Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Gallery Show Review is an Endangered Species

For those of you who read from far off locales or in different languages, please accept my apologies for a moment of myopic, New York-centric, English language-only commentary. This afternoon’s post touches on a topic of local interest, and perhaps larger and longer term international consequence: the slow demise of the standard gallery show review (photography shows in specific in this case) in nearly all forms of our media.

As background, let’s step back and take a quick high level survey of how the major NY media outlets take on gallery shows of photography:

New York Times: The big dog in this fight given its large circulation has four distinguished reporters who cover the arts, and who enter the fray of photography from time to time: Roberta Smith, Holland Cotter, Karen Rosenberg and Ken Johnson. These four split up the tasks of writing the feature articles, summaries and blurbs for museum and gallery shows of all kinds, in addition to wider gauged, more theoretical pieces about all facets of the arts. The reality is that photography is just one of many disciplines to be covered by this team, and as result, they tend to cherry pick the best (and often largest) shows to cover. In an average month, this might mean a handful of different shows get coverage, so the Times is a great resource for those who want the top level summary, especially since most of their writing is in long form articles, with deep background and thorough analysis. In general, their collective work is superlative, but by definition, they miss (or fail to report on) a lot of what’s going on.

New Yorker: I’ve come to believe that Vince Aletti is the hardest working photography writer in the city. Every week, he publishes at least a couple if not 4 or 5 fresh reviews of gallery and museum shows focused on photography (the New Yorker tends not to rerun the same blurbs week after week, which most of the other outlets regularly do). In general, these are well written, concise blurbs of 3 or 4 sentences; once a month perhaps, he writes a longer sidebar piece that might be 3 or 4 paragraphs and has more opportunity for a fuller discourse. Given my offhand and nonscientific perusal of gallery guest books, he’s often already seen the show we’re viewing, so he’s clearly also doing a good job of staying on top of what’s current and getting to shows soon after they open. But even Vince can’t be everywhere, so many, many shows go without his stamp of approval. (By the way, once in a while, Aletti will thoroughly dismantle a bad show or weak artist in one of his short blurbs, something that very few others will do (including ourselves) and that I regard with high esteem.)

New York magazine: While Jerry Saltz is a terrific art critic, like the team at the NYTimes, he is covering the whole waterfront of the arts, and not surprisingly photography tends to get short shrift. Most of the time, gallery reviews are limited to one or two sentences, stuffed in the listings in the back, with plus or minus half a dozen of these tiny reviews in any one issue, often repeated week to week. A few times a year at most, a larger, fully fleshed out photography article is written, almost certainly about a museum blockbuster or top tier gallery standout.

Village Voice, Bloomberg, TimeOut, Wall Street Journal and others: These outlets tend to treat photography as a feature story (often written by a freelancer rather than a staff writer it seems), covering the activities of the community from time to time as the situation warrants (big museum show etc.). While they are commenting on the world of photography periodically (which is good), it is not particularly consistent coverage, and certainly doesn’t provide a comprehensive view of what’s going on.

That’s really it, as far as I can tell, for the New York centric media. As a foil, let’s take a quick review of the arts centric media (which runs in parallel) and their efforts to report on gallery shows of photography:

Broad art magazines (Artforum, Art in America etc.): Both Artforum and Art in America do an excellent job of writing solid reviews of gallery shows, often in much more erudite language than the local New York media. The problem is of course that they are covering all of the contemporary art world, in every region and locale, and photography is just a slice of that pie. As such, while there might be half a dozen longer articles and 50 or more three paragraph gallery reviews in any given magazine, there are only likely a few focused on photography and perhaps only one or two in New York (in the case of the longer articles, the norm is none). The writing and scholarship in both magazines is always strong, but their coverage of the world of photography (both vintage and contemporary) paints an uneven picture of the local reality.

Fine art photography magazines (Aperture, Blind Spot, B&W, etc.): In general, it seems that printed photography magazines have moved away from the standard gallery show review, likely because as monthlies, the information lead time creates reviews that are a bit stale. Aperture does do a review or two in each quarterly magazine, but nearly all of these are museum shows that have longer runs. Blind Spot does no reviews at all, since it’s focused on new fresh work. B&W does a few each month, nearly always museums. So while there’s a lot to be gained by reading these and other magazines in a broad sense, their reporting on what’s happening in the galleries is thin at best.

Unless I’m missing something important, that’s basically it in terms of reviews of gallery shows of photography in New York, as seen through the world of printed media. In total, if you read them all (which we do), you’ll get a summary decent picture of the world of photography, but you’ll sure miss a lot of the exciting details that are hiding just underneath the surface.

