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What It Really Means That Sheila Farr Left the Seattle Times

In Art News

On Monday mornings, art-curious people around the nation catch up on the news at Modern Art Notes. This Monday, MAN's "Weekend Roundup" provided links to reports from the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Diego Union-Tribune, along with this item: "Emily White in City Arts Seattle on the art journalism drain—and what it means for non-NYC cities." Hours later, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts blog linked to the story: a "must-read article about the sad state of arts journalism."

Described by City Arts editor Emily White in the story, the situation is dire: It is a blow to the art scene of Seattle, and to arts journalism in general, that Sheila Farr, art critic of the Seattle Times for the last eight years, left the paper last month after her position was cut. White's writing echoes the logic of many others who have bemoaned the tide of layoffs hitting arts criticism in past years.

"Local newspapers have lost critics with over two centuries' worth of collective experience in recent years; the Times alone lost art, classical, and pop critics in 2008," White wrote. "Farr's departure was especially regretted. She was an original voice, distant and passionate. 'Sheila is a poet,' says painter Tori Ellison."

Ellison is the only artist White quotes. White is the only other authority to comment on Farr in the story. White declares Farr "a very good art critic":

"In her final weeks, Farr continued reviewing; it was important to her to get as many shows down for the record as she could. On November 21 she introduced readers to painter Grant Barnhart's show Remember Me When. Farr painstakingly describes his feverish talent: 'Barnhart's addled brand of neo-Americana is built on order, chaos, dark omens and a touch of humor... The imagery turns from innocence to a nightmarish medley of brutality and glitz, testosterone, bare midriffs and vicious girl fights.'

"In the review, you can almost see the work—you want to see it, perhaps, even to drive across town to see it, the way people come out to see a rare star when it appears in the night sky.

"Yet like a telescope snatched from an astronomer at the moment of discovery, Farr's Times gig was obliterated. Remember Me When is news because a critic noticed it. When the critics are no longer there to discover art, who will call attention to it?"

According to White, it's not only the state of arts journalism that's on the line. The situation with Farr is emblematic of the struggle for the very survival of art in Seattle.

None of this is true. And the simplistic and underinformed story that White wrote in City Arts is a case of the sickness it diagnoses, not a cure. White's essay is, simply, bad arts journalism. A truer story would have focused on the fact that none of the three culture critics—Farr, Patrick MacDonald (rock), Melinda Bargreen (classical music)—let go from the Times in the last year or so was passionately engaged in the cultural dialogue of the city and the nation.

Back to Farr: Her tenure was a mixed bag, and her departure is, too. She made contributions both critically and in her reporting (I especially appreciated her thoughts on the opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park); she also ducked big issues on a regular basis, preferring not to weigh in, ultimately squandering the power she'd been given. Her departure is the evacuation of a fixture, but hardly of the only light in an otherwise pitch-black room.

While White makes Farr sound as central and as important as Ann Powers in the rock world—whom White quotes in the story—the truth is that Farr is known by the majority of artists, dealers, and curators in the city as the critic who never showed up. When I first arrived on the scene, I thought this view of Farr was a limited case of sour grapes, but I had to admit later that it contained truth: In my own dealings, I almost never ran into Farr on the job (by contrast, I'd see her competitor, Regina Hackett, almost constantly), and her byline appeared only slightly less scarcely. While researching a 2007 story about Times freelancer Matthew Kangas, who nine Seattle-area artists say solicited them for gifts of art over the course of two decades, I had to acknowledge that while Kangas might have been shaking artists down, at least he was paying attention to their work: For the year 2006, he wrote 20 reviews, while Farr wrote five.

Another critic in Seattle much more closely fits the description White used for Farr: Hackett, art critic at the daily Seattle Post-Intelligencer since 1981. White did not mention in her piece that she worked as Hackett's boss for some months last year as arts editor at the P-I (White was also once editor of this newspaper). For that matter, White didn't mention—in her reference to Farr's "introduction" of the artist Grant Barnhart to readers—that Hackett had written a review of Barnhart's work that came out before Farr's. (So had I.) Two of the three full-time art critics in town had not only already done what Farr then did, but had already blogged about Barnhart, too.

