Not Very Statesman-like
The daily of record's release of Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, its only full-time arts critic, isn't getting good reviews
By Seth Orion Schwaiger, Fri., Dec. 23, 2016
There is a continual conversation about the lack of support for the arts in Austin that is so pervasive at openings and afterparties that it serves as a sort of dark, loathsome substitute for small talk. While universally accepted that funds are in short supply, there are signs that the scene is by other measures healthy. The coverage and dialogue about the city's creative output is, for example, relatively robust. Regional outlets like Arts+Culture and Glasstire pick up the occasional local show and broadcast it to other cities; lifestyle magazines like Tribeza and Austin Way cover some arts social buzz and drop in a bio or two along the way; and indie arts publications like Fields, Austin Art Weekly, and Conflict of Interest make solid internal circulation among arts insiders. Then there are the two sources for regular public consumption of arts journalism and criticism: the always-free and ever-trustworthy weekly Austin Chronicle and the daily Austin American-Statesman. Guided by two longtime arts advocates, Robert Faires (who edited this article) and Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, respectively, these outlets provide a broad readership with context and insight into what Austin arts have to offer.
But that will change very soon.
During the 2016 East Austin Studio Tour, that familiar dark, loathsome small talk took new shape with a fast-spreading rumor that one pillar of local arts criticism would soon be removed. Jeanne Claire van Ryzin's position was being terminated at the end of the year with no replacement to be made. Word of the action ricocheted around the tour, sparking outrage on social media. The Chronicle broke the news to the wider public with confirmation from the Statesman citing decreased readership and budget pressure for the move. The piece added fuel to the fire, inciting volatile debate online and elsewhere over the fate of arts coverage and the importance of a knowledgeable full-time critic – some decrying the Statesman's decision as others pointed out its inevitability with the drawn-out death of paid print.
While some claim that regional and indie publications should fill the void, and others give a hipster shrug to the outcry with complaints about van Ryzin's lack of attendance to their own hyper-specific artistic niche, many less quick to the social media pulpit point to what can't be replaced about her coverage. Aside from the sheer volume of writing produced by van Ryzin (a whopping 250 articles or so a year), the critic has a unique strength coming from 19 years on the beat, not only reporting but actively shaping the cultural landscape with access to the wide and the long views.
"Personally, Jeanne Claire played a major role in introducing my company, performa/dance, to Austin audiences," says founder Jennifer Hart. "It's very difficult to build an audience when you don't know the community and the community doesn't know you. She was willing to take a risk on us by reaching out and meeting us to hear what we're trying to do. Jeanne Claire's previews gave us the exposure we needed to jump-start performa/dance, and I owe some of our success to her. I'm very worried about how it will impact our coverage. [Van Ryzin] is not just a critic but an advocate and illuminator on what's happening in the art world."
Van Ryzin has long been personally invested in Austin arts. Having tacked on a master's degree from UT in '88 to her bachelor's from Columbia, van Ryzin worked at both the Austin Museum of Art (now the Contemporary Austin) and the Ransom Center before moving on to freelance editing and writing for The New York Times, Art Lies, Art Papers, and the Statesman, among others, in '97. Two years later, she became the Statesman's full-time critic and since then has used her well-developed sense of the scene and the city's cultural history to piece together a cohesive picture of the arts in Austin and broadcast it to the public.
"An arts writer like Jeanne Claire, who has been embedded with the artists, performers, and venues of Austin through the growth of the past two decades, has an institutional knowledge that can't be replaced," says grayDUCK gallerist Jill Schroeder. "We have lost a voice that educates, excites, and makes people aware of the arts. I couldn't disagree more with the Statesman's decision to fire Jeanne Claire. Her writing about Austin's cultural and visual arts was a vital part of the paper. The message this sends is that the paper doesn't regard the arts community as a very important part of the city."
Those who value van Ryzin's contribution most feel that the Statesman is (or was) not only a source of information, but a steward of the community – but by choosing to be only the former, as this recent rash of staff cuts indicates, it risks failing to be either. Responding to those who protest the Statesman's culling of its arts coverage, the remaining editors say that they'll still cover the arts with freelancers, but as van Ryzin's professional arc shows, it is the prospect of a full-time, viable writing gig that draws the best freelancers in the first place.
"Jeanne Claire so clearly engaged with the art community in Austin," says Andy Campbell, former Chronicle contributor and now assistant professor of critical studies at USC. "Many depended on her to provide critical context for their projects and exhibitions, and that critical context is only built up over years. People will see this as more evidence that print is dying or that Austin is really a music town or a film town. Bullshit. Austin's artists are worth the critical attention of smart, engaged writers; otherwise, what people in the art world complain about – 'There's no support for Austin's art communities' – will be further exacerbated."
Aside from the probability, or lack thereof, that the Statesman will be able to cobble together enough intelligent freelance writing to fill what's left of its arts section, the vital support and knowledge that a stalwart like van Ryzin provides freelancers will no longer be functioning at the Statesman.
"Jeanne Claire supported me from the moment I started freelancing for the Statesman in 2010," says print and radio journalist Luke Quinton. "As a freelancer, what you get from Jeanne Claire is unwavering support – both to cover obscure ideas that don't get coverage elsewhere and to critique art that doesn't quite hold up. But it's a small town, and critiquing shows by large organizations sometimes gets substantial pushback. It's hard to imagine a freelancer leveling that critique without someone of Jeanne Claire's stature at the table. You'll be eaten alive."
Unassisted freelancers aren't likely to replace van Ryzin's sense of mission. For her, the writing is never about the author – never a platform to air one's wit, show how cerebral one is, or make grand displays of cultural acumen, as is always the temptation for the freelancer (I admit) – no, for van Ryzin, it's about opening up the artist's work for every reader.
Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills says van Ryzin "has a wonderful talent for illuminating for the reader nuances about the art being created in Austin. She has an appetite for all art forms and has truly tried to get to the heart of that about which she is writing. She has been, in many ways, a collaborator with the arts community in helping people understand that art and culture define place and time."
Recent events have shown all too clearly that many of us exist in our own echo chambers, our own insulated knowledge base and social circles; for art to be important in a society, it must reach those outside of the arts community. Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is one of very few voices that manage to break through to the uninitiated, to spark the imaginations of those whose imaginations too often slumber. She stitches together the disparate factions of the arts in Austin, but far more importantly, she stitches together the arts with consumers who otherwise would likely never even know they cared.
What little solace exists is that few think van Ryzin will abandon Austin's arts in response to the sense of being spurned. One can only hope she finds a new station where the respect she has earned is reflected by her employers, and somehow, one in which the community still benefits from her virtually unparalleled sense of art, place, and purpose.