Project 18

1. Investigative Cultural Reporting Project 1: Through reporting, we will expand the range of “positives” that reporters can cite when writing, producing, or pitching an art story.

Another writer and I wanted to collaborate on a project. But we didn’t have time to write a proposal together so we decided to write complementary pitches. (Actually, she told me about her idea, and then I came up with this one which kind of leapfrogs off of it, but we both see our individual ideas as different sides of the same coin.) Her project involves changing editors’ attitudes toward art stories so they are treated more like serious news and less like filler and entertainment. I’d like to see if we can generate some hard information to back this up, about the broader effect the arts can have on a community–or just on society at large.

The “positives” I see reported over and over are primarily economic: the arts create jobs; the arts generate tourist dollars; the arts can revivify neglected urban areas and real estate. There’s also the less readily quantifiable rationale: the arts are just so uplifting! All worthy, but limited.

Therefore, I’m proposing that we expand this list through a few days of diligent reporting and brainstorming, and then create a database of sources and concepts that others–especially general-assignment reporters–can turn to for ideas. Ideally the database would be crowdsourced, so that members of the public could suggest concepts, data, projects, etc., that we don’t know about. Even if we don’t achieve a fully functional database in two weeks (ha!), at least it would be a start. And a report on our findings–or even just a press release about the project–might generate some news stories itself. Maybe we could also get help from the people at the Norman Lear Center (one of my favorite visits on the 2007 program), who seem to know how to turn raw data into action.

For instance, here are some ideas I’ve gleaned from stories I’ve reported recently:

• The Knight Foundation has hard data suggesting that the arts tie people more strongly to their communities, which in turn makes them feel more empowered as citizens. That’s why they started their arts program in 2010.

• The military routinely promotes the arts by supporting bands and fine artists. After reporting this subject into the ground, I still haven’t figured out exactly why they value the arts so much (or at least enough to devote a tiny corner of the budget to them), but I think it has something to do with morale boosting, and expressing personal experience in a way that goes beyond the official record. It’s also a great way to honor the dead!

• The arts can prompt changes in society. Witness “Waste Land,” a documentary about the artist Vik Muniz and the photographs he created with a group of garbage pickers in Sao Paulo. Vik’s project brought attention to the plight–and the skill level–of the garbage pickers more effectively than the countless journalists who had reported stories at the same dump, and the film took his efforts global.

From stories I have not reported but followed:

• More on politics: the arts often speak so powerfully about political and social issues that, in some countries, artworks are outlawed and artists are routinely clapped in prison, like Ai Weiwei in China and Jafir Panahi in Iran. That’s why the Nazis banned Chopin’s music in Poland, why the leading proponents of Tropicalia in Brazil were imprisoned and exiled during the 1964-1985 dictatorship, and why American cartoonists need a legal defense fund.

• Britain’s art school system has long been touted as the reason the country has had two massive creative explosions, one in the Swinging Sixties and the other in the Cool Britannia Nineties. Not every graduate goes on to be a fine artist, but by offering an educational stream that focuses on art-making, as an alternative to universities and polytechnics, the British have produced an economic goldmine of fashion designers, graphic and multimedia designers, musicians, architects, and the like. (Back to economics, but with a slightly different twist.)

2. Investigative Cultural Reporting Project 2: Why are small creative organizations becoming a growth industry in the U.S.?

This idea started percolating in my mind last month while talking to Joel Wachs, the head of the Andy Warhol Foundation. I was interviewing him for a story about Lyn Kienholz, the founder of the California/ International Arts Foundation, whose desire to preserve the living art history of Los Angeles led her to create the first in a series of archival research projects that are about to result in Pacific Standard Time. Joel says his foundation has seen a huge explosion in the last five years in the number of people starting tiny arts organizations like Lyn’s, all across the country in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. Why, at a time when our economy is patently in the toilet, are people so fired up by the arts that they’re moved to do this? Maybe we (or I) could start making inroads towards an answer by interviewing the people behind some small LA nonprofits, like LACE, LAXART, Self Help Graphics and the Watts House Project.

3. No particular category: An ethics workshop for arts journalists (especially the freelance kind, like me, who must obey many different masters and come up with their own guidelines in order to maintain the Brand).

I would love to have a giant and totally confidential confab with my fellow journalists about ethical standards in our profession. Where do we draw the line on fraternizing with the people we cover? And especially if we are freelancers, how do we obey the rules of one publication if they conflict with those of another? (The NYT forbids press trips, for instance, but most arts publications wouldn’t exist without them.)

I’ve actually been itching to do this since my fellowship (2007), when the fraternization issue came up during our “Race and Class” seminar. The person in charge asked me if I would ever attend the birthday party of someone I might potentially cover, and I answered yes–the wrong answer. But later, some of us concluded that the rules political and news reporters live by don’t necessarily make as much sense for arts reporters. (In fact one of my most esteemed editors, the late Bruce Wolmer–who kept Art + Auction’s staff and integrity intact under four different loony owners–used to say that an art story was no good unless it has three conflicts of interest in it, because otherwise the reporter didn’t know what s/he was talking about.)

In my opinion, what sets us apart from general-interest reporters who dip their toes in our field is the sophisticated inside knowledge we bring to our subjects. And many of us are motivated by the inspiration of critics like Félix Fénéon, Carl van Vechten, and Clive Bell, who actually hung out with the people they wrote about. Yet at the same time, the arts (or at least visual art, my focus) are about big money now in a way they never were in the past. So what sorts of rules do we establish for ourselves? I’d venture that my fellow arts journalism fellows know as much about these ethical issues as any other reporter on the planet, and I’d love to have the chance to discuss some of them in depth.

And speaking of the Brand, how do we establish it and maintain it? That’s becoming an increasingly important issue, now that doors are revolving to the point of whiplash and freelancing has increasingly becoming the rule. In my view, the answer has a lot to do with integrity–something that subjects and readers alike can expect from a reporter. How do we maintain it across different publications with different standards and editors?

4. Also no particular subject: How does a mere freelancer (or staff reporter) break down the barriers between the print side and multimedia? Even though the world considers me a print reporter, for instance, I have actually had plenty of multimedia experience. I wrote one website’s first slide show [which no longer seems to be on the site–oy!], and I have also spent years generating ideas for and working on multimedia projects at other outlets. But it’s something I have never been paid for and it’s something that only happens because I push for it. I bet I am not the only one who feels that way. How do we cross that barrier, and make it more permeable within the newsroom?