks impressive. Janeway, a former editor of the Boston Globe, is quick to say that Medill actively sought a role as manager of the program once Pew decided to underwrite it. He also readily notes that he was a major force in shaping the program. If it’s successful, he says, it will “make editors and publishers take the arts more seriously.” The program also will enable journalists who specialize in one arts beat to learn about other art forms. Presumably this interdisciplinary approach will make the journalists more versatile when they return to their respective print or broadcast outlets, a key benefit when editorial budgets are shrinking.

Of course the achievement of these noble goals and any improvement in the breadth and depth of arts journalism presupposes–and it’s a big presupposition –that the National Arts Journalism Program fellows will learn from professors and other professionals who have some clue about the problems afflicting arts journalism and how to solve them. Too much of what currently passes for such writing is either painfully superficial features and celebrity profiles or shoddy criticism. Even Janeway himself in a lengthy conversation repeatedly referred to the “arts critics” who would enter the program, not taking into account the broader spectrum of journalists who write about the arts. Either his vocabulary is limited or his perspective on arts journalism is too narrow. Asked to comment on the arts reporting in Chicago’s major dailies, Janeway declined, saying he spends too much of his time with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to have formed an opinion.

But unless Janeway and his cohorts in this new program are willing to come to grips with the sad state of arts journalism as it is practiced beyond a few hallowed publications, chances are slim they will provide their fellows with the training and insight needed to go home and do the job right.

Remains and Court Bring on New Hires

Court Theatre and Remains Theatre are taking on new artistic staff members who will help cast the future of both institutions. Charles Newell, a former resident director at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, becomes Court’s associate artistic director on May 3, reporting to executive director Nicholas Rudall. Newell has extensive experience in classical theater; his arrival at Court marks his first involvement with a Chicago theater company. At Remains, effective July 1, Neel Keller becomes the new artistic director, replacing Larry Sloan, who will continue to serve as an artistic consultant.

Newell’s appointment at Court is part of the company’s larger restructuring, which also involves a roster of “associate artists.” They include actors Kyle Colerider-Krugh, Johnny Lee Davenport, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Jacqueline Williams, Larry Yando, and Steve Pickering; directors Terry McCabe and Jonathan Wilson; set and costume designer Jeff Bauer; set designer John Culbert; and sound designer David Zerlin. According to Rudall, the associate artists will make up a resident “think tank” that will schedule staged readings and plan and participate in workshops to put the theater’s emphasis back “on the art and craft of the actor.” Rudall also wants to explore more fully the rotating repertory concept tried out this year with “The Mystery Cycle.” Court will open its next season with two plays in rep: The Triumph of Love by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux and Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill.

At Remains Keller wants to find a way to make theater a vital part of people’s lives once again. “The controversy surrounding Jesse Helms’s attack on the arts was a wake-up call for me,” he admits. He is considering mounting Remains productions at venues other than its space at 1800 N. Clybourn and even outdoors, which he finds a congenial environment for theater. Keller also plans to announce most of next season in July. “We might give up a little spontaneity by doing this,” he notes, “but we will gain in giving the people involved in designing and directing more time to think about the plays.”