Category Archives: Journalism

Music, maestro, please. But can’t you be a little nicer?

So much going on in town, so little time. So VERY little time, when you’re on the road.

TBA? For a lot of people in Portland, PICA’s orgy of the experimental and unusual is the biggest arts deal of the year. Looks like I won’t catch any of it. Which is why, Dear Reader, you won’t be reading about it here.

Carlos Kalmar/Oregon SymphonyThe symphony’s kicking into its season. So are the opera and the city’s theater companies. Ballet is getting ready to haul out the slippers. Across the city, tuxedos are coming out of mothballs (OK, that’s an exaggeration: This IS Portland) and uptown revelers are dusting off their dancing shoes.

Me? This morning I’m behind the wheel again, making like Willie Nelson as I head for far eastern Oregon and the Wallowa Mountains. If Heaven can wait, so can All My Sons.

Yes, the League of Tough-Guy Arts Observers is going to have to do without me for a spell.

Playing catch-up, I discover Bill Donahue’s intriguing profile in the current Portland Monthly of Carlos Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony’s conductor and musical director. I know Bill a little, and he’s not only a good guy but also one of the city’s most graceful writers. And he’s fearless. He admits right up front that he went into this story knowing next to nothing about classical music. Then he does his homework, and he does it well enough to write some gorgeous passages about life behind the scenes.

Trouble is, according to a lot of musicians, it’s tough to make up for a lifetime of neglect in such a short time. In short, they say, Bill didn’t know enough about the way orchestras work to be able to weigh his impressions adequately. They believe he misunderstands the complex relationship between conductor and musicians, and sees lots of controversy where little exists. True enough, a certain amount of ogre shows up in Bill’s depiction of the Big Bad Autocrat, although he also hints that all that aloofness and disdain might be just part of the maestro act.

Wherever you fall on this question, Bill’s story is a good read, and I recommend it — with this caveat: To balance it out, you should go to Daily Observations, symphony violist Charles Noble’s urbane and insightful music blog, to see how he and other musicians respond. The conversation — the dialectic, if you’re a Brechtian or a devotee of classical Greek philosophy — is sharp, and maybe by bouncing the two sides against each other you’ll find your own version of the truth. This is Noble’s main post on the controversy, and it includes a lot of reader comments worth your time.

Happy reading. I’m thinking about dusty roads and cowboy hats.

Scenes from a writers’ marriage: How he got that story

Rick Bartow: Crow's Delusion (He Who Must Be Obeyed). Courtesy Froelick Gallery


Today my current first husband and I can legally drink. We’ve been married 21 years.

We can’t legally drink and celebrate together because I’m spending our special day with my mom. But it’s not the special days that make a marriage special. It’s the everyday little things. Like laughing and teasing. Like coffee together in the morning.

The first Christmas we spent together, my current first husband gave me a coffee maker. Sweet? I was pissed. But I gotta admit, that coffee maker was our loyal morning friend for 20 years, part of many a happy moment. Good memories are made of many a happy moment. Good marriages, too.

There’s one moment, though, that I will always hold dear.


My current first husband wrote a post recently and described a certain look in my eyes. Damn, but he beat me to it. Because little did he know that I have been working on a certain story that has just such a look, albeit a tad bit different and a shade bit farther … and on a certain somebody else. Actually, I’ve been tooling this story around in my head for many years. But a recent event swept through my brain like a tornado in Kansas and collected all the disparate thoughts, lifted them up, swirled them around and plunked them down again.


I met Rick Bartow a few weeks ago,
and now I understand.

I understand a story I first started hearing years ago.

Rick Bartow. Courtesy Froelick GalleryIt was early 2002. Mr. Scatter and I and the large smelly boys – who were not so large and not so smelly back then – were driving several hours north to visit family. To visit my mom, in fact. The not-so-large not-so-smelly boys must have been blessedly quiet in the backseat for a long stretch of road. We’ll just chalk that up to divinity and not ask why.

Mr. Scatter had recently visited Rick at his home and studio in Newport, Ore., for research to write a story. He had been typing away on it for a few days. But he was at loose ends. I could tell. Because he was talking about it incessantly, as much to figure out a throughway for the story as he was just plum excited.

