Arts critic vanishes!

Photo by Elijah O'Donnel on Unsplash
In the age of ubiquitous reviews, what the hell’s happened to the arts critic? Vanessa Zigliani demands an answer.

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From holiday homes to mobile phones, there’s a review for everything these days. Wait. Everything? Like, got a job offer? Give us a review, preferably from the job’s previous occupant. Seriously: you can never know too much. Got a date? Get a review. Having a kid? Just give me the star rating.

Spending time with the GFs last weekend over a few glasses of Hawkes Bay’s finest, conversation turned to the latest Netflix series and other box-watching recommends.  “Who caught the first outings of the new series by our Princess of Deadpan Paranormal” I threw out?

“Hmm ”mused GF#1, “kinda weird.”  GF#2 was more pragmatic. “Gave it 10 mins” she proclaimed. “Decided to wait for someone else to make a recommendation. Whatever.”

Our industry knows more about our audiences’ likes and dislikes, buying behaviour and motivations than ever before. But we’re still martyrs to the Opening Night Review. 

It’s not rocket science, it’s been said a gazillion times, and we prove it, repeatedly, every time we run another funding-application-box-ticking market survey: “word of mouth” is still the most powerful marketing tool we have for motivating audiences to shell out for a ticket. Word of mouth; review; same thing.

For what are reviews but personal recommendations, (or not!) by a spectrum of people willing to go beyond my good friend’s 10 minutes – and describe their experiences for the benefit of those who are more risk averse in sampling life’s leisure activities?

Having been part of NZ’s performing arts world for several decades (sheesh no!) I’ve found that our industry knows more about our audiences’ likes and dislikes, buying behaviour and motivations than ever before. But we’re still martyrs to the Opening Night Review.  Because we know it’s got the power to fill our venue with glorious masses of breathing, ticket-buying bodies; or it’s crickets and tumbleweed in the aisles (unless your art is actually bad, and no review in Hades is going to twink out a quality fail).

So again, no rocket science here, published reviews by intelligent, experienced and articulate people are valuable to everyone – makers and consumers.  So why does it feel like the opportunities to read informed reviews on our arts scene are becoming harder to find?

I think it’s a given that review space in our mainstream print media is reducing, bar one or two evolved publications.  I know for a fact that word counts are being slashed from our most respected reviewers. You would hope that digital versions reproduce the full versions, but I suspect this isn’t always the case. Remuneration for professional reviewing is dwindling to non-existent.

Go to a show, a gig, a thing, whatever. Talk about it. 

So, as space in general media becomes more and more constricted, our reviewers flee to a variety of websites and pages.  My fear is that although those of us inside the industry make it our business to find these pearls in the great world of the web, that our general audiences can’t keep  track of where to find decent commentary on our arts.

Rather than rail against the mighty and manipulative power of our media conglomerates, let’s look at ways to nurture what exists and make these pearls easier to find.

Like the UK publication The Week – both print and online versions.  Like the NZ Listener in size and format, it brings together editorial, commentary and reviews from major UK and international newspapers on world and national issues, combining quotes in bite-sized paragraphs then providing its own commentary on ‘what next’.

Its Review section is great – combining headlines and snippets from a range of reviewers, acknowledging their source publications if you wanted to seek them out and read the reviews in full.

You may as well put that socially mediated life of yours to good use.

No added work required – just a useful, objective, single platform covering a pretty wide range of arts and cultural “What’s On", with an efficient collection of reviews and recommendations from reputable sources.

Why is there nothing like this in New Zealand? There’s no doubt that New Zealand both the practitioners and the audience of the New Zealand arts would benefit hugely.

Until such a time, it’s down to me, you, and GFs one and two. Without a decent review culture in our media, we simply have to do it ourselves. Go to a show, a gig, a thing, whatever. Talk about it. You may as well put that socially mediated life of yours to good use. Think of it as a kind of patronage that costs you nothing.

 

Evan Woodruffe. Image courtesy of Art New Zealand
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