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Visual Arts Reporting in Wisconsin Media, and You

by Gary John Gresl

To begin with, let me state the agenda of this author. It is my assumption through observation, correct or incorrect, that regional newspapers, magazines, television and radio (including pubic radio) place little to no emphasis on the visual arts. There is obviously much more space given to the performing arts, books/authors, as seen in weekly columns and media interviews. And we need not mention the coverage of sports…an entertainment Goliath. The visual arts lag way behind to the point where they are often invisible. This is not new though the conditions may have deteriorated over the first years of the 21st Century.

There from arises my simple agenda. We need to encourage everyone, including you the reader, to emphasize to all persons you know that the visual arts of our state need and deserve to be covered more…and in greater depth. Of course, this means especially those involved in publication. Yes! Easier said than done.

It is not my wish in this article to point out any particular media operations or personalities for criticism, for lack of interest, foresight, understanding, empathy and sympathy. I’ll not name names here, though that is tempting to do. Instead, let me speak in broader terms about the general reporting media, which seem to have common reasons for reporting or failing to report.

Even if arts writers exist and desire to write about the visual arts, demands mean that print space and TV/radio time are limited. These arts writers need to show their superiors, those who limit what they can do, that there is an eager broad audience for this subject.

Let me raise these questions for your consideration and discussion:

  1. What is the image that reporters/the media have of visual art and artists? How do we improve this?
  2. What is the education and cultural interests of those making decisions in media outlets? Are they sensitized to the real importance of visual art in our communities?
  3. Do they see themselves as partners in raising awareness of our regional cultural characteristics and wealth? Is there a chance that they see themselves as having an educational function beyond concerns for the bottom line?
  4. Is it only their job to report on the exciting, the new, the weird and bizarre, and the “expert from out of town”? OR…is it also their responsibility to speak about the enduring, the successful artists or groups that have maintained presence for decades? What about the artist who has been faithful to his/her art and mission, but who has not caught the national eye? What about the person who knows art intimately well, in all its phases, but who stays put in one geographic region for several reasons? Is it not newsworthy to speak to issues like longevity, stability, and the dedicated core of an art community?
  5. Does a degree of altruism exist in the various news mediums, or is everything determined by profit and loss statements? Is there actually an unspoken “tit for tat” whereby publishers will report about those that advertise within their medium, and overlook worthy but nonadvertising entities?
  6. Is there an underlying, perhaps unconscious, prejudice concerning the quality and importance of Wisconsin artists? Is there an elitism and snobbishness working against local arts?
  7. Dare local media “champion” the local arts without stepping on someone else’s toes? Will there always be some persons or groups that feel left out? Overlooked? Snubbed? Jealous…? Should that fear limit or stop the reporting?
  8. Does a thriving and exposed visual art culture improve the image of a community? Does an exhibiting and healthy arts environment benefit the community at large? When it comes to politicians and the economy, do the visual arts benefit the public in terms of the economy?

Those are some topics that have emerged and been discussed within the artist communities around us. There are certainly more, some over-talked, some obvious, some subtle.

YOU, THE ARTIST, THE CONSUMER, THE BUSINESS PERSON, THE READER AND WATCHER, THE TEACHER AND PARENT

Emphasizing the need and benefits of reporting on the visual arts to the “right people” can assist in raising the awareness of the visual arts. Do you doubt this? Consider this recommendation from Aristotle Onassis, someone who is still known by reputation to many people. If you don’t know, he was the multimillionaire Greek shipping magnate who married Jackie Kennedy. One of his statements of advice was “Cultivate the friendship of the rich and influential.”

Who are the influential in the various media? Those would be the decision makers and those that influence them such as consumers, advertisers, politicians and the wealthy of a community. Decisions may not be made by the visible reporters who sometimes have to bow to the wishes of their superiors.

These people need to be convinced of, and educated about, the wealth and role of painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, traditional crafts…and the healthy expression in visual mediums for all of us…especially for the children who are naturally inclined to the arts, who are not destined to be athletes or rock stars.

There are many stakeholders tied to some aspect of the visual arts. We have the obvious and visible galleries, artists, art departments of schools and colleges, museums and art fairs. There are all the businesses operating which are dependant upon the arts culture and an economy that benefits from arts activities. Stakeholders include those involved with framing and print shops to companies manufacturing and selling art supplies. Citizens, businesses and politicians all gain by having a healthy arts culture to engage the public and to attract tourists and new settlers to a community.

And importantly, there are the children who mature with or without a curriculum that offers meaningful art classes. The kids gain not only enrichment and better understanding of art making processes, but find visual languages to help express and expand on ideas and which can help them thru life. Many of these kids can become engaged in art as an athlete becomes engaged in a sport. Art and art making becomes an integral part of their personas and futures in numerous beneficial ways, providing outlets for expression and pride of accomplishment. They become the arts supporters and consumers.

ARE YOU WITHOUT POWER?

What can you do if you believe that there should be more reporting about the visual arts in our communities? The simplest most direct way is to contact the editors and decision makers at publications and other media. Have your friends and members of arts organizations “politely” make contacts with those that influence the selection of topics in the media. And this should not merely be a one time attempt, rather it should be an ongoing discussion spread across months and years.

Don’t forget the power of the pocketbook. How about speaking to those art related businesses that buy advertising space and time suggesting that they should speak to media representatives about the need to expand visual arts coverage. Do you have any associations or contacts with the “rich and influential”, and/or are you among that class?

Be polite! Be proactive! Suggest stories…and not only those that are personal and self serving, but those that involve the larger community of artists. The visual arts is an area in which it is truly possible that “A rising tide lifts all ships”. Every newspaper should have a weekly column that compiles art related activities for the public to read. Too often the performing and entertainment opportunities are mentioned in such listings, but visual arts activities are overlooked.

Somehow combining forces and activities with other arts can help gain attention. Are there ways to join with performing artists and their groups to help each other? Are there lines of communication that we can open between various art organizations that can help gain visibility for the visual arts? The visual arts should not be “tribal” and jealous, when a unified front can better suggest strength and importance.

It is likely that there are at least some art interested persons on the staff of all media operations, and these persons must be supported in their attempts to speak about the visual arts. If there are no such champions there then someone else needs to be sensitized to the quality and breadth of our current and even historic visual arts.

The history of art in our state is an angle that can help attract persons to contemporary visual arts, instill some pride about our arts culture, and generally help raise awareness in the public mind. Recently an organization formed that offers access to some of the more important artists from our state. Visit the website of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards at wvalaa.com, and direct teachers and young artists to it as well.

Stakeholders in the visual arts must be proactive, and must convince the decision makers of the importance of visual art expression in our lives. That is not done by artists hiding in their studios waiting for someone else to do the work, to write a letter or email, to speak to the point whenever possible. It is accomplished by many acting toward the same goals and making those known to many others.

WE ARE THE PEOPLE WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR. If not you and me…then who?

Here is a pertinent quote from an old book, “How to Make a Living as a Painter”, by Kenneth Harris, speaking about the newspaper editor and/or reporter:

“Whenever the readers of his paper become as interested in reading art news as they are in accidents, or sports, you will find that every paper will have a two or three page art section, every day…What goes into a newspaper is dictated by public interest, reduced to the lowest common denominator; not by reporters.”

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