Lee Rosenbaum is the award-winning blogger behind Culture Grrl, on the New York-based ArtsJournal weblog, and a critic who delivers plainspoken truths to arts institutions and publications coast to coast. Last Wednesday, she was at Middlebury College’s Twilight Auditorium, delivering a talk titled “Critical Mass: How Reviewers Influence Museums (and vice versa).” The audience included some local museum personnel, a handful of artists and, it appeared, a single reporter, but it mainly consisted of students enrolled in a new class with the alluring name “Gold, Sex and Death in the Museum.” Its professor is Richard Saunders, who also happens to be the director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art and, not surprisingly, a scholar of museum history. Rosenbaum was one of nearly 30 invited speakers over the course of the semester.
A cultural writer for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Huffington Post and other publications, as well as an occasional commentator on public radio, Rosenbaum also penned the ambitious-sounding book The Complete Guide to Collecting Art. She confessed the volume is out of print, but she still sells autographed copies on her blog.
Rosenbaum began her talk by qualifying its title — “A more basic question is, do reviewers influence museums?” — and faux-complaining about the stature of critics: “Art Review magazine’s ‘The Power 100’ list didn’t include any art critics.” Though critics have “little to no impact on popular shows,” she went on — that is, exhibitions by such art stars as Andy Warhol — they can exercise an influence on sleeper shows, “when rave reviews bring people in.”
Rosenbaum, who has earned the “grr” in her chosen blogname, cited instances where her own pointed criticism may have held sway. Then she turned to the converse: how museums and galleries influence reviews. Well-heeled institutions may offer art junkets — whisking an art critic to, say, the opposite coast to visit a new facility or exhibition — but even smaller, regional museums typically give members of the media press kits, photographs, exhibition catalogs or private tours with curators. Does this “special treatment” come with an expectation of positive reviews? Rosenbaum asked rhetorically. Probably, she answered, then added, “My job is not to be influenced by this. Access is important, but not so important that I pull my punches.”
A critic should “write it as you see it and let the chips fall where they may,” Rosenbaum concluded. She acknowledged, however, that art-specific blogs and magazines have limited influence on the public at large — which typically doesn’t read them. The most influential? General-interest newspapers. Ahem.
Lee Rosenbaum’s commentary can be found at artsjournal.com/culturegrrl.