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Old Bait and Switch

By Steve Ramos · September 15th, 2004 · Arts Beat
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I first learned the phrase "bait and switch" in my late teens, selling televisions at a Chicago department store. Customers would come into the department asking for a favorite brand of TV -- let's say Sony -- and we'd promptly redirect them to another brand that paid us more commission.

For years local artists, arts administrators and arts patrons have been begging Sara Pearce, The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tempo editor, for a separate Arts & Entertainment section in the Sunday edition, something found in newspapers in most major cities. They've taken part in numerous Enquirer focus groups and strategic planning meetings.

When longtime visual art critic Owen Findsen retired in late 2000 and his position remained unfilled, Carnegie Gallery Director Bill Seitz led area arts supporters in a massive letter campaign demanding that The Enquirer hire a new art critic and provide better overall arts coverage, something worthy of a growing arts community and its high-profile institutions. Their efforts paid off when Marilyn Bauer was hired a year later.

Last fall, in response to (unfounded) rumors of theater critic Jackie Demaline's demise, Pearce assured the local theater community that the newspaper was, in fact, boosting its arts coverage through an expanded "Weekend" section, a stand-alone Sunday Arts & Entertainment section and the most comprehensive events calendar in the region. A year later, only the "Weekend" redesign has come to fruition.

That is until later this month, when The Enquirer's newly designed A&E section is finally scheduled to debut. Arts lovers likely will be thrilled, until they take a closer look -- The Enquirer seems to be pulling a "bait and switch."

Here's the type of visual art coverage readers will find in the new Sunday section: "In Their Own Words," a column where artists explain their work; "Spaces," a snapshot of an artist's workspace; and "Don't Miss," a pick of a highly recommended show or exhibition.

Here's what's missing: The role of full-time visual art critic has been eliminated, and Bauer has been reassigned as a style reporter covering fashion, grooming, cosmetics, shopping and entertaining. Demaline will cover visual art and dance in addition to her core beat, theater. Classical music critic Janelle Gelfand will cover umbrella arts issues in addition to her mainstay beat. And popular man-about-town columnist Jim Knippenberg will also write about visual art plus local festivals and special events.

Eliminating a beat results from what Pearce calls long-term strategic planning and the needs of a re-focused arts features section. But anyone who picks up the Arts & Entertainment section, including the staffers who write it, know that axing the visual art critic simultaneously with the introduction of a new arts section is oxymoronic.

Internal staff memos from Pearce -- passed on to CityBeat from an anonymous source -- emphasize short-layered stories that offer "how to" advice and info, "charticles" and stories told as graphics. They also lay out the new assignments for Tempo writers.

Every word will count in the new section, which means you won't find a thoughtful and expansive review of the Contemporary Arts Center's (CAC) Crimes and Misdemeanors show. For that, you'll have to read the Sept. 5 New York Times. You also won't find extended analysis of how the city's growing visual art scene has impacted communities such as Brighton and Northside, like you will in the October issue of Travel + Leisure magazine.

The CAC and other art outlets might be in our backyard, but The Enquirer steps aside for other publications to provide critical thinking. And that has some leaders at local arts institutions frustrated.

Many of those leaders have been invited to an "unveiling" of the Sunday A&E section Sept. 23, and some have begun strategizing among themselves about how to pressure The Enquirer into improving its arts coverage.

In Pearce's words, traditional narrative is reserved only for the most important and compelling stories. Clearly, an arts section that's consumer-oriented, reader-friendly and graphics-based leaves little space for critical writing, advocacy, commentary -- or a full-time art critic.

High-profile exhibitions are planned around the major expansion at the Taft Museum of Art. The CAC continues to receive national exposure. The Art Academy of Cincinnati is preparing to move to Over-the-Rhine. The Cincinnati Art Museum opens its long-planned Jordanian artifact exhibition, Petra: Lost City of Stone. Fringe spaces like Publico and The Mockbee continue to grow in popularity, quality and influence.

Cincinnati is experiencing an arts renaissance, but in her memos Pearce refers to visual art as a "collapsed" beat.

Someone always leaves disappointed when the bait and switch takes effect. With The Enquirer's new Sunday Arts & Entertainment section, it's those of us who support Cincinnati arts.

 
 
 
 

 

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