15 Years Later, An Arts Criticism Model Where Open Access Is Assumed

If you didn’t happen to see it rolling around social media or on Artsjournal.com last week, Carolina Performing Arts’ festival, The Commons, experimented with a new model of criticism.  Their reflections on the process appeared under the attention getting title of, “Uh, We Sort of Made an Arts-Criticism Utopia? Here’s What We Learned.”

What they did was pretty simple, but more resource and labor intensive than most media outlets have invested. They assigned two critics to a show, one who was embedded for the entire creation process, and another who only saw the final product.

The premise was that critical documentation is at once changing in form, diminishing in frequency, and urgently needed. And it’s not just documentation of performances that is needed, but also of the work and conversation that surrounds and sustains them.

My read on their process was that since the traditional media sources for arts criticism were divesting themselves of the practice, there is room to re-imagine what it means to discuss the merits of an event/performance/work. Part of the re-imagining seems to be examining what the critic, artists, and readership are really looking for from a critique. In the process, a lot of old rules are ripe for being broken.

The Commons Crit was designed to test several hypotheses, which we raised again at the start of the roundtable: that criticism should not always be beholden to a coverage model; that critics should have the space and freedom to experiment; that critics and artists are allies, not adversaries; that artistic process deserves as much attention as the final product; and that artists have legitimate ideas about who can authentically represent the cultural perspective of their work.


In journalism, it’s a no-no to let an artist pick their reviewer, but in The Commons, to a large extent, we did. At least, we consulted the writers about what sort of person would be an apt conduit for their cultural perspective. For example, Victoria and Stephanie—accomplished writers, but not performance critics—were selected for their fluency in Spanish and border issues, while Chris and Michaela built upon longstanding relationships with Justin. For Eb. Brown, a male African-American embedded writer was essential, but it would take the perspective of a female African-American writer (Danielle Purifoy) to round out the performance’s meaning.

The thing is, in my very first blog post over 15 years ago I linked to an opinion piece by Chris Lavin, “Why Arts Coverage Should Be More Like Sports,”  where he basically calls for exactly the rule breaking relationship the Carolina Performing Arts Festival has engaged in.

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?

I will confess that one of my first thoughts was whether this model could be sustainable –until, of course, I remembered this was one of the very first topics I wrote about on the blog and many places have found a way to sustain their sports reporting.

I think what would help make it sustainable is writers who are adept at the storytelling aspect of the job. Audiences are ready to accept the opinions of people on social media whom they have never met so the value of a certified objective opinion has greatly diminished.

When it comes to sports, people are more than ready to identify with a good story and argue its merits with their neighbors without worrying overly much about the objective truths of the matter. The arts are much more about storytelling than sports. There are no statistics about a dancer’s range of motion at the matinee versus the evening performance to bog the conversation down.

You can read the reviews on The Commons Crit page. One of the things that is somewhat confusing for the first time visitor is that there is no clear delineation between what appears to be preview pieces and the the reviews. The reviews have both the thoughts of the embedded writer and one-time writer in one place, but there are also other stories by the embedded writer about that same event. (Here is another such pairing.) If you are coming to the site to figure out what your experience might be, it can be difficult to determine, but that is an easy matter of labeling.


Baumol Effect Is A Blessing, Not A Disease

Economist Alex Tabarrok recently made an interesting post on Baumol’s cost disease.  The concept usually explained by noting that since it doesn’t take any less time to perform a string quartet than it did when Beethoven wrote it, orchestras have no way to save money by taking advantage of advances in productivity and efficiency.

Tabarrok comes at it from the perspective that it is only more expensive to perform a string quartet now because productivity has increased in other industries.

The Baumol effect is easy to explain but difficult to grasp.


Growth in average labor productivity has a surprising implication: it makes the output of slow productivity-growth sectors (relatively) more expensive. In 1826, the average wage of $1.14 meant that the 2.66 hours needed to produce a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 had an opportunity cost of just $3.02. At a wage of $26.44, the 2.66 hours of labor in music production had an opportunity cost of $70.33. Thus, in 2010 it was 23 times (70.33/3.02) more expensive to produce a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 than in 1826.


The focus on relative prices tells us that the cost disease is misnamed. The cost disease is not a disease but a blessing. To be sure, it would be better if productivity increased in all industries, but that is just to say that more is better. There is nothing negative about productivity growth, even if it is unbalanced.

If that is a little hard to understand, he uses a more relatable example to point out that “…over time prices have very little connection to affordability.”

If the price of the same can of soup is higher at Wegmans than at Walmart we understand that soup is more affordable at Walmart. But if the price of the same can of soup is higher today than in the past it doesn’t imply that soup was more affordable in the past, even if we have done all the right corrections for inflation.

So just because a ticket costs more than it did years ago, doesn’t mean it is necessarily less affordable. Granted, it may still be a bit more difficult to get the funds together than in the past. I have had people tell me they were able to see Broadway shows for $15 at one time. While I suspect they may be mis-remembering how much of their weekly salary that $15 represented, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that tickets today are a greater portion of the weekly salary for that same job today. The production values are likely a lot higher than people saw when they were paying $15 so the ratio of value to money spent is probably fairly good.