All of this is background to a larger question that has been irritating me for quite some time. Imagine you are a gallery owner, with an exciting new show of photography now on view. You’ve listed your show in all kinds of arts listing services and sent your announcement card/email to your database list, so the word is most definitely out about the exhibit. If you hit the jackpot, the NY Times will review your show, and perhaps you’ll get an Artforum pick to go with it (the dream double). More likely, you’re banking on a solid blurb from Vince Aletti (which you will dutifully copy and send out to your client list and post on your website), and hoping for some smattering of other press from the other New York outlets.

But let’s say for a moment that Vince doesn’t come by for whatever reason (or God forbid, he slices and dices your show) and the rest of the fair weather features press doesn’t show up either. Then what? The unfortunate reality is this exact situation that occurs for better than half of the photography shows that occur in New York. The big nothing.

Enter the well meaning collectors from DLK COLLECTION, writing on gallery shows for fun. In the best sense of the word, we are amateurs: we are passionate, non-professionals. We don’t copy edit or fact check our posts, we don’t let them sit for a few days so we can wordsmith them to sublime perfection: in fact, we write nearly every post in one continuous draft, without much in the way of background work. And while we strive to be current, write concisely, and apply some level of critical thinking to each and every review, we do not confuse ourselves with real art critics who do this job for a living.

So far this year, we have reviewed 96 photography shows on this site (Vince Aletti certainly has us beat, but I doubt there are any others who have covered as much photography as we have). And here’s the scary thing: in many cases, our amateur review is the only review the gallery show in question received. Even scarier: do a Google search for some of the photographers mentioned, and our review comes up on the first page, again as the only critical commentary on the work. What the hell is going on here?

Now imagine you are the gallery owner we profiled before, and your only reviews are from DLK COLLECTION and others in the blogosphere (Conscientious and Fugitive Vision among others are doing focused photography gallery reviews from time to time as well). Do you disregard these reviews as noise? Do you embrace them as actual “press” and use their output as you would a review from the New Yorker? Do you abandon the old ways and go for a social networking PR strategy instead (Facebook it), especially if you are cultivating a younger collector base?

This post is not the place for answers to these mind boggling questions; I’m still scratching my head from the emails I get that are addressed to “editor”. But the erosion of print media, and in particular, the waning coverage of everyday run of the mill gallery shows, is going to continue to cause gallery owners to rethink how they build word of mouth for their artists, how they find new accepted sources of reference-able credibility to ease the concerns of uncertain collectors, and how they more broadly generate some buzz.

From our standpoint, the situation is certainly sobering. We are now much more aware that a backhanded, slipshod review can be a potential problem for an artist/gallery and that we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than just cranking something out. Somehow, we stepped into a void (and one that seems to be getting bigger regretfully), and we need to rise to the challenge before us. This is not just for us, but for all of you reading and writing out there. Thoughtful, critical thinking/writing about photography is in short supply. So instead of writing “this is a cool show, check it out” and adding a link on your blog, take the time to take it a level deeper, to engage in some additional discourse. If the coverage of photography (and gallery shows more specifically) by the mainstream press is going to slowly wither away, we as a community need to step into the breach and start writing. Most of all, we owe it to the artists/photographers, who deserve more from this community than deafening silence.

14 comments:

Gabriel Benaim said...

"Do you disregard these reviews as noise? Do you embrace them as actual “press” and use their output as you would a review from the New Yorker? Do you abandon the old ways and go for a social networking PR strategy instead (Facebook it), especially if you are cultivating a younger collector base?"

I think the answer is clearly becoming 'yes', if only for lack of an alternative, but not only for that reason. Credible sources on the web play just this type of role on the other end of the chain, helping photographers get their work noticed initially and taken seriously.
One could write, I think, a similar article to this one looking at the way in which photographers are more and more relying on online media to achieve what used to be done by galleries, curators and reviewers. I, for one, being an 'emerging' photographer myself, would very much like to understand what weight and ultimate relevance all these online events/galleries/publications have in the real world, as I see so many of us investing quite a lot of our time in them. Thanks for a very insightful article.

verninino said...

A few weeks ago I sailed through Deborah Bell's Sid Kaplan show. In part because I've been a fan of her tastes for years; she's a mainstay in my Chelsea tour. While there we lamented the decline of sales in the photography market. (Alas, I can only afford books, window shopping and small, appreciative talk.)

I mentioned that I'd read about her show somewhere but couldn't quite recall where. She modestly suspected that it was a "lucky" notice she'd gotten in the New Yorker; my ripost "nothing happens in the New Yorker by luck." While I subscribe to the New Yorker I know that wasn't the source -- I'm still a month and a half behind in my reading. When I got home I realized that I'd read about her here. I forwarded your review and in her reply she seemed revitalized by it-- if only momentarily. I'm a big fan of Aletti and occasionally bump into him on the circuit (or at Dashwood), but somehow your offhand musings are more insightful than his long and short capsules. (Who says you get what you pay for?)