Art has been persevering in Seattle without the help of its largest daily paper for quite some time now. Is that Farr's fault or the Times'? It's impossible to say. What we can observe is that the Times has proved itself immune to every vibrant advance in cultural journalism over the last 20 years—from the amazing blogs at the Guardian in London, to the simple but effective multimedia work at the New York Times, to the hard-nosed consistency of the institutional critique at the Los Angeles Times—resulting in an approach that's as sure of its institutional authority as it is astonishing in its dullness, and as steady as it is failing.

"By pushing out distinguished writers whom readers trust, the dailies are sinking themselves," White writes.

Wrong. Dailies are sinking themselves under the weight of their own (possibly deliberate) ignorance of what constitutes distinguished writing these days—and by thinking that "distinguished" is the goal. Editors don't even realize that the cultural critics they have (or once had) on their staffs—minds paid to be analytical—are the people best suited to help them think through the complex issues that have been raised in the last 20 years of print journalism, from declining readership to the internet. Great critics are agents of revolution. To proclaim a national day of mourning for the loss of a notably disengaged critic at a deeply disengaged newspaper—the Times checked out of the cultural conversation of Seattle and the nation long ago, if it was ever part of it in this young city (when is the last time you saw a Times culture writer in the midst of a national dialogue?)—is to miss a far more important problem than whether this city has three full-time critics or two.

Someone who doesn't know the difference can't be expected to diagnose an institutional sickness like the Times'. And arts journalism—hell, all journalism—cannot afford any more of the tired, false oppositions White espouses (between arts and sports, between bloggers and institutional writers) or any more sweeping arguments that ignore the facts on the ground. It's a war out here.

jgraves@thestranger.com

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Comments (43) RSS

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1
Best thing you've ever written, Jen. So true.
Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball on January 7, 2009 at 2:30 PM · Report this
2
Dang. I was really hoping arts would be dead in this city. If all those artists actually did something productive, and all the city funds spent buying art redirected, perhaps we wouldn't need to worry about budget cuts for health care for low income women.
Posted by smrt on January 7, 2009 at 2:31 PM · Report this
3
pretty good piece, jen.
Posted by mike on January 7, 2009 at 2:47 PM · Report this
4
Excellent piece, Jen.

Emily White's piece was simplistic crap and raises the question, why is she kissing Sheila Farr's ass? And, is White's lament at the death of Old Journalism an attempt to insure that she'll always be able to find a job within the confines of the Institution?
Posted by michael strangeways on January 7, 2009 at 3:21 PM · Report this
5
"...resulting in an approach that's as sure of its institutional authority as it is astonishing in its dullness, and as steady as it is failing."

=Kickass parallelism.
Posted by Andrew on January 7, 2009 at 3:38 PM · Report this
6
Great analysis, Jen. Thanks much.

-DMG
Posted by DMG on January 7, 2009 at 3:38 PM · Report this
7
thanks for the clarity, but you sure are a bitch about it

i hate to admit how right you are about the times' idea of "distinguished," tho

srsly: that place is boss-sating hires all over the place and nobody has their job because they care to actually do it...they have jobs because they are good at applying for jobs and convincing clueless people they have a clue
Posted by ndrwmtsn on January 7, 2009 at 3:41 PM · Report this
8
You should note that Emily White does indeed disclose her erstwhile editor job at the Seattle P-I in both the magazine and the web version of her story. It's in her bio, found on the conspicuous contributor's page in print and on the "About Us" tab on the website:
http://cityartsmagazine.com/who.html
Posted by Tim Appelo, City Arts Magazine on January 7, 2009 at 4:27 PM · Report this
9
So Fairview Fanny lost a writer whose topic is local. I'm sure they kept writers who re-write the AP feed to put national and international news in the local paper.

This is exactly backwards.
Posted by StC on January 7, 2009 at 4:30 PM · Report this
10
you're so bitter... what did emily do to you in the past?
Posted by teddy b on January 7, 2009 at 4:34 PM · Report this
11
jen says, "White did not mention in her piece that she worked as Hackett's boss for some months last year as arts editor at the P-I...."—that's "in her piece." it's not reasonable to expect people to read contributor bios, located pages (or clicks) away, to get full disclosure information.
Posted by seriously, people on January 7, 2009 at 4:50 PM · Report this
12
City Arts, as much as I would like it to thrive, is just ads and a few listings, this piece sums up their critical chops. The Times has rarely been engaged in the 20+ years I've been in Seattle. The Stranger, as much as I hate to say it, has been more engaged but in it's usual self-aware indie mode. As a Seattle artist I can say any press is welcome, what little there is. One less voice is just that.