He was trying to get his arms around a giant octopus and he hadn’t quite figured out how to land it.


After meeting Rick and seeing him perform, now I know why. Rick and two of his musician buddies did a show with Portland Taiko on July 2. Mr. Scatter is on the board of Portland Taiko, so even though I was looking forward to finally hearing Rick, I figured it would be an evening of smiling and shaking hands. I fretted about taking the right handbag.

It had been a blistering hot day and the event was taking place on the roof of the DeSoto Building in the Pearl, above Froelick Gallery. Frying came to mind. But by evening, the temperature had cooled to balmy, a slight breeze had kicked in and the sky was an uncanny even blue, deepening darker as the night wore on and lending a crisper backdrop for a half moon that lifted and slowly shifted through the show. It was magic.

Rick was even better. He was immediately open and generous, a magnetic guy who took a blues song and elevatored it down to deep dark basements faster than you can push a button. His songs were earthy and mystical and wrapped in rich, complex storytelling. He didn’t hold back.

What a gift. He talked of his past substance abuse, Vietnam, friends who have died, the beginnings of songs, the ends of songs. He wasn’t afraid of ugly. And he wasn’t afraid of sweet.

His stories unspooled for anyone lucky enough to have a seat. Friends. Strangers. He opened up for everyone. It was the gift he gave.

Afterward, Mr. Scatter and I chatted with him. I asked if he ever played at the Blues Festival, which was happening at the same time at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. He said no, he just can’t take the crowds. His nerves get to him.

I understand that, too. He seemingly wears all of his nerves on the outside. He takes in everything, absorbs it, feels it, and gives it back. For someone to perform like that, he must be perceptive to the slightest vibrations. And when you’re that sensitive, when all your pores are open to everything that comes in, crowds can be overwhelming. It’s too much all at once. There’s a lot of good in there, but the bad comes with it.

I want to say that Rick is a big man, but that doesn’t sound right. He’s a big spirit. At once gentle and rough.

Continue reading Scenes from a writers’ marriage: How he got that story

Sunday links: Art garden and a wild and crazy quote

A quick Sunday scatter of good stuff in other places:

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "Summer," 1573, Louvre/Paris. Wikimedia Commons*************************

FEED THE BODY, FEED THE MIND: Under the headline Philbrook Museum of Art Trades Tulips for Tomatoes, reports that Tulsa’s Philbrook — the museum that Brian Ferriso left to become executive director of the Portland Art Museum — is replacing its 3,600-square-foot south formal garden with a vegetable garden and will give the veggies to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma to help Oklahomans get through the economic crisis. Now, there’s a conceptual art project we can get behind. Bravo. Too often when times get tough, culture and shelter (and schools, for that matter) get tossed into an either/or funding game, turning natural allies into competing animals at a shrinking watering hole. As this project reveals, it doesn’t have to be that way.


STEVE MARTIN UNLEASHED: The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley has a good report in Sunday’s O! section on how things turned out when students from the local high school finally got to put on their production of Steve Martin‘s stage comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile. They performed it at Eastern Oregon University instead of at the high school because the school board, after receiving parental complaints about the play’s purported immorality, called the thing off.

Martin then stepped in and paid for the production himself, and in a letter to the local paper he came up with this gem, which Hughley quotes:

“I have heard that some in your community have characterized the play as ‘people drinking in bars, and treating women as sex objects.’ With apologies to William Shakespeare, this is like calling Hamlet a play about a castle.”

Yes, Xenophobia, there is an Oregon. But the good news to take from Marty’s story is that it doesn’t have to be that way.


