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.


You Are Never Too Young To Start Producing Shows

So given the context of all the deserved gushing over a North Bergen, NJ’s stage version of the movie Aliens with a $5,000 budget and recycled materials,  Ken Davenport’s suggestion that high school productions have general managers and press agents doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable.

Davenport’s  motivation is to get as many kids involved in a production as possible. Everyone knows the larger cast you have on stage, the larger an audience you are likely to have as friends and family show up to support students. But he also notes that being involved in administrative roles opens people’s eyes to a much wider range of career opportunities than just actors and technicians. (his emphasis)

Because whether a student decides to pursue a career in the theater or decides to be a lawyer, I firmly believe that there is no endeavor in the world that teaches collaboration better than putting up a musical.


They’re probably the type that thinks putting on a musical is just a hobby.  Because no one has told them any different. But you and I know it’s a business . . . just like any other.  And that businesses need all sorts of talents to make a show a success.

He outlines the following as tasks students could pursue in the different roles.  Davenport encourages everyone to pass the post link on to any high school teachers who might be interested in pursuing this. He says he will even write up the job description and list of duties so the teacher doesn’t have to.

The Producer would be in charge of overseeing the production, of course, as well as fundraising.  Yep, give him or her a goal of raising $X and let them find a way to do it (car washes, bake sales, Kickstarter and more).

The General Manager would learn how to put a budget together for the show and keep everyone on a budget.

The Press Agent would try to get articles written in the newspapers, online, and even invite people like me to come to see it.

The Advertising and Marketing Director would get the word out to sell tickets, get a logo designed, manage the social media, and more.

The Casting Directors would schedule the auditions, run them, put out the offers and maybe even convince the high school quarterback that he’d make a great Teyve.

In Order Have Social Impact, They Had To Kill The Social Impact Statement

If you haven’t seen it already, it is worth reading Joanna Jones’ piece on Medium about how the Oakland Museum of California developed and then abandoned their social impact statement.

One of the central identity problems non-profits face is generating statements of mission, goals, etc that are meaningful and alive for the organization. Creating these statements is seen as a necessary evil for strategic plans, grant applications, etc and are filed away until it comes time to revise them for the new strategic plan or copy it down on a grant application.

But people join non-profit organizations with the hope that they can make a difference. Even if it is contrary to whatever is written on the reference document gathering dust in the filing cabinet, every organization should have some aspirational statement of purpose they are telling new hires that actually aligns with the organizational practice.  (Making enough money to meet payroll doesn’t count.)

Now, the thing that everyone thinks they are doing that keeps them coming to work every morning still may not be the most practical and realistic. That was the issue that Jones says the Oakland Museum quickly came to recognize. In 2017, they created a social impact statement that, “OMCA makes Oakland a more equitable and caring city.”

Focus groups asked whether a museum could really solve the problems contributing to the lack of equity and caring in the city. The museum’s internal stakeholders also questioned the viability of the statement.

The museum invited six experts on social impact to spend two days participating in convenings and museum activities. While these experts were excited and energized by the reach and inclusion of museum events, they too were skeptical about the social impact statement. They wondered how the museum could ever meet the myriad concepts people would have about what equity and caring looked like.

After a lot of work, conversation and introspection, Jones writes that they realized they didn’t actually need a social impact statement,

Rather, we simply needed to articulate the problem our community is facing that we are uniquely suited to address, the best solution we believe exists for that problem, and the concrete and tangible outcomes we’re going to measure that will demonstrate our positive social impact.

The problem we’re trying to solve is social fragmentation.

The community of Oakland is presently undergoing significant fallout from inequities within institutions, the state, and civil society resulting in a decline in social cohesion and an increase in social exclusion.

Our contribution is facilitating greater social cohesion.


We will know that we are achieving that impact–creating greater social cohesion–when our Museum visitors say that they:

  • feel welcome at OMCA
  • see their stories reflected at OMCA
  • connect with other people at OMCA, and
  • feel comfortable expressing their own ideas and are open to the ideas of others at OMCA

What I valued about this piece was the discussion of the process they went through to come to this realization. There are statements of purpose non-profit organizations are obligated to have. There are some statements/actions organizations may feel self-obligated to enact in order to adhere to trends or to remain relevant. But these may not be relevant or constructive to the developing organizational identity. I was glad to see they recognized that while it was valuable to enunciate a clear purpose, their statement didn’t necessarily need to conform to a specific definition.

Don’t Solicit Ads For Your Program Book

Thanks to Drew McManus for remembering that Butts In The Seats turned 15 this weekend. Hard to believe I have been writing for 15 years now. Hopefully readers have found the content worthwhile.

Speaking of which….

Over on ArtsHacker today, I had a post on a very worthwhile subject– Unrelated Business Taxable Income.

I know, you are fighting to keep your brain from shutting down right now.

What that translates to for non-profit arts organizations is, among other things, any advertising you may have in publications, playbills, social media and web posts, etc., is considered an activity unrelated to your organizational purpose which means you need to pay taxes on it.

Now before you panic too much, placement of sponsors logos and contact information is permitted within the scope of your non-profit status. While advertising versus sponsorship may sound like a distinction without a difference, there are strict guidelines you need to follow.  There can’t be comparative or qualitative language, no pricing, no inducements/endorsements to use/purchase a product/service.

If this sounds like something you have run into trying to promote an event on a public radio station, that is exactly what it is. At one time I thought it was a characteristic of public broadcasting charters so they didn’t compete with commercial broadcasting. In fact it is a characteristic of non-profit status so it also includes school yearbooks, neighborhood sports leagues, community newsletters, etc.

The post I made isn’t a comprehensive discussion of the matter. I didn’t even try to tackle the recent change that made providing employee parking something non-profits need to pay taxes on. It is a good place to start before following up with an accountant or attorney.

On a semi-related topic, I also made a post about the detail to which a non-profit needs to go when valuing and acknowledging a gift from a donor.   Even if you think you know a lot about this subject, it is worth checking about because money from donor advised funds are viewed differently than those received directly from the donor. Given the growing popularity of donor advised funds, there are likely things you will want to learn more about from an accountant or lawyer.

You Need To Pay Taxes On Program Book Ads

Valuing and Acknowledging Donations

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