Quality, considered criticism done on a regular basis by a engaged critic left town years ago with Emily Hall. One can only hope that critics like Jen Graves stick it out long enough to mature like Emily Hall did.
Posted by artistx on January 7, 2009 at 5:02 PM · Report this
13
@Tim Appelo: In her piece and on the City Arts website, Emily White only notes that she worked at the PI, but she does not make mention of the fact that she was Regina Hackett's boss during her tenure. Jen's correct about her lack of forthrightness in this regard.
Posted by Meags on January 7, 2009 at 5:16 PM · Report this
14
that's my name!
Posted by emily white on January 7, 2009 at 5:31 PM · Report this
15
you can't spell hackett without hack, and you can't spell graves without raves.
Posted by im just sayin on January 7, 2009 at 6:36 PM · Report this
16
After firing from the hip at Kangas - and exposing her complete lack of journalistic ethics or integrity - it's bizarre that Gravy would include a comment about that "investigative" (read: after the fact justification) journalism she sought to inflict on Sir Matthew.

Additionally, such a self-righteous purchase seems an odd time to muck up in wrongly accusing White of failing to fully disclose potential conflicts.

Gravy needs to learn that a good art critic needs to be a good journalist as well.
Posted by SHeald on January 7, 2009 at 6:56 PM · Report this
17
ooooooh!!!! rich jensen's gonna get you!
Posted by apollo creed on January 7, 2009 at 7:59 PM · Report this
18
you know, i think it's okay to disagree with the article, but i think white was right OTM about the way sports always will get covered by the stupid dailies and arts never will and how DUMB that is.
Posted by kevin on January 7, 2009 at 10:10 PM · Report this
19
Jen emphasizes the role of engagement and quality in good criticism; two properties White's essay lacks.

An a very basic level, I just don't think Emily White knows what she's talking about or even what point she's trying to make. The essay seemed like a first draft written by an intern, not a cover story done by an editor whose work history would give them some perspective on the subject. Jen, by contrast, takes art and art criticism seriously and it shows.
Posted by Jim Demetre on January 7, 2009 at 10:43 PM · Report this
20
Well, the Seattle Times may not be contributing to the national dialogue, but you sure are. Great piece.
Posted by Anne Midgette on January 8, 2009 at 7:18 AM · Report this
21
Fudge, my house is flooding.
Posted by smb on January 8, 2009 at 10:57 AM · Report this
22
By your own standards, I guess it wouldn't matter if you guys decided to can Lindy West.
Posted by canlindy on January 8, 2009 at 4:48 PM · Report this
23
What issues did Farr duck?

You slam her for it but don't say what they were. You say she only wrote a few reviews in X amount of time but what else did she write? Being an arts writer isn't just about writing reviews.

Also, your criticisms of White are tedious about who wrote which review first, etc. As if any of this personal little vendetta, or whatever it is, has anything to do with the future of arts criticism.

And to that point, you give no evidence of another basic premise -- that these longtime arts critics are the best minds to help newspapers through their current troubles. Are you kidding me? On one hand you call them disengaged and worthless and then say ought to be used to save journalism.

What a bunch of crap.
Posted by Wayne on January 8, 2009 at 7:31 PM · Report this
24
A more interesting question: why does the Stranger encourage self-loathing writers like you blame your insecurities on your professional colleagues?
Posted by BrentScowcroft on January 8, 2009 at 7:43 PM · Report this
25
A more interesting question: why does the Stranger encourage self-loathing writers to soothe their egos by lashing out at their professional colleagues? A less acerbic analysis might have convinced me that your thesis was correct. Instead, you left me believing that your real gripe is not with Sheila Farr but with the fact that a serious paper like the Times would never hire you.
Posted by Mike on January 8, 2009 at 7:52 PM · Report this
26
A tedious, sophomoric, backbiting, bitchy (personal vendetta?) ... disguised as "arts criticism."

What a joke.

And I can tell you that having worked with many of the longtime critics that you reference, you know absolutely NOTHING about what you are talking about when you say that these "critical minds" are just want newspapers need to retool themselves.

