My arts journalism manifesto

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-1-26-58-pmEarlier this month, a fellowship application required me to write an essay about the “intellectual and social values that shape (my) work as a journalist,” and what resulted was a kind of personal manifesto for arts journalism. This actually turned out to be a great exercise, forcing me to articulate the value of what I do while drowning out all the voices that tell me daily that it no longer has worth.

Recently, for the first time in years, I stumbled upon the first creative work I ever published, and I was struck by how the poem laid bare the seed of my life’s work:

Kelly Girls

Musicals are like TV weddings in our house.
No one speaks. Per Mom.
She raised me right, made me a Gene
Kelly girl. None of Astaire’s austere, floating-tails
partner dancing for us. No sir.

We watch Gene’s exaggerated Irish smile for hours.
He makes garbage can lids tap shoes
and stomps puddles into foot-fountains
and teaches French children English
for a Gershwin song.

And whenever Gene stops talking and starts dancing,
Mom removes the wood oval quilt frame from her lap
(covering up her canes on the carpet)
and leans forward in the recliner.

Her intent face opens
and I hear her breathe in as though she’s been
underwater
for days.

On some level, even as a young child, I understood the visceral power of the arts.

For my mother spent a small chunk of her early teens living in an iron lung, after contracting polio, and doctors told her she probably wouldn’t walk again. She defied this prognosis, but from that time forward, she couldn’t jump, run, or dance.

What she could do, however, was briefly experience the sensation of dancing by proxy, thanks to movie musical stars like Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Donald O’Connor and more. So despite the atrophied muscles in her legs, my mother hacked an escape hatch for herself.

It buoyed her. It helped her live with her physical limitations and her pain. And I took note.

This past year, I heard a similar sentiment from female prisoners, when I waded through (no small amount of) red tape to attend two rehearsals, as well as a performance, of a Shakespeare in Prison program at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

Before I wrote my story (for The Detroit Free Press), the prison – the only one in Michigan to house female inmates – had been in the news because of overcrowding and staff shortages; so even within the larger context of prison culture, WHVCF felt like a tough place to serve time. Yet that made the Shakespeare participants all the more appreciative of the program. Many of them, in fact, cried while telling me what it meant to them.

“These are the five hours each week when I feel like I’m not in prison,” an inmate named Jessica told me. “It’s like I’m in a different place.”

The link isn’t immediately obvious. Why would these floridly-told tales, told by a long-dead white guy – whose work these women had found to be off-putting and irrelevant in school, they told me – now lend inmates a sense of dignity and self-worth?

Because the women had to meet the text halfway. It demanded their creative input and engaged their (too often dismissed) intellect. Shakespeare’s words were just ink on paper until the women began speaking the lines to each other; and when they did give them voice, they had to talk with each other about what it was they were saying, and what was happening in the scene. They started making personal connections to the material, and sharing more of themselves with the group.

And this made them feel human again. They’d become artists in their own right – artists who were thrilled to have me telling their story to the “outside.”

“This place gives me hope that when I leave, I won’t come back,” a woman named Shaila told me, referring to the SIP program.

Though it took months for me to actually do this story – thanks to paperwork, processing, getting clearance for specific dates, getting a photographer assigned, and getting his paperwork filled out and submitted as well – it was one of the most rewarding of my career, in part because it reinforced my core belief that the arts have the capacity to save us.

Yet I couldn’t invest the time needed to tell this story until I was laid off (January 2016) from my longtime job as a staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News/MLive.

For nearly 12 years, I worked hard to be a conduit between local and visiting artists and the larger community, writing previews, reviews, features, columns, and more. This gave artists a better shot at thriving in our arts-centric town, and it gave locals, who wanted to know what was happening around town, information they needed to check out shows or exhibits.

I tried to keep readers informed about what was happening with Ann Arbor’s cultural behemoths – University Musical Society, The Ark, The Michigan Theater, etc. – but my work was perhaps even more important to fledgling artists trying to gain a foothold: an indie musician who launched an open mic night for local songwriters; a new company, Theatre Nova, that began exclusively producing new plays at Ann Arbor’s multi-use Yellow Barn; a U-M art professor who made an original, feature-length movie musical around town; and a middle-aged psychologist who started painting seriously in his spare time, and soon found his work hanging in downtown restaurants.

These were the stories that often excited and inspired me most, and made me feel like my work played a crucial role in the community. But in my final years on the job, I struggled, as the last remaining member of what was once a four-person entertainment team, to fulfill my original mission while also meeting daily story goals, traffic growth targets, and management expectations regarding the kind of stories I wrote.

So although my sudden layoff – one of 29 (including other arts reporters) at that time across MLive’s hubs – gave me the freedom to do stories I couldn’t before, this hardly made up for the arts coverage hole left behind. Since my involuntary departure, wire service or statewide (which is to say, non-local) entertainment stories and food features fill the bulk of the pages where my stories used to appear.

I’d argue that Ann Arbor and its environs are the poorer for this. Not because I, as a reporter, was all that important, but because the work I did absolutely was. Though local culture is one of Ann Arbor’s calling cards, and one reason why so many who come to town wish to stay, it’s in-crisis because of skyrocketing rents and little-to-no available space. Add “no mainstream local arts coverage” to those problems, and you’re looking at not only a future without arts journalism, but without the arts, period – not just here, but all across the country.

And that’s more than just “a shame.” Though we tend to dismiss the arts as a luxury that, when times are tough, we simply can’t afford, I’d argue that in this era of polarized disconnection, the arts offer our best shot at finding our way back to each other; locating common ground; and launching the hard conversations we must have to move forward.

I’ve noticed, for instance, that both times that I’ve launched a book discussion group made up of strangers, by the first meeting’s end, everyone feels comfortable with, and surprisingly close to, everyone else. Why? Because we could all share our thoughts and experiences – which is to say, who we really are – through the lens of the book we’d read, rather than barreling through small talk at a party and gradually working through stages of trust. The arts can thus provide a fast track to the “good stuff,” so that in the span of one evening, we can feel like we know the minds of others, just as they know ours. That’s not only satisfying; it’s community-building.

And at a time when our daily social media feeds are packed-to-bursting with conflict, that’s invaluable.

This is one reason why, since my layoff, I’ve pitched and written dozens of stories about the local arts scene as a freelancer; volunteered time to do WEMU-FM’s Art & Soul performing arts segment each month (alongside All Things Considered host Lisa Barry); contributed lists of monthly cultural event highlights to The Ann and the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website; and launched my A2ArtsAddict blog, a gathering place my projects, drawn from various publications.

The tagline for my blog is, “The first step is admitting I have a problem,” and though it’s a joke, it’s also true. I can’t seem to stop trying to connect artists/arts organizations with the local community, despite the fact that, as of now, there’s no future in it. There’s no longer a place for arts reporters in traditional newsrooms. We are dinosaurs, regularly encouraged to apply our skills toward a new career.

Yet I keep pitching and writing arts stories like a compulsion, sharing them on social media with the hashtag “#artswarrior,” because that’s what I feel I am: someone constantly fighting to keep our local cultural identity intact by telling the stories of our artists and their work. If I have anything to say about it, the flavor they add to our lives will be around for as long as I am.

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