Anyway, I've been trying to work up the nerve to write reviews for over a year-- of books, gallery shows, interesting blogs. But with two new babies, a job, community service...

I've corresponded a little with Conscientious's Jörg and 5B4's Jeffrey and been encouraged/intimidated by their examples and, of course, yours. This nudge of yours to jump into the void may have been just the thing to tilt me.

All summer I've wanted to chisel through the 300+ books I've collected and make 5 top 5 lists (an exercise; generally, I hate top-lists): To help me more meaningfully appreciate and comprehend what I've got and why; but also to give me more confidence when I'm exploring my photography circuit and hedging on writing about it.

All this to say, thanks for the push. Keep up the excellent work; as you suggest: you are the future. And I look forward to more meaningful (and perhaps occasionally negative) critiques.

Liza at Pine Street Art Works said...

And I thought this was only a problem outside of New York. I run the only full time retail gallery in Burlington, Vermont, featuring some amazing nationally recognized photographers. Our local alt paper has one reviewer covering the whole state. The mainstream paper has - None! My gallery hasn't had a review for what seems like years, although it's probably more like only one year.

I suppose, like most other things, it's about revenue. The papers depend on advertising, which they get from venues like restaurants. Guess who gets three pages or more of reviews in each issue? Restaurants.

Artists depend on reviews not just to get people to the current show and and to convince buyers that their work is worth the investment. They also need the reviews to book future shows. It is mighty frustrating.

My current show is work by Los Angeles photographer Aline Smithson - who gets wonderful national press, but I'll be surprised if the Burlington papers notice her at all, despite my press releases, post cards, blog and social media.

We do have one dedicated monthly art publication which is reliable and thank goodness for that.
http://www.artmapburlington.com/

Thanks for the article. At least I know it's not a regional problem.

dlkcollection said...

Many great comments above, which I will think about and respond to individually.

As I was thinking about this topic further last night, for the sake of completeness, I want to briefly touch on the the high quality art criticism of Calvin Tomkins and Peter Schjeldahl, also found in the New Yorker. Tomkins' pieces are usually very long, full length articles in the center of the magazine. His artist profiles are excellent (many of them have been collected in a recent book called Lives of the Artists, which I have read and highly recommend), but the only photographer I can recall he has profiled is Cindy Sherman, so he isn't really relevant when talking about gallery show reviews.

Schjeldahl's pieces are always near the back of the magazine, usually a page or two in length, mostly covering a large, prominent museum exhibitions. While he did review the Pictures Generation at the Met, I can't remember too many other shows he has covered that have centered on photography, so again, his criticism, while top notch, is I believe tangential to this discussion.

dlkcollection said...

Gabriel,

You are right that the "front end" part of the process of discovering new photographers is also being transformed. Conscientious, I Heart Photograph, Exposure Compensation and many others do an excellent job of covering new and emerging work on a daily basis. I can't really imagine a gallery that represents photographers early in their careers would fail to use these kinds of resources at this point. Simply relying on trusted referrals and the incoming submissions alone isn't enough, especially if the gallerist has specific plans/parameters for the program.

I think many artists are using their own blogs for self promotion, as well as the promotion of friends, students, collegues and acquaintances. As a collector, I wonder about who the audience for most artist blogs is however (we read very few); I fear that there is a lot of talking to each other (creating some "in group" recognition) and less influencing dealers, curators, and collectors than might be hoped.

Measuring the effectiveness of these new approaches to PR is going to be tricky (is the gallery owner you want to influence really following your Twitter feed? - I highly doubt it), and you raise an important point about the effort invested versus the value received. We're in an era of experimentation, where new standards are being developed for what's important; all I can say is that some of these communications tools are a time sink, and others can be effective if used intelligently. I for one am trying to work on ways to use the social networking tools to target specific sets of potential photography readers, rather than just a shotgun approach to building the traffic of randoms who don't understand or value what we're doing here and don't likely return. It is my belief that this photography world is actually a small universe of people, many of which are still mostly unaware of the online environment. Getting these currently indifferent/infrequent visitors more involved is what I am puzzling over.

dlkcollection said...

Verninino,

I'm glad to hear that you felt encouraged by the post to add your voice to the discussion. I think we need a multitude of persepctives, or we end up with a conversation dominated by just a few, which really isn't a discussion but a monologue. The artists deserve more points of view being brought to bear. As an example, since we don't collect portraiture, we tend to naturally and unconsciously put gallery shows/books of portraiture nearer the bottom of our priority list. If we are only one of a few voices, this bias is potentially more pronounced and influential than it should be. Someone else who loves portraits should be covering these shows/books/artists with vigor, filling in the gaps. Get out there are start writing; it's not as hard as it looks, believe me. And watch out, it's addictive.