Are you kidding me? Melinda Bargreen, Patrick McDonald, Sheila Farr, etc are the people who are going to figure out how newspapers will MAKE MONEY (and that is the key to survival) vs. expanding, competing media, available in increasing forms, often for free, from an increasing number of sources, etc etc etc ...

No, they might know their corner of the world but they don't know how to solve problems associated with paradoxical shifts of an industry.

I have no problem with someone floating some thoughts or ideas on the topic -- but they'd be worth more without the self-righteous, self-loathing, ego-centric point of view.
Posted by ToddP on January 9, 2009 at 9:56 AM · Report this
27
Jen, this is a marvelous article, especially the part about "squandering" one's position of prominence and authority. This reminds me of an attitude of coasting without being passionate or engaged that I encountered all too often among tenured academics in my undergraduate and graduate career.

I've been active in the Seattle art community for about five years and I've never run into Sheila Farr or even happened across anything she's written, come to think of it. Regina, on the other hand, is a fixture with national stature. Nobody knows what's going on with the P-I right now, but I hope that Regina is able to leverage her enormous readership and influence into future prospects.
Posted by Emily on January 9, 2009 at 11:09 AM · Report this
28
Whether people agree with what Ms. Graves has to say or not, I think she has clearly written circles around Emily White. Ms. White's article really didn't do justice to the topic and felt just as "fluffy" as the rest of what ends up in City Arts magazine. As a fledgling arts magazine it has yet to really develop any sort of strong voice (beyond that of its advertisors). The best thing I've read in City Arts so far has been a Jen Graves article about teaching an art history class at Cornish College of the Arts.
Posted by AC on January 9, 2009 at 1:35 PM · Report this
29
So a quick search of the Times website shows that Farr wrote more than 75 pieces last year. Looks like she was doing a lot more than just drinking free wine at gallery openings, which appears to be your major criteria for judging her work. But that's okay, you wouldn't want that to get in the way of pissing on someone who just lost her job because her asshole bosses managed the paper into the ground. You stay classy, Jen.
Posted by weakweakweak on January 9, 2009 at 6:43 PM · Report this
30
White was the boss/colleague of Regina Hackett, a critic for a daily newspaper who in the City Arts piece goes unmentioned as playing any role whatever in coverage of the arts in Seattle.

But what is White's relationship to Farr?

On Crosscut, David Brewster praised White's celebration of Farr's inconsequential tenure at the Times. At least he disclosed that Farr and he are friends.
Posted by a reader on January 9, 2009 at 7:35 PM · Report this
31
I am not so much into the snarkyness re: how great or un-great Ms. Farr is.

I was surprised at Ms. White's hypocrisy when she expressed her disdain about "pushing out writers who the people trust" after she pushed out Judy Wagonfeld for the plagiarist Nate Lippens. I always appreciated her 9 years of backup to Regina Hackett.. solid, focused on the art and neither ego-centric nor plagiarized.
Posted by navel gazer on January 9, 2009 at 9:48 PM · Report this
32
This was a fantastic piece, Jen, and spot the hell on.
Posted by karion on January 9, 2009 at 11:37 PM · Report this
33
Hi Jen,

I find this an interesting piece, but could you do a look-back on print-publishing in general now that Hearst has decided to pull the plug on the Seattle PI? The Seattle Times has also been in dire straights, as are many other newspapers across the country, leaving them to focus on only the advertising and content that brings in money, such as sports.

Advertising all around has taken a nose-dive in this economy, while writers, editors and publishers are confronting a young generation that is not used to purchasing their information in hard-copy format, much less purchasing it at all.

