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Commentary: The End of Professional Arts Criticism?

Over the years, I’ve written regularly about what I used to term the “rolling collapse” of American journalism—particularly at the local level. But as recent mass layoffs at storied news outlets like the LA Times have demonstrated, journalism could now well be in terminal collapse.

As it happens, in the last several days I have gotten a fair amount of coverage about my work founding the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets with fellow publishers from all over the US. An organization aiming to help at least slow that collapse by pushing foundations from coast-to-coast to donate more money directly to local and regional news outlets. Check it out here, here, and here.

But the disintegration of human institutions like journalism are always uneven. One of the first parts of the American news industry to suffer major job losses was definitely arts reporting …and most especially arts criticism. Which is why I strongly recommend that readers spin through a magisterial, but fast-moving piece by longtime theater critic Bob Abelman at the Arts Fuse.

Abelman doesn’t just engage in special pleading for his journalism specialty, he puts the effective end of cultural criticism by real experts in the context of the looming threat that journalism itself may be ending—covering a lot of key historical ground in the bargain. And laying the blame for the crisis at the feet of  “a digital revolution that has seen decreased print subscriptions, diminished print advertising, and more than one in five newspapers in the United States being shuttered” and “more extractive, cost-cutting, union-bashing private equity firms, hedge funds, and billionaires.”

One can quibble with the importance of arts criticism relative to more “hard” news or even “fun” news, but by the time you finish reading “The Declining State of the Art of Arts Journalism,” you will find it difficult to say that the ability anyone off the street to say whatever they want about matters cultural on social media can really replace what is being lost by laying off all the critics.

Independent Journalism from Around the Commonwealth

Chinatown Worker Statues Show the ‘Greatness of Our Immigrant Community’ 
Excellent overview of the artistic process behind the creation of four statues of working people in Boston’s Chinatown—a laundryman, a restaurant worker, a garment worker, and unusually, a grandmother and grandchild, as sculptor Wen-Ti Tsen considers grandparents in the Chinese immigrant community to be workers.

Before fame, Tracy Chapman wowed Marblehead crowds 
Marblehead Current
A “before they were famous” take on the famous women’s music pioneer (who I booked to play a big 1986 Boston anti-apartheid rally I was helping run just before she broke big).

5 Artists to Watch in 2024 : Massachusetts Minute
Boston Compass
Some Bay State up-and-comers you may not have heard of …

Arts Commentary: The Declining State of the Art of Arts Journalism 
The Arts Fuse
See my commentary above.

Ousmane Sembène, the father of African cinema, honored with retrospective at Harvard Film Archive
Bay State Banner
Well worth hopping over to the Harvard Film Archive to screen features by one of my favorite directors, Ousmane Sembène. If you do, reflect on the amazing work he did with next to no resources and compare it to the tripe Hollywood is producing with vast amounts of money today. Series playing until February 25.

Newton school enrollment trends suggest pandemic exodus may have ended
Newton Beacon
Newton Public Schools’ chief of data and research shows that parents have “likely stopped” pulling their kids out of the Garden City’s K-12 system now that COVID safety protocols are largely a thing of the past.

School Committee Stonewalls On After-School Care
Sudbury Weekly
The Sudbury School Committee appears to be fighting an outbreak of democracy caused by advocacy group Parents for Sudbury After School Solutions’ survey of 300 parents that “demonstrated enormous unmet after-school needs and hardships for hundreds of Sudbury families.”

Parents advocate for improved dyslexia support in Lexington
Lexington Observer
Even tony Lexington is apparently having problems getting its dyslexic kids a decent education, leading to a showdown between state government and some parents on one side and Lexington Public Schools educators (and likely some other parents) on the other. There does, at least, appear to be some common ground between the two camps.

“A Privileged Selection:” Northampton School Planning Committee Draws Ire from Critics 
The Shoestring (Western Mass)
Northampton Public Schools “Superintendent Portia Bonner unveiled 19 members of a strategic-planning committee that will create a five-year plan to ‘re-envision’ the city’s schools” … but only included one teacher. The Northampton Association of School Employees and allies are now pushing for a more balanced committee because a looming deficit facing Northampton as federal COVID money dries up may result in mass layoffs of teachers and staff—even as a new union contract has increased costs for the school system.

Harvard public health professor hopes to bring science to the Holtec debate
Plymouth Independent
“Concerns about evaporated wastewater” from the retired Pilgrim nuclear power plant are leading a Harvard professor “to study cancer rates and household radioactive levels in the area.” Good.

The maple syrup sap buckets are up in Wellesley
Swellesley Report
Maple syrup production in Wellesley?! Who knew?

Wu officials join push to ban ‘predatory’ electrical providers
Dorchester Reporter
City solons working on cracking down on those door-to-door grifters everyone loves to hate.

Local-government pioneer turned 90 on Tuesday
Some background on the first woman to be elected to major public office in Arlington.

A building lesson from Barcelona to New Bedford 
New Bedford Light
Could New Bedford reinvent itself as the Barcelona of New England by developing multi-class, dense social housing along boulevards in its downtown. The author of this essay gives examples of both affordable and market-rate developments on the drawing board that could make that dream at least a partial reality.

Housing groups to collaborate on MCI-Concord land’s future
Concord Bridge
Local advocacy organizations are deciding how to approach the Commonwealth’s potentially selling $45 million of land to the Town of Concord for $1. 

Somerville Foundation, fresh from name change, expands mission without leaving youth behind
Cambridge Day
Following up on my last IndyMass commentary, I mentioned that the ongoing expansion of the Somerville Education Foundation into a full-blown municipal fund that will include a media and journalism “domain of action” was one reason why I felt comfortable both shutting down the Somerville Wire municipal news service and pulling back the stick on my own local foundation, the Somerville Media Fund—since the large citywide foundation that’s in the works will doubtless able to raise more money to help produce journalism down the line than my smaller fund ever could. Full disclosure, yes, I did have a hand in the new foundation getting covered in this Cambridge Day article.

IndyMass is produced for HorizonMass, the independent, student-driven, news outlet of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, by Jason Pramas and is syndicated by BINJ’s MassWire news service. Copyright 2024 Jason Pramas.

Jason Pramas is executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and editor-in-chief of HorizonMass.

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