Art Works Blog

Announcing the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge

July 6, 2011
Washington, DC

Today the National Endowment for the Arts and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation launched the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, a pilot competition in eight communities served by the foundation to inspire new, innovative models for local, high-quality arts coverage and criticism. We spoke with NEA Senior Deputy Chairman Joan Shigekawa and Knight?s Vice President for Arts Dennis Scholl about the Challenge and about why arts journalism matters.

NEA: Let?s start with a big question: why does arts journalism matter? What is the value of good journalism for artists, audiences, and the community at large?

JOAN SHIGEKAWA: Arts journalism is, as NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman would say, right in our wheelhouse. We need vibrant arts journalism to reach the long term goals in the NEA's Strategic Plan, which include to engage the public with diverse and excellent art and to promote public knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts.

Knowledge and information about the arts that engages Americans of all ages is important to the cultural vitality and vibrancy of our towns and cities. We count on arts journalism for this function, and arts journalism is in trouble.

DENNIS SCHOLL: We've seen a radical transformation of all forms of journalism, and it has really changed arts journalism. One good estimate notes that about 25 percent of journalism jobs have been lost over the last five to eight years, as many as 50 percent of the local arts journalism jobs in America have simply disappeared. We?re losing art journalists, who are the portal to culture for a lot of people, so it's a very critical need at this point.

SHIGEKAWA: Right, and I think that one of the great focus points for our Challenge is that we're thinking about arts journalism where people live. It's about what is exciting, intellectually and creatively in your community and making sure that you know about it. Journalism plays a huge role in helping creative people link up with other creative people and explore new forms of expression. All of that is necessary if we are going to build a creative, resilient economy and wonderful cities and towns. Without arts journalism, there's a huge void.

SCHOLL: A recent Gallup poll done by the Knight Foundation, called Soul of the Community, revealed a connection between social offerings, including the arts, in a community and how attached people are to their community. So the arts matter to people in terms of where they choose to live.

SHIGEKAWA: I found the poll fascinating because it dug deeper than any other study I've seen about why people chose to live in the place they live. I see this in my daughter's generation all the time. They are looking at the aesthetics of place; is it an interesting place to live? All of the studies show that even in this economy, her generation is making their choices about where they want to live first and are confident about creating their own livelihoods.

SCHOLL: I was just going to say, Joan, when we did the Soul of the Community we just assumed that jobs and the economy would be the things that people valued most. But in 26 different communities, over three consecutive years, the single most statistical connection was between social offerings and attraction. And arts activity and engagement are primary components of that.

NEA: Whether it is a professional reporter or a citizen journalist, describe the role that the arts journalist performs in connecting art to audience.

SCHOLL: Certainly, a person who is a journalist for a living is in a different category than a person who volunteers as a reporter, but both are extremely important in today?s media ecosystems. The Knight Foundation has been looking at what happens when you don?t have vibrant arts journalism in your community, the decreased livability and quality of life. We?re losing a lot of professional journalists from traditional media but clearly there are many, many more bloggers [and] citizen journalists springing up. But volunteer and part-time efforts on the local level have not replaced what is being lost in traditional media. One thing the Challenge might do is find a way to bring professional and citizen journalists together.

NEA: What other ways has the rise of social media made an impact on the role of traditional arts journalists, for example, if the audience is able to tweet a review at intermission or leak about problems with a Broadway show?

SHIGEKAWA: One of the things that anyone who is doing visual arts, or performing arts, or launching a book, devoutly hopes for is positive word of mouth. And the rise of the Internet and social media has exponentially expanded the power of word of mouth. But also we need folks who are deeply knowledgeable about the arts sharing their thoughts with us.

SCHOLL: Joan's right, there are many different types of news. We need to know what's happening as it is happening. We need informed opinion, including the wisdom of the crowd. And we also need well-researched, contextual analysis. Each element has its own kind of quality, its own values. A healthy media ecosystem has the full spectrum of expression. We hope the Challenge will encourage people to think about what?s missing in arts information and engagement in their community.

NEA: Can you talk about what the Knight Foundation and the NEA are looking for in terms of a winning idea?

SCHOLL: I think that the chosen ideas will articulate some of the following: they will be inventive ways to leverage social networks or other emerging digital platforms, and, of course, mobile platforms, and to engage people with high-quality cultural coverage and criticism to their community. The new models will have some potential for sustainability although not necessarily sustainable right out of the box. That?s what phase two is for. We?re looking for fresh insights or unconventional solutions, creating arts journalism labs, in a way, with the best ideas from the eight target communities.

SHIGEKAWA: Since 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts has funded institutes to advance arts journalism. But as we saw the rapidly evolving media landscape, we went in search of new ideas. So the NEA and the Knight Foundation pooled our resources and our reach and set up a lab to see what kind of innovative approaches might be forthcoming. So it's a public/private partnership, and it's a great adventure.

SCHOLL: I just want to say that the Knight Foundation looked around and said who are we going to work with in the arts? And the answer was obvious. The NEA is the largest annual arts funder in America. They're thoughtful and willing to try some of these new experiments with us. We?re being carefully non-prescriptive. Just give us your best idea. That's really what we're looking for.


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