Each time a show opened at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, Alexandra Berneis would send an email. As the theater's executive director, Berneis had a strong relationship with Jen McKee, the local critic at The Ann Arbor News. It was a symbiotic one: invitation, access, coverage, repeat.
Then one day in January 2016, she didn’t get an email back. The critic and other colleagues lost their jobs. Mainstream arts coverage in Ann Arbor was gone.
Michigan communities have been experiencing this with increasing frequency over several years. As the internet changed how people got their news, media entities shifted and consolidated, and arts communities across the state are feeling the loss.
“We’ve heard about theater critics being laid off, we’ve heard about newspapers cutting back on the space they’re willing to devote to arts coverage,” said Erik Gable of the Croswell Opera House in Adrian. “It seems like that’s something we hear from theaters across the board in Michigan.”
Ron Baumanis, a longtime actor and director in the Ann Arbor area who now runs the review site a2view.com, described the consequences as immediately catastrophic.
“There was an instant change in audience numbers, publicity, and the number of people who were aware of what’s happening in the arts community,” he said.
In the traditional model, an arts organization maintained a working relationship with the journalist who covered that beat for the local newspaper. For theater, that often meant sending out notices to the paper’s critic, inviting them to dress rehearsals, and reserving them a seat on opening night. The writer would both preview and review the show, providing the theater with a valuable one-two punch of exposure.
The typical breakdown would see a preview published the Sunday before a Thursday opening night, then a review published directly after that. “People would see that, and often times we’d see a bump in ticket sales from that,” Berneis said.
Nancy Brozek of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre described it as a “really great relationship.” The reviewer would slip into a dress rehearsal, then finish up the review on opening night. “I can’t tell you how many actors … would be up at midnight looking for the review, and that validation from that professional critic, and then start sharing the word,” Brozek said.
As these relationships between arts organizations and local media grew over decades, so did the experience of the journalists themselves.
“An important piece of any arts programming is the critical response that it generates,” said Todd Herring of Artprize. “Those writers have an immense amount of institutional knowledge that goes along with every article that they write. When a community loses that, they’re really losing somebody on the front lines of advocacy for the way a community uses arts and cultural activity to grow and learn.”
One example of this is the coverage by Mark Stryker, a former longtime arts reporter at the Detroit Free Press, of the possibility Detroit might sell part of the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection to help climb out of bankruptcy.
“The cultural asset that the DIA’s collection is, that was a significant story. It’s essential to the fabric of our entire state,” Herring said. “So when we don’t have journalists like that in place, it’s not just the theater review that we’re missing, it’s the oversight that good journalists bring.”
Herring admits cuts to jobs like Stryker’s come from tough economic realities.
“It’s a complicated situation where you can’t point a finger and say, ‘It’s this person’s profit mode that’s causing this problem,’” Herring said. “But I do think that when we can recognize there’s a deficit created. We need to be mindful about how we can fill that.”
Baumanis’ site, one of the most popular in Southeast Michigan, is an example of that financial reality. He reviews performances across Southeast Michigan on his own dime. Rarely does he have guest reviewers. He doesn’t get free tickets. Yet he’s constantly getting requests to review various shows, Baumanis said, and his readership is now at a strong average of 8,000 views per review.
“I do it out of love,” he said.
But those readers are the same every time, and that’s a problem. Sites like those Bechiri and Baumanis run are plenty popular, but the traffic heavily comes from committed arts patrons.
“The criticism that exists now … people have to hunt for it,” Berneis said. “They don’t know where to go for it, it’s not coming directly to them.”
It all comes down to sheer numbers reached, Brozek said, and that’s what MLive could do, because it has such a large audience.
“Just anyone, Joe off the street, could see that and find some interest in it,” she said.
Others in the Michigan arts world echoed Herring’s sentiment.
“Although I know there’s been a decline in readership probably online and in print,” Berneis said, “it would be really helpful to have just some basic arts coverage in the MLive, Ann Arbor News realm.”
Several new outlets have sprung up to fill that gap in arts coverage. The Ann Arbor District Library now runs an arts blog. Baumanis reviews shows across Southeast Michigan on his own dime. Other magazines and online sites contribute when they can. Sites like Encore Michigan cover the arts statewide.
One of the most promising is Cultured.GR, an online publication founded in 2016 that covers the arts in the Grand Rapids area through all kinds of coverage, including profiles of artists, previews of events and reviews of shows.
Building an audience has been the easiest part of the growing the fledgling publication, said the site’s editor-in-chief, Holly Bechiri.
“It’s clear that loss of coverage has been felt not just by the cultural institutions but by the community itself,” Bechiri said. “People were looking for that information, those conversations, those reviews, and they were finding it with us.”
To stay afloat, Cultured.GR depends on several revenue streams: individual donations, a membership program, special event fundraisers and support from foundations, corporations, and arts organizations. That, of course, raises questions about editorial independence. But Bechiri promises every organization from the start that no pay-to-play system exists. Coverage and criticism alike go where they’re deserved, separate from the business side of things.
“At the institutional level, I think they understand that’s what’s needed for a healthy ecosystem—having that independent voice,” Bechiri said.
But the bandwidth of Cultured.GR is limited, and other entities have even less, which has prompted some arts organizations like the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra to try other ways of getting the word out on their own. But nothing has the same reach or reputation for being quality, independent commentary, said Mary Steffek Blaske, the orchestra’s executive director. When the entity itself gives a review or preview, it just doesn’t come across as balanced.
“Of course people are going to say, ‘Well, come on, you’re just tooting your own horn,’” she said. “And though we’ve got great horns, we want to be absolutely honest and fair minded on it.”
Bechiri admits that with changing revenue streams, media outlets have to make tough decisions. But the value of the arts shouldn’t be discredited when making those decisions, she said. Research shows participation in the arts is an influential factor in perceived quality of life. “Our community’s health is affected by our connection to the arts,” Bechiri said, “and so when we’re making those decisions—yes, of course we need to cover these big political news items—but we also need to make sure that we’re keeping our communities healthy.”
To hear the conversation with Bechiri and Baumanis, listen above.