Three weeks ago the San Diego Union-Tribune laid off nationally admired art critic and books editor Robert L. Pincus. [At right.] The elimination of Pincus’ position was the latest bad news in a bad half-decade for art journalism. Today only six of America’s top 100 newspapers have dedicated art critics on staff. Major newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit Free Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Miami Herald have either eliminated their art critic positions or have chosen not to fill vacancies.
While there is no clearinghouse for data regarding the number or percentage of arts journalists who have been laid off in the last several years, it’s a near-certainty that over 50 percent of the arts journalist positions in American media have been eliminated in the last two years. Magazines have also substantially cut back their arts coverage. Both of America’s major newsmagazines, Time and Newsweek, have eliminated their art critic/journalist positions. Other magazines that have traditionally covered art, including Harper’s and The Atlantic, have stopped. Only two of America’s top 100 magazines have a writer or an editor assigned to art: The New Yorker and Smithsonian magazine.
Alas: The art world has mostly retreated into itself and has mostly shrugged at the elimination of the jobs that once placed artists and their work before large audiences and in outside-the-ghetto contexts. The saddest thing about this moment in art the art world is that commercialism and communitarianism often suffice, that art lovers rarely agitate for the inclusion of art and artists in broader national and international dialogues. Maybe that’s OK: I hear Glenn Beck enjoys working as an art critic.
This makes what’s happening in San Diego all the more interesting: Many San Diegans are unhappy that the Union-Tribune has eliminated its art critic and they’re fighting back. In the last couple weeks Pincus’ readers have started a Facebook page, Reinstate Robert Pincus at the Union-Tribune and a blog, Campaign to Reinstate Robert Pincus. The goal of the two sites is to force the equity fund that owns the Union-Tribune to reconsider its termination of Pincus’ position.
“The week after he was laid off, I kept glancing at Bob’s Facebook wall and noticing how many comments he was getting and how powerful those comments were,” said Roxana Popescu, who started both sites. Popescu is a San Diego-based writer and journalist who just finished her PhD in comparative literature at Harvard. “I wasn’t the only person who felt devastated, I wasn’t the only person Bob had generously counseled or mentored, and I wasn’t the only person who felt San Diego would be poorer without his informed and engaging voice challenging and encouraging artists and making art interesting for the paper’s readers. It really felt like a death for San Diego’s artistic, cultural and intellectual communities.”
And it’s not just Popescu: On Friday, Warwick’s (independent!) bookstore in La Jolla is holding the San Diego Community Arts and Culture Forum. The conversation will be moderated by author Richard Farson and will include U-T editor Jeff Light, Sandy Dijkstra of the Dijkstra Literary Agency, MCASD director Hugh Davies, KPBS arts and culture producer Angela Carone and Pincus. The San Diego Reader’s Don Bauder rounded up frustrated reactions. On the KPBS culture blog, Carone explained why Pincus’ termination is especially unfortunate for the San Diego arts community now.
The MCASD even took the unusual step of trying to round up community support in favor of art criticism in San Diego, including in its communique this provocative paragraph: “Many of us in the visual arts and literary community received the following email from Jeff Light on Monday in response to the feedback we have given the U-T. Despite their response and stance, we are not convinced of their good faith efforts or their ability to deliver on their promises. Therefore, I implore you to consider joining us by contacting [publisher] Ed Moss and Jeff Light to express your disappointment in this change and push for continued insightful and high-quality visual arts coverage.”
The San Diego effort seems to be gathering momentum. I don’t know if Pincus will be reinstated, but there’s no question that San Diego is on the vanguard of trying to make sure that the arts are included in the community’s news-driven dialogues.
“There were two aims [for the websites],” Popescu said. “To allow people to voice their support and concerns, and to alert the decision makers at the newspaper that San Diegans care deeply about the arts — and want Bob back.”