Based on Tabarrok’s explanation, the concept that certain artistic expressions are fated to be an increasing burden on society because they can’t be executed with greater efficiency is not valid. Productivity growth in other areas provides the capacity to support those artistic expressions.

When Ignoring “Show, Don’t Tell” Is The Best Option

Hat tip to Artsjournal.com who listed an article from The Conversation about how your phone can interrupt a concert experience. Author Christine Van Winkle discusses research she and her team conducted at outdoor summer music festivals over the course of five years.

Because the research was conducted at festivals, the detrimental effects of using a phone at a concert was more focused on the quality of the user experience rather than the impact on those around the person. With factors like heat, cold, rain, bugs and people bumping into you, the glow of a phone screen isn’t as big a distraction to others as it can be in a concert hall.

As a result, the research is potentially more effective at persuading people not to use phones because the message is about why they aren’t having the best experience rather than that they are causing others to have a poor experience.

As you might imagine, some of those participating in the study intentionally left their phones at home and didn’t miss them. Others were discomforted without their phones or by the failure of the phone battery.

It is interesting to note that the anti-social behavior of peering over your phone in a group can create social pressure on others to use their phone in a similar manner:

Festival goers described sitting with friends who were texting or searching on their phones and suddenly they felt compelled to use their phone as well. This mirroring behaviour is a well known response people have in social situations.

The idea that phone use is “infectious” may provide some incentive to arts entities to prohibit the use of phone. But it isn’t just the performers and venues which may be dissatisfied with this type of phone use, the practice can lead to disappointment for the phone user as well.

The research shows that when we decide to use our phones to check work email, to check up on the kids or any other activities that have nothing to do with the festival, our satisfaction with the experience goes down.

However, Van Winkle’s research shows using the phone for activities related to the experience doesn’t impact satisfaction either positively or negatively. While the outcome is currently neutral, it may be worthwhile for artists and organizations to think about creating content that augments the experience. The lack of a positive sense of satisfaction may just reflect the fact that most activity related content mentioned in the study is of neutral value like schedules and maps.

When we do use our devices at festivals it doesn’t affect our satisfaction with the event if we are using our phones for festival-related activities like looking at the festival schedule, the venue map or even texting to meet up with friends who are joining us.

Van Winkle offers some tips for phone use, most of which involve limiting your interactions with the phone and the amount of content you receive from others. What was most interesting to me was her suggestion that offering too much information can actually diminish the number of opportunities you have to relate your experience to others. Essentially, contrary to all prior storytelling advice, this would be the one time to tell, don’t show. (my emphasis)

Wait to post. It’s fun to share your experience with your extended network but consider waiting until you return home. Sharing the memories captured on your phone after the experience gives you an opportunity to reflect on the day and prevents you from being distracted by other people’s posts while you are at the event.

Consider not posting any images of your experience to social media at all — you might find it leads to more conversations with people when they ask about your weekend or summer. Often, once people have seen your post they assume they already know how your weekend was, robbing you of the opportunity to share your experience with them.

Why (And How) Are You Apologizing?

Seth Godin recently wrote a lengthy post on the subject of apologies.  He addresses the issue of entities providing insufficient apologies but also the expectation of restitution which is out of proportion with the offense.  Since good customer service is one of the primary attributes that contribute to the success of non-profit arts organizations, it is obviously worth considering what he has to say.

We can start by asking, “what is this apology for?” What does the person need from us?

  • To be seen
  • Compensation
  • Punishment for the transgressor
  • Stopping the damage

The first category is the one that most demands humanity, and it’s also the most common. A form letter from a company does not make us feel seen. Neither does an automated text from an airline when a plane is late. One reason that malpractice victims sue is that surgeons sometimes have trouble with a genuine apology.

He says when people don’t feel they have been seen, it leads to demands for the other three elements: Compensation to make good on a real or perceived loss; Punishment which allows the victim to feel the transgressor has also suffered; Stopping the damage so that no one else suffers the same harm in the future.

These other three categories can be executed in a constructive manner, though it is easy for punishment to turn into a recurring cycle of damage.

However, Godin says some psychological and social expectations related to compensation, punishment and stopping the damage can have a destructive result.

Compounding these totally different sorts of apologies is the very industrial idea of winning. Victims have been sold that it’s not enough that your compensation is merely helpful, but it has to be the most. That you won the biggest judgment in history. That the transgressor isn’t simply going to jail, but is going to jail forever, far away, in solitary confinement. We’ve all ended up in a place where one of the ways to feel seen is to also feel like you came in first place compared to others.

Though it may not prevent someone who seeks to win to the detriment of others, Godin says the best way for an organization to address damage is to train and empower front line staff to provide an empathetic response.

The challenge that organizations have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded or permitted their frontline employees to exert emotional labor to create human connection when it’s most needed.


The alternative is to choose to contribute to connection by actually apologizing. Apologizing not to make the person go away, but because they have feelings, and you can do something for them. Apologizing with time and direct contact, and following it up by actually changing the defective systems that caused the problem.

“Yikes, I’m sorry you missed your flight–I really wish that hadn’t happened. The next flight is in an hour, but that’s probably going to ruin your entire trip. Are you headed on vacation?”

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