Hoot & Howl: The Reporter As Critic (And Vice-Versa).

In its very essence, the recent Philadelphia Inquirer article “Art poised for eager crowds” is a hard news/ general arts piece, announcing the May 19 opening of the new Barnes Foundation on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

In the way typical of hard news reporting, the article delves into various concrete facts about the museum. For example, when it mentions the operating budget for the museum, the article notes how 20 percent of that budget will come from endowment money. The article also notes the number of visitors the museum expects to have in the first few years. It notes the number of membership subscriptions the museum has been able to take in so far. The article even goes so far as to state how much those memberships and entrance tickets cost.

Striking, then, is the way this hard news reporting is actually embedded in a larger story that is more art criticism than general arts reporting. The larger story is about the Barnes and more specifically about the significance of the Barnes collection itself. As such, this article by Stephan Salisbury represents a hybrid of general arts news reporting and art criticism.

The combination is largely successful, thanks in large part to the decision that the writer made to make Matisse’s triptych “The Dance” the focal point of the article. Matisse’s “Dance” is a good choice for a focal point because its very existence owes much to Barnes, the man. As the article relates, Barnes commissioned Matisse to do a mural piece specifically designed to go into a specific part of the old Barnes building. The product of that commission is “The Dance.” As such, the triptych’s existence and its actual physical form then are inextricably tied to the Barnes itself. Add to this that fact that, as the article explains, the piece itself is also significant within the context of Matisse’s career, marking a specific turning point in his development as an artist. And, if that is not enough, the piece has also been the actual subject of litigation, thereby mirroring the sensational and drawn‐out litigation that surrounded the Barnes move from its old location to the new.

In sum, the writer, then, could not have chosen a better way to structure the article than with a piece that in so many ways captures the Barnes’ legacy and the collection’s history and significance.

Enabled by this focus on “The Dance,” the writer, then, is able to unobtrusively between talking about the specifics of the opening of the new Barnes and the larger significance of the Barnes collection itself. As such, the overall effect is that the reader gets the hard news and, in the process, also gets an art history lesson. Arguably, nowhere is this melding between general arts reporting and art criticism better in display than in the transition into the nut graph of the story, which comes fairly late in the
article with the fifth paragraph: “Timed tickets to see The Dance and the rest of the Barnes Foundation’s renowned collection of early modernist works go on sale Thursday to the general public.” Before the nut graph, the article was mainly concerned with setting up the “The Dance” as representative of the Barnes and the Barnes collection itself.

As with any hybrid form, there are compromises that happen. The article noticeably falters in the general arts news portion. For example, in its discussion about the operating budget, the article fails to provide the reader enough context to judge whether the operating budget of the museum is anomalous or not. Similarly, in its discussion of membership numbers, the article fails to provide enough background so that a reader can judge whether those numbers are outstanding or not.

To be fair, it is perhaps too much to ask of anyone to be an expert in everything or of a short article to do everything. But therein lies the challenge intrinsic to a hybrid form. For it to be completely satisfying, the writer needs to be aware of different things. In the case of this article, the writer not only had to draw on a deep knowledge of art, but also had to draw on the sensibility of a beat reporter. To hold these two roles is not impossible, just challenging.

– Text by C. Charlie Chan. Image via philly.com.


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