IN SWITZERLAND, A SWING TO THE RIGHT: A few art insiders complained when Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times’ chief art critic, decamped to Europe for a year instead of paying attention to what was happening on the art scene stateside. Not me. I’ve enjoyed his Abroad reports. They’ve helped an already top-notch critic broaden his knowledge even further, and they’ve given readers a lot of good stories they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

One of the best is last week’s report from Zurich, In Quiet Switzerland, Outspoken Rapper Takes on the Far Right, about an Estonian-born Swiss rapper stage-named Stress who’s stirred up some welcome controversy by tackling directly in his lyrics chemicals tycoon Christoph Blocher, powerful head of the ultranationalist Swiss People’s Party, who is one scary dude. Like Hitler and Stalin before him, Blocher uses his own sanitized vision of cultural purity in the arts to push his ideal of the perfect, and perfectly xenophobic, homeland. Kimmelman writes:

Mr. Blocher used his own collection of works by 19th-century painters like Albert Anker and Ferdinand Hodler in shows he organized to illustrate what he has said represent wholesome Swiss ideals: women in the home, farmers milking cows, a nation historically separated from outsiders by more than just mountains.

Steve Martin, the good people of Switzerland need you. Now.


A CREATIVE WAKE-UP CALL IN PORTLAND?: Also in Sunday’s O! section of The Oregonian, visual arts critic D.K. Row files this intriguing report on how the flap over City Hall’s recent push to bulldoze Portland’s Memorial Coliseum has lit an activist fire under at least a slice of the city’s creative class. D.K. quotes architect/activist Stuart Emmons:

“We’ve just said, ‘Enough.’ We need to speak out for what we believe in and quit allowing politics to keep us from what’s right. This goes way beyond Memorial Coliseum.”

This could give a whole new meaning to the phrase “the art of politics.” Stay tuned. Let’s see where this thing heads.


ON ART AND THE CRITICS: A recent Art Scatter post about Rocco Landesman’s appointment to run the National Endowment for the Arts sparked a heady and rambunctious round of comments that went off in all sorts of directions. I hope to get back to some of those issues, notably the meaning of “local” in the arts and the role of failure in creativity: Is it a necessary element of discovery, or a cult of self-absorption that ignore the needs and rights of the audience? Then there was this note from playwright, filmmaker, novelist and teacher Charles Deemer:

“At their best, critics are mediators between the artist and the society that doesn’t quite get it yet. At their worst, critics themselves don’t get it and go on to say it’s therefore not worth trying to figure out.”

Can’t argue with that. But if you’d like to, hit that comment button.

Memorial Coliseum: The empire strikes back

portlandmemorialcolWell, damn those architects’ pointy little heads. What right do they have to protest the demolition of a historically important building when a billionaire’s profits are on the line?

Astonishingly, that seems to be the subtext of this morning’s banner story in The Oregonian, under the reductionist headline, Save the coliseum, but for what? Unlike the paper’s previous reporting on the issue of razing or saving Memorial Coliseum, which has been solid, this piece feels like it belongs on the op-ed page. Even then, it’s poorly thought out — mainly, in its thrust, a repetition of the Portland Trail Blazer/City of Portland talking points and a flicking-away of the several legitimate counterproposals that have been made for use of the building. Now that Mayor Sam Adams has given the Coliseum at least a temporary reprieve, this morning’s story reads like the first strike in a counter-campaign to get it torn down, after all. That’s a legitimate goal for an opinion-page story, even though I happen to think it’s the wrong choice. But why am I reading it on the front page, in the guise of a news story?

I won’t get into the arguments in favor of preserving the Coliseum, which have been made well and often in several places (among them Portland Arts Watch, Burnside Blog, Portland Architecture and Culture Shock), except to say this: For all of Portland’s vaunted reputation as a well-planned city, it’s hardly overloaded with buildings of real architectural distinction, and that makes the potential loss of any excellent work of architecture a matter for deep public concern. I’m not an architect, and the International Style is hardly my favorite — indeed, I have a lot of issues with it — but you save what you have, and in the case of Memorial Coliseum, what Portland has is an elegant, almost startlingly pure expression of the International ethos. We’re not talking about an abandoned Home Depot here, in spite of City Commissioner Randy Leonard’s unfortunate stab at architecture criticism.

After establishing the impracticality of the architectural trade in general (why, you’d almost think they were college professors!), The Oregonian’s story gets down to business: The Coliseum is a money-loser. An accompanying bar chart reveals that, yes, for the past three years it’s lost money, mainly because the city’s spent close to $2 million in that time period on needed upkeep (the bill’s been $3.2 million since 2000). And it could cost another $13 million or more to make up for years of neglect and get the place in really good shape again.