Jill Conner
Posted by jill Conner on January 11, 2009 at 3:43 PM · Report this
34
Hey there, this is Emily White, subject of the above diatribe (along with Ms. Farr). A few corrections:
1)I never worked with Nate Lippens or the other person you mention, I was not at the Stranger during that time.
2)I did disclose my PI connection in my bio. Since the article had little to do with the PI this was sufficient. David Carr does not need to preface every media column he writes with a list of every publication he has worked for.
3)I don't suck at all. And Farr IS a poetic writer of the first order. Nevertheless, even though I don't suck, I feel stupid for commenting here, since the article was basically about "I reviewed that show before she did, and so did Regina." To this I say WHAAAAA???
4)City Arts doesn't suck either, it is a great thing taking shape, changing shape, giving voice to writers and artists. Your loss if you don't check it out.
Posted by Emily White (the real one, not the imposter) on January 12, 2009 at 8:20 AM · Report this
35
city arts magazine is a fucking joke. they hire a bunch of generic writers to squeeze out content that is inoffensive, uninteresting, and exceedingly narrow minded. i'm sure they pay the people in their advertising department well to give developers in bellevue hand jobs. total dicks. shouldn't be involved with art.
Posted by kirby keebler on January 12, 2009 at 10:22 AM · Report this
36
Kirby, if your reaction is any indication of City Art's inoffensiveness I would hate to see you offended.
Posted by MK on January 12, 2009 at 1:40 PM · Report this
37
Emily White says, if you don't have to kill trees to print it, it's crap.

"Some say: forget the daily papers, the really great arts criticism is happening on blogs. I have searched and searched Planet Blogosphere and have yet to find this to be true. Of course blogs, twitter, myspace, all of it is in some sense revolutionary ... But the blogosphere is not a place that produces great, careful writing. Perhaps this is because bloggers don’t generally craft and revise their work: it’s all about back-and-forth discussion, diary entries, lists."
Posted by Planet Blogosphere on January 12, 2009 at 1:50 PM · Report this
38
Thank you for a great piece, Ms Graves. This is the stuff that keeps us reading your column!
Posted by ds & dw on January 12, 2009 at 2:41 PM · Report this
39
Let's quit wasting breath on the chick-fight and look at the real issue: Why is a huge metropolis like Seattle, with an enormous population of working and aspiring artists, so completely scarce when it comes to visual arts coverage ??? Two critics or three, so what ?? You are too insulated, if you are all two-or-three writing about the same shows. Let's have some REAL diversity.
Posted by native girl on January 13, 2009 at 9:55 PM · Report this
40
It's rare how often I manage to even make it through a Jen Graves article (get to the point already will you?) ... it almost seems like you were more passionate about shitting on a dead horse than you are about anything else that you have written. I agree with the person whose comment was "best thing you've ever written" and I find that very very sad.
Posted by IsThisNecessary? on January 16, 2009 at 4:52 PM · Report this
41
You made a grave mistake about Sheila's output in 2006, saying she only wrote five reviews. A simple search shows Sheila had 67 bylines in the Times that year, most of them what I'd consider reviews. Do you run corrections for mistakes of fact?
Posted by Jim Neff on January 22, 2009 at 5:47 PM · Report this
42
That's a very nice bit of writing on a subject of concern to many of us right now. With the exception of Robin Updike's tenure, The Times has been a sad place for art journalism or criticism for decades. Before Sheila and Robin, there was Deloris Tarzan Ament, an absolutely terrible, lazy writer, who provided an uncritical voice for the paper and went on to write "Iridescent Light," one of the worst books on NW art ever perpetrated on the public.
Sheila was an original voice but a quiet, and tentative one. But, I think the problem with The Times lay with the editors who preferred to have their arts writer writing exposes on crime in the art world, about the unseemly behaviors of art dealers, and tepid stuff about artists.
It's good to see Jen recognize the critical work of Regina Hackett as vital to the scene here. She does show up and she does write and she does put forth opinions. God bless the critic who has a voice and an opinion.
Posted by late night writer on February 12, 2009 at 1:19 AM · Report this
43
That's a very nice bit of writing on a subject of concern to many of us right now. With the exception of Robin Updike's tenure, The Times has been a sad place for art journalism or criticism for decades. Before Sheila and Robin, there was Deloris Tarzan Ament, an absolutely terrible, lazy writer, who provided an uncritical voice for the paper and went on to write "Iridescent Light," one of the worst books on NW art ever perpetrated on the public.
Sheila was an original voice but a quiet, and tentative one. But, I think the problem with The Times lay mostly with the editors who preferred to have their arts writer writing exposes on crime in the art world, about the unseemly behaviors of art dealers, and tepid stuff about artists.
It's good to see Jen recognize the critical work of Regina Hackett as vital to the scene here. She does show up and she does write and she does put forth opinions. God bless the critic who has a voice and an opinion.
Posted by latenightwriter on February 12, 2009 at 1:36 AM · Report this

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