Art critic Sheila Farr says good bye after more than eight years as a staff writer for The Seattle Times.
Ask an anthropologist what separates humans from other animals and the answer is simple: Art.
For more than eight years, it’s been my honor and responsibility to write about that subject for The Seattle Times: What it is, why it matters, how it stacks up. I’ve evaluated the institutions that house it, the people who make it and even those who sell it, show it and, at times, abuse it.
Hi Readers. I’m going to talk with you more personally than usual today because I’m here to sign off from these pages. It’s a tough economy for newspapers and The Times has eliminated the position of art critic.
First, a confession: When I began writing about art 20 years ago, I never aimed to become a staff writer at a daily paper. The hit-and-run pace of newspapers is not my default mode, being naturally more inclined to research, contemplation and working my way to the core of things. But, hey, adrenaline can be addictive — and I’ve loved keeping up with my news-junky colleagues, the smartest, funniest, most generous and wonderful group of co-workers I’ve ever had.
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Then there’s you, readers. It’s been a pleasure (and an education) to carry on a dialogue with so many of you and hear your responses — often glowing and occasionally brutal — to my stories and reviews. Even when you’ve been outraged, we’ve almost always managed to reach an understanding. And I’m happy to say one of my most curmudgeonly correspondents, a guy who seemed to have a thing against art in all its forms, eventually came around and confessed his respect for it. So, I’m here to tell you, visiting you from these pages has been a joy.
We’ve witnessed a period of amazing growth in arts venues and I’ve weighed the pros and cons of the new Tacoma Art Museum; Tacoma’s Museum of Glass; the opening, closing and reopening of the Bellevue Arts Museum; the debut of the Olympic Sculpture Park; the expanded Seattle Art Museum; the Wing Luke Asian Museum; and the new African American Museum.
I’ve raved when they have done smart things and I’ve railed against them when they haven’t. One of my duties has been holding executives’, board members’, and curators’ feet to the fire when they have gone off course. It hasn’t made me popular with many of them. I hope, though, I have kept their respect.
During this period when museums were boldly, if not recklessly, growing, the realm of public art has been hampered by timidity and politics. I voiced my complaints about that — and got some passionate opinions back from many of you.
Of course, duty sometimes led me to venues that were a bit less public, too. Among the most memorable places I reported from were a peepshow booth at the Lusty Lady (no kidding: go to www.seattletimes.com and search for Lusty Lady Peep Show) and the subterranean corridors of James Turrell’s extraordinary earthwork in Northern Arizona (same URL, search for Temple of Light).
During occasional long silent spells from me, some of you complained that I was shirking my duty. I couldn’t help it. That’s when I had to temporarily forgo reviewing art in order to concentrate on news stories. Working with investigative reporters, I helped uncover a local branch of the thriving international trade in fraudulent Chinese antiquities. Remember the now-defunct Thesaurus Fine Arts? In other reports, we traced the missteps that led to the closing of the Bellevue Arts Museum in 2003, the deceitful dealings that landed former gallery owner Kurt Lidtke in jail, and the inner workings of glass impresario Dale Chihuly’s business empire.
Being a critic isn’t just about aesthetics. It means tackling thorny issues, getting past the spin, not taking people or artworks at face value.
One of the most difficult — and important — parts of my job has been writing obituaries, sometimes about people I knew and loved. Getting to the gist of a person’s life on a couple-hour deadline was always a challenge. In recent years, we’ve marked the passing of some of the Northwest’s most revered creators, among them painters Morris Graves, Jacob Lawrence, Gwen Knight, Frank Okada, Leo Kenney, Margaret Tomkins, architect Ibsen Nelson, patron Anne Gerber and art dealer Richard White. Each time I wrote an obituary, readers responded with their own fond recollections of the deceased — and occasionally ones that were not so fond!
It’s imperative to keep a flame burning for art and artists of the past. But the thing that kept me going was writing about the work of living artists, from internationally acclaimed ones such as Maya Lin, Do-Ho Suh and James Turrell to emerging young talent. I remember being wowed by Claire Cowie and Samantha Scherer early on, at the cooperative gallery Soil — and then watching them get snatched up by commercial galleries. I found sculptor Ephraim Russell’s work at the Phinney Ridge Community Center and Mary Welch’s Wayward Girls Productions at the Good Shepherd Center. It was fun to plug SuttonBeresCuller’s first post-Cornish show at ConWorks and then later profile the dynamic threesome in a cover story for Pacific Northwest Magazine
Over the years, my reporting and opinions have showed up in every section of the paper except Sports. (Sorry guys: I know there’s a story out there we should have done together.)
Speaking of sports, National Public Radio recently reported an interesting statistic. It said if you add up attendance for every major-league baseball, basketball, football and hockey game, the combined total this year would be about 140 million.
That’s a lot. But it’s puny compared with museum attendance.
Get this: The number of people who will visit America’s museums this year is about 850 million.
Isn’t that terrific?
Now, I’m not a dreamer. I know those numbers don’t mean that the beauty, edification, goose bumps, tears, intellectual challenges and inspiration of art can, on a daily basis, surpass the appeal of pop culture, star watching and athletic competitions. But remember this: Where did people turn after the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? It wasn’t to Britney Spears.
Poetry, music, performance, the uplifting architecture of cathedrals, the comforting words of religious texts — the familiarity of art. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art first reopened after the attacks, thousands of New Yorkers flooded in, grateful.
Phillipe de Montebello, former director of the Met, understands why. He has said, “A museum is the memory of mankind.”
I like that. In a way, it’s what newspapers are, too.
Which is why it hurts to see arts criticism disappearing as newspapers struggle to reinvent themselves.
Decades from now, when the fires, shootings, car wrecks, political infighting and budgetary woes that headline today’s news are forgotten, some writer or historian will be paging through newspaper archives searching for early mentions of an artist who wasn’t much noticed at first but who’s gone on to become one of the leading visionaries of our times.
If they come upon one of my stories, I’ll have done my job.