Fair enough, although the chart also reveals that in the three immediately preceding years the Coliseum stacked up profits of $243,000, $338,000 and $275,000 — even though the Blazers, who have the sole right to manage and book the building even though it’s city-owned, haven’t had a lot of incentive to push the Coliseum to the detriment of their own Rose Garden a quick jog away.

Continue reading Memorial Coliseum: The empire strikes back

The future of content (or why we should stop listening to consultants and start reading cyberpunk)

Benjamin Franklin and printing press. Charles Mills/1914/Wikimedia Commons


All across the country people are clamoring for artists (and the writers who cover them) to create new models that will be financially viable in this new economy. The answers so far have reminded me of a running joke we have in the performing arts.

It goes like this:

When you ask a new person (a board member, an intern) to brainstorm ideas for how to sell more tickets, the first words out of their mouth will inevitably be, “Why don’t we put up posters in coffee shops?”

If you ask a theater director the same question, you’ll hear “Hey! Why don’t we perform a segment of the show at the mall/Rotary Club/local High School/local Rock Club?”

The Marketing Director’s tactic of choice? “Let’s lower the price!”

And recently, in media circles, there has been a lot of talk about how to save the press by moving it online. The most common suggestion: “I know! Let’s do a newspaper subscription. Only, like, ONLINE.”

Why do these suggestions crop up, again and again? They recur because they arise out of the core temperament of the people making the suggestion. An artist loves nothing more than to put on a show – so of course their first idea for promotion will be “let’s put on a show.” A marketing director is fulfilled by the sight of a full house – no matter what price is paid for the seat. And a publisher likes to curate the content you see (for a fee) – we each push for the model we understand, the one that fulfills the desires that drew us into the business in the first place.

But these models are failing, all around us. And our solutions (more pop music at the symphony! Boozy cheap theater nights for young/gay/nerdy people! Subscription based websites!) are sourced from the past, variations on our last ten great ideas. They’re based on great research, but they are failing to improve the crumbling bottom lines of our institutions.
Continue reading The future of content (or why we should stop listening to consultants and start reading cyberpunk)

Miss Laura gets a new life: a bouquet


Today, you may have heard, is the first day of the rest of your life.
Forgive the cliche, but every now and again a cliche lines up with actual events. So it does today, Friday, May 1, 2009, which is the final day of the remarkable Miss Laura’s remarkable 24-year career in the trenches (another cliche, but what the heck) of the daily journalism racket.

Farewell to all that. Baby, let the good times roll.

First, a glorious bouquet, which you see above. It’s called “Bouquet of Flowers on a Ledge,” probably because it’s a bouquet and it’s sitting on a ledge. The Dutch artist Ambrosius Bosschaert — they just don’t make names like that any more — painted it in 1619, and it now resides in the Los Angeles County Museum. But not, I imagine, on a ledge.

My next task is to whisk her out of town for a weekend on the Olympic Peninsula in the company of oysters, bubbly, martinis and a select company of relatives who appreciate the generous charms of the oyster (raw and baked), the bubbly (foreign and domestic) and the martini (dirty, with four olives). The children will be along, of course. But that’s what relatives are for, isn’t it? — watching the kids when you need them watched?

Viennese Melange, coffee w/hot foamed milk. Wikimedia CommonsThen, beginning Monday, it will be incumbent on me (an odd turn of phrase, but there you have it) to introduce her to my wandering route of coffee houses, especially those with free wireless connections. Who says you can’t work and drink at the same time?

Not that it’s all going to be work. Miss Laura’s friend Beth, who lives in the neighborhood just up the hill, also leaves gainful employment on this sanctified day (shall we call it Good Friday?), and I suspect escapades in the offing. Perhaps with coffee. Perhaps with bubbly. Perhaps with gardens, or a good brisk walk in the coming summer sun.

Note to wife: Go ahead. Sleep in Monday morning. I’ll get the kids off to school. Then, maybe, Helser’s or J&M or Grand Central?

