The Waning Impact of Dance Critics by Robert Bettmann

The impact of today’s critics is waning. Not only are there fewer critics able to make a living as critics, but those able to stay in the field are wrestling with diversifying job duties (blog posting, social media, videos, etc) and declining impact.

For more than a century, the skilled eyes and pens of arts journalists developed audiences for dance. Dance critics have proven value to the public, and the field.  So what happened? One can find an answer by looking historically at the question: who is reading what dance writing by whom?

I’m currently directing a National Endowment for the Arts-funded arts journalism project. The goal of the project is to increase high-quality arts journalism covering the greater Washington area. The project is necessary because online publication has (paradoxically) reduced the ability of professional arts journalists to connect audiences to the arts.

Twenty-five years ago arts content — as it’s now called — was available on a daily basis via newspapers and broadcast television produced at the local and national levels.

Arts content today includes a massively broader set of news and television options at the local and national levels. The transformation started with the creation of cable news stations, further developed with the rise of professional and personal online news sites (the blog explosion), and continues with the growth of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and on).

Arts content now includes content created from within the arts community, content created to drive traffic for unrelated businesses (content strategy), clickbait (content created to produce ad revenue for the publishers irregardless of subject matter), as well as content from print newspapers and broadcast television (legacy media.)

Arts content reaching the public used to be largely created by professional arts writers with no direct incentive to sell. That independence fueled the growth of dance in the 20th century as a force for freedom and expression around the globe.

It’s easy to see that compared to twenty-five years ago more arts content today is generated with a near-term sales imperative (tickets or clicks.) George Orwell once wrote that journalism is what they don’t want you to write. Much of what passes for new arts journalism perhaps doesn’t actually qualify as journalism – but who has the time to worry about that?

Since the early 1990’s, managers in Classical art fields (including dance) have been concerned about aging and declining audiences. The assumption has been that audience declines are connected to reductions in arts education. However, changes in the media landscape are equally affecting the ability of arts writers to educate and grow audiences.

Current discussions about audience engagement tend to focus on narrowing the gap between audiences and creators. That devalues the training and expertise of professional artists, and limits their functionality to inspire, and have a positive impact. We don’t need to dumb down arts projects. We need to smarten up audiences.

The project I’m directing through support from the National Endowment for the Arts, HumanitiesDC, the University of Maryland, Brink Media, DCRE, and others is just one small project. To address the waning impact of dance critics funders need to recognize the value of the independent art press and integrate that understanding into their strategic visions. The dance industry requires investments in arts journalism to professionally and independently evaluate and describe arts experiences. As Ben Cameron stated at the 2011 Wallace Foundation conference on Audience Development, “[This is about] sustaining what art offers the individual spirit and offers human interaction.”

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