Two weeks ago, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announced that Mary Louise Schumacher had been named the art and architecture critic. In essence, this means Schumacher will now handle the jobs once done by two very energetic staffers: retired architecture critic Whitney Gould and longtime art critic James Auer, who died in 2004. This is horrible news for Milwaukee. It means both art and architecture will get short shrift. The lack of architectural coverage could actually hurt city development and property tax values. Let me explain why.
Since the merger of the Journal and Sentinel, few staffers had as much impact as Whitney Gould. As a story in Milwaukee Magazine reported, developers worried about what she wrote and took her conclusions very seriously. Gould had the courage to take on Michael Cudahy, whose plan for Discovery World was to create a huge white monster of a building next door to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Gould’s coverage of this helped convince the community’s leadership this was a bad idea, putting pressure on Cudahy to drop the idea. The revised design is a triumph by itself, but also a nice complement to the art museum.
Gould covered every major architectural development, pushing for more quality and educating not only the public, but her own editors, helping create a constituency for good urban design. Great cities depend on this kind of discussion: Good architecture attracts more good architecture, making cities sexy, attracting more development, and ultimately adding more property tax value that helps cities pay for services. There are many players in this complex process, but Gould’s role was important, and the editors’ support of her reporting made this one of the rare mid-sized cities with a full-time architecture critic.
Auer wasn’t in Gould’s class. He was a weak critic, but he was very hard-working and covered every major exhibit and tons of minor shows, along with big shows in Chicago and Madison. He made the JS the state’s paper of record on the visual arts.
That’s been lost under Schumacher. After Auer’s death, she became the paper’s visual arts reporter, but as the magazine’s Pressroom columnist Erik Gunn has reported, Schumacher has failed to review many shows in town. There’s simply no excuse for this. There are probably 30 major visual arts shows per year, and even a half-time stringer could easily cover them for the newspaper. Schumacher hasn’t even done that – much less get to all the small shows covered by Auer, who probably did more than 100 reviews per year. How can she possibly add an entire second beat, architecture, when she hasn’t been able to keep up with art?
Schumacher has done some energetic coverage of trends and some fun online blogging. She’s been a decent reporter for the newspaper since she came aboard in 2000, but it’s quite clear she’s scared to be a critic. Read her recent review of “Sensory Overload,” a major show at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and tell me: Is this a positive review? Negative? It’s written in a code no one will ever unlock, so no one can ever criticize Schumacher. It leaves readers mystified and the arts community poorly served.
On those rare occasions when she has taken a stand, Schumacher sometimes used Gould (back when she was still at the paper) for cover. Schumacher enlisted the help of Gould to do a story criticizing public art and a critical review of the new “Man at Work” collection at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The latter, in particular, was far off Gould’s beat, but she was willing to join in with Schumacher and provide her cover.
By contrast, there’s never a problem figuring out where other JS critics, like Damien Jacques (theater), Duane Dudek (movies) or Joanne Weintraub (television) stand in their reviews. Their reviews force us to agree or disagree, and suggest something important is at stake for readers.
Schumacher, of course, is still pretty unseasoned. But the only way to improve is to cover every major exhibit and test your reactions against smart readers and art lovers in the community. Jacques, Dudek and Weintraub all improved, while taking their lumps, by thoroughly covering their beat. The more they saw and reviewed, the more they developed an aesthetic. Schumacher, so far, is afraid to take this challenge – and that’s death for a critic.
In announcing her elevation to art and architecture critic, JS Editor Martin Kaiser said, “Art and design are so important to the quality of life in the Milwaukee area. We have heard this loud and clear from our readers and we are committed to maximizing our coverage in the Journal Sentinel and on JSOnline.”
Even for a newspaper whose staff has been cut, it is not maximizing to replace two critics with one, much less with the one arts writer who is unwilling to risk any controversy. The beat has been minimized to near nothingness, and urban design and development will be the big loser.
Briggs CEO Throws Down Gauntlet
Sunday’s op ed column in the JS Crossroads by Briggs and Stratton CEO John Shiely was quite unusual. It’s rare to see a business leader come out with guns blazing like this. Among other things, the piece takes issue with an earlier op ed by union activist Mike Rosen. These are classic labor-versus-management broadsides, with both also revisiting the tussles of 15 or 20 years ago, when Briggs had battles with its union.
Shiely’s column has gotten a lot of reaction, from critics like Paul Soglin and Jim Rowen to defenders like Charlie Sykes. I had a brief item in this column about Shiely that I’ve reconsidered. I think there are important issues at issue here, that I’d like to consider in depth at a later point.
-The Journal Sentinel’s excellent ongoing series on the inadequate oversight of doctors, as well as earlier series like the excellent one on product safety, offer more proof the new I-Team leadership is yielding better investigative reporting.
-For those wondering, the final graph in Shiely’s Sunday commentary criticized an unnamed reporter. It was JS scribe John Schmid, who might have gotten a little overexcited at the meeting in question, as Schmid is known to do. But I don’t think that makes him part of any nefarious plot.
I’ll be back with a column March 4th.
And check out our new arts and entertainment column, Culture Club