On the Deborah Bell story, thanks for connecting her to the review; I didn't realize that's how it happened. We tend to be pretty low profile (not announcing to anyone that we are there to write a review), since we are primarily visiting as collectors. What I find interesting/intriguing is that she has linked to our review from her webpage, just under the review from Vince Aletti; the point being the review from the blogosphere is deemed to have some merit and be of similar (if clearly lesser) importance to that of the New Yorker. This to me is evidence of change: here's a respected gallery owner leveraging good reviews, wherever they might originate. I expect we'll start to see more of this as more credible voices enter the fray.

dlkcollection said...

Liza,

As I was writing this post, I was wondering about whether the same thing was happening in secondary and teritary cities around the US (and elsewhere), and it sounds like the problem is the same: limited resources and no reviews. It's clear that you need to find some other local voices who can provide the reviews you need, even if they're published out on the Internet.

I for one think your collectors/clients are your best targets: they are already interested/invested in the work. Even if they're not starting their own sites/blogs, perhaps they can find ways to contribute their reviews to other sites. I've often wondered what it might be like to gather together a group of passionate photography collectors from around the country (and the world) to be "guest correspondents" of sorts, providing reviews of photography in their local regions right here from time to time. There are plenty of shows going on outside New York that we'll never visit (see our Summer List from yesterday as an example), but would like to hear a thoughtful review about. Perhaps there is a way to aggregate some of these reviews (via a common format or the like) so they could reach a larger audience...

dlkcollection said...

One of the comments I received via email observed that many of Vince Aletti's blurbs aren't always "reviews" per se, but are often factual descriptive reporting of what is on view with a dose of literary flourish. I think that given the space constraints of the New Yorker format, this is sometimes true (and thus a fair criticism). I pass these comments along in the effort to keep the discussion even handed, and to further highlight the need for fuller reviews of these gallery shows.

Tyson Habein said...

I think this touches on some very interesting ideas in regards to creative culture as a whole, and not just photography, as you said early in the piece.

This becomes even more true for cities and towns that are emerging into the world of generating creative culture. In the case of my city of Spokane Washington, we've always been the little sibling of bigger Seattle. In comparison to the likes of New York, we've got very little going on. That said, the difficulty here, is that what is going on isn't being covered on any real level. Imagine the situation you described, except there is no Vince Aletti, there is no larger media source. In this case, people like ourselves have to become the only media source, and force local magazines and alternative weeklies to take up the cause for fear of seeming out of the loop.

It's a battle from all sides. The interesting thing is, we're all battling for things that work together.

Tyson Habein
SpokenSpokane Magazine
www.spokenspokane.blogspot.com

Joe Reifer said...

I'm occasionally interested in New York gallery show reviews, if they turn me on to a new photographer that I like. I'm primarily interested in gallery shows where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The number of venues that show photography isn't overwhelming here - just a simple calendar is usually enough. Fecal Face has a nice mix of gallery listings, artist interviews, and studio visits. If there was a San Francisco equivalent of Vince Aletti, that would be perfect. As far as formats that are suited to thoughtful/critical writing on photography, a few great internet sites have essentially made photo magazines obsolete, but the book is still the king.

dlkcollection said...

Tyson,

I agree with much of what you've said. It's up to people in their local communities to fill in the gaps in arts coverage if the media outlets aren't doing it.

I like what you're doing with Spoken Spokane. The PDF format allows you to write much longer pieces and have them be readable, more magazine like. It also allows you more freedom on design front than we have with our blog format. I wonder however about whether random searchers are as eager to dig into the PDF format. But perhaps those people aren't your audience.

In any case, I like the fact that you've taken matters into your own hands and are producing something of value for the community.

dlkcollection said...

Joe,

Thanks for the tip of FecalFace; I wasn't ware of the site and it's certainly full of information, although sifting through it all to get to the photography might be a challenge.

I agree that the SF/Bay Area photo scene is relatively self contained. You'd think it would be pretty straightforward for a local collector/enthusiast to cover the few museums and galleries that regularly show photography. I'd certainly be happy with a regular feed of what's on at SFMOMA, BAM, Cantor/Stanford, Fraenkel, Koch, and Nichols, plus a mix of the others from time to time.

Landscape Luminous Views Photogarphy Artist said...

As an upcoming photography artist I am finding it near impossible to find a gallery to show my work in San Diego.

http://www.luminous-views.com

What I am finding though is that if I can show many folks my work in person I can pay the bills selling the prints. Recently local publishers have run articles on me on behalf of these efforts.

I guess my point is that it is wonderful to see and hear how the biggest of publishers may shun the most significant art form of the last century, but some truth can still be found in a wonderful place like this blog.

CAP said...

Currentartpics contains some reviews/criticism of photographers. but only established figures.