With Coverage Declining, Kalamazoo Arts Groups Collaborate on New Publication

Feb 12, 2016

The cast members of "Evita" at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre last year.
Credit Fred Western

A specific question has been on the minds of a lot of people in the Kalamazoo arts community lately: What happens when the media changes, and arts coverage from the local newspaper shrinks in just a few short years?  The shift has happened fast in Kalamazoo. Now, arts leaders have a plan to collaborate on a new arts publication. Its purpose: to serve as a hub for listings, reviews and arts features for Southwest Michigan. 


About seven years ago, the Kalamazoo Gazette had at least three staffers in Kalamazoo alone. Now, the Gazette’s new owner, MLive, has just a small staff for the whole state. The issue has been on the mind of Don Desmett, the curator for Western Michigan University’s Richmond Center for Visual Arts. He said he first noticed dwindling coverage about five years ago, around the time when MLive purchased Booth Newspapers, which included the Kalamazoo Gazette.

"It was harder to get the coverage. I’m not exactly sure the reasons at that time," Desmett says. "I knew this was a problem and I felt like I was the only one complaining!" 

Desmett says he says he also felt the loss of Roger Green as a longtime statewide art critic. With fewer reviews and fewer reporters to talk about local events, Desmett says word got out quick that Kalamazoo’s coverage was lacking.

He says that’s a big deal in the art world. And he can remember at least one artist who decided not to come to the Richmond Center three years ago because they feared no one would cover them:

"Well, I don’t want to name names, but probably three years ago, there was somebody I was pursuing to do a one person show here. Had ongoing discussions, research and put in a significant amount of time. And then a decision was made that it wasn’t going to be worth the time that the artist was putting into it, even with this great space. But those artists also need those reviews, that’s how they build their professional life. So it’s something that reaches out in a lot of different ways and causes a lot of different problems."

Head to any of the other major arts organizations in town and you hear the same worries from galleries, musical groups, and theatres.  Many are finding that increased marketing and social media can only get a group so far.

Western Michigan University Journalism Professor Sue Ellen Christian says the problem is institutional and happening across the country. When cash-strapped newspapers are forced to tighten their belts, the remaining resources often go to other departments.

"Interestingly enough, arts organizations are dealing with the same thing that news outlets are," Christian says. "Which is an aging audience. Newspaper readers are aging, overwhelmingly the people buying papers are older. That’s true for people in seats at concerts, fine arts events. So just like news outlets, fine arts organizations will have to evolve." 

"Newspaper readers are aging, overwhelmingly the people buying papers are older. That's true for people in seats at concerts, fine arts events. So just like news outlets, fine arts organizations will have to evolve."

  Dan Gustin, the director of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, says Kalamazoo may be feeling it worse than most. He says Kalamazoo is already fighting above its weight class when it comes to how much culture is in this small city. It’s an arts legacy that took off more than century ago, when W.E. Upjohn underwrote organizations like the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Civic Auditorium.

"But we are a small town," Gustin says. "And if you were a manager, to send an artist here, as opposed to presenting them at Orchestra Hall at Chicago, or in Pittsburgh or Miami or San Francisco, it’s not quite the same thing. It’s a much larger audience, arguably a more sophisticated community."

"But because we are small, I think the reviews are quite important here," Gustin continues. "To keep the recognition level high of what we do."

Between continued layoffs and the announcement of a new, more statewide strategy at MLive, getting that recognition for the arts could get even tougher.

In a statement, MLive Regional News Editor Julie Hoogland, said, “MLive has been a leader in arts coverage and will continue to look for the best ways to cover the arts throughout Michigan. Our approach is always evolving, and new forms will take shape in the coming weeks and months.”

But Kalamazoo’s arts scene isn’t waiting. About six months ago, the heads of groups including the Gilmore Festival, Fontana Chamber Arts, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Richmond Center, the Civic Theatre and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo all began meeting and talking about how to fill the arts news void.

The thinking now is to create a new organization that would produce an online publication, strictly focused on Kalamazoo’s arts scene.

"We’re thinking of the possibility of an organization, and I’m not exactly sure who that would be at this time, that would actually have an arts editor," says the Richmond Center's Desmett. "That term could change. But someone who would be in charge of gathering writers who know what they’re writing about. To cover the many events (in Kalamazoo)."

The talks are still largely in the early stages – mostly leaders still thinking in hypotheticals and theoreticals. But Fontana Executive Director David Baldwin says right now, they’re picturing a website that can serve two purposes.

The first: to preview and review local events from all kinds of organizations. The second: to serve as a kind of online arts hub, giving readers a list of everything arts-related happening in Kalamazoo.

"Ultimately, we want to get the word out for all arts organizations. Not just the large organizations who are involved in these conversations at the moment, but all the not-for-profit arts organizations. I think between the resources we all have, we all have email lists. Many may overlap, but a lot of them are individual and separate. And when we pool all of our contacts together, I think it can really make an effect. Now, is it the same as a local newspaper? I don’t know if we can ever actually replicate that. But it’s certainly better than what we have now."

And it’s something that arts leaders say is necessary, as a way to recognize that art is happening in this city. Kalamazoo Civic Theatre Executive Director Kristen Chesak says social media and marketing have helped to fill the void when it comes to getting the word out about an event. But with a review or an in-depth feature, she says, an event can be remembered in a different kind of way.

"But when it’s time to tell folks about why they should go to a particular piece of art, or it’s time to talk about how that art engages us as a community, then I think to have one independent authority – and independent meaning not the arts organization itself," Chesak says. "Because let's face it, as a staff member, I get paid to say how great my arts organization is. But if there’s somebody else who is a trusted or respected source in town, I think that goes a long way." 

Chesak remembers one specific review in the Kalamazoo Gazette. From September 29, 2001 -- a rendition of Oklahoma at the Civic Theatre.

"We decided to open. We decided to do this show. And the review came out, and it reminded me why we do theater. It reminded me that this reviewer said this is exactly what we needed right now."

  "And that was literally a week after 9/11. So the state of the nation was such that even in Kalamazoo, we were thinking, how do you celebrate after that?" Chesak says. "How do you come together as a community? How do you do anything but fixate on this horrible tragedy? We decided to open, we decided to do this show. And the review came out, and it reminded me why we do theater. It reminded me that this reviewer said this is exactly what we needed right now."

In the Gazette, critic Fred Peppel said Oklahoma “is as much the perfect antidote to the dark times we are experiencing as it was when it opened in 1943.”

"And if that hadn’t happened, and that person hadn’t written about it, then maybe I would have remembered it differently," Chesak says. "And that now, us looking back, we wouldn’t remember exactly why the Civic did Oklahoma at that moment in time. And why it was important."

But even with this need, arts organizations have a lot of questions remaining about an arts publication. How do you fund this new organization, with a full-time editor and critics? How do you keep it going, year after year?

The other big question: how do make sure the new publication is fully independent, and can do solid, objective journalism with no editorial pressure? Gustin says there are months of planning and strategizing still left, but he points to other cities as proof they can make it work. 

"We’re modeling our particular Southwest Michigan model on some extremely fine and effective online magazines in Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta," Gustin says. "They're out there. This is not a revolutionary idea, in other words. It’s working in other communities, and quite well."

Leaders say they’re aiming to launch the new publication as soon as possible.