With or without the morning paper.

Warning: Much idle thought about newspapers below

 Miehle Newspaper Press at the Provost News in the '60s
Art Scatter has followed with more than passing interest the ongoing debates over the future of journalism in the U.S. I started to type “newspapers,” because the rapid decline of the large corporations that own most of the larger daily newspapers in the country has already wiped out thousands of journalist positions in the country, at exactly the moment that television and radio news have also hit the skids. But we now understand that “newspaper” and “journalism” are not synonymous, that in fact journalism of wildly varying quality can be found just about everywhere, from newspapers to electronic media to digital media. Even at comedy clubs.

Just to get everyone up-to-date with the latest arguments about the decline of journalism and how to reverse it, we have some links!

The most radical suggestion I’ve heard recently for saving the free press comes from Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, writing in the The Nation. I knew Mr. McChesney back when we both worked at the Seattle Sun, a now-defunct alternative weekly paper, in the late 1970s. In fact, he succeeded me as publisher at the Sun, though I don’t think he lasted as long as I did before he escaped to academia. He’s now a professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Illinois, and he’s devoted his career to describing and critiquing the power of tightly controlled corporate media in various manifestations.

McChesney and Nichols argue that our idea of a free press needs to be expanded exponentially and funded by government subsidies. Some would be indirect in the form of $200 tax credits for taxpayers who subscribe to a daily newspaper of their choice. “We could see this evolving into a system to provide tax credits for online subscriptions as well.” For a paper like The Oregonian, that would add up to something approaching $60 million, though McChesney and Nichols are hoping for something better than The Oregonian. And, in fact, they are hoping that competitors to The Oregonian enter the field.

They also want direct subsidies to fund public journalism along the lines of European models. They even want to fund extensive journalism programs in public schools — how else can you get young people excited about what’s going on their world? And really, that’s the role of journalism in a democracy: to keep we, the citizens, both and informed about and engaged in our government, our culture and our sports teams. OK. I added those last two part myself.

I think of Steven Berlin Johnson as a futurist who sees the future in the past, and his speech at SXSW in Austin on the future of media does exactly that. He extrapolates from his experience with the rapid expansion of tech journalism during the past 25 years or so, and doesn’t really see a problem. Sure, there will be dislocations, but the quantity and quality of journalism as a whole is likely to expand as rapidly as the quality of one of its parts, tech journalism. And frankly, when I think about it, he might be right already for national-level issues. But it’s the local where we live, and the local where we have the greatest fear about the loss of journalism. Twenty fewer commentators on the stimulus package wouldn’t be such a great loss. One fewer person covering Portland Public Schools on a regular basis would get us down to near-zero. Would a little niche-ecology of bloggers rush in to fill the void? I’m thinking of greater outreach by the school district itself and the teachers’ union, maybe the PTA, along with various educational observers of various stripes. Maybe so. Johnson is a smart guy, so he could be right. And his suggestion can be easily followed — do nothing!

Which is where Clay Shirky, an Internet theoretician, ends up in his looping essay on the history of information revolutions. We can debate his “read” of recent American media history, which boils down to expensive printing presses losing out to cheap online servers. (McChesney and Nichols, for example, would probably suggest that the mega-media corporations became addicted to the massive profit margins of newspapers and failed to invest in them, instead wringing every penny out of them that they could.) But his essay is still a fascinating tour of the press since Gutenberg.

We’ll stop for now with an short essay by Alan Mutter
from his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog. Mutter has been a journalist, though he moved on to the Silicon Valley, and his blog attempts 1) to describe how dire things are for the news business, and 2) what positive signs he sees out there for the future. That’s what the linked post does.

Newspapers: Leaner, meaner, livelier or else

I have been devoted to newspapers since — oh, since I was 6 or 7 and getting caught up in the ongoing adventures of Gasoline Alley and Our Boarding House and Little Orphan Annie and other daily heirs to The Yellow Kid.

My print addiction built with my childhood passion for baseball and the after-game quotations of heroes such as Ted Williams, whose fondest phrase, as passed along by sportswriters and dutifully cleaned up by copy editors, was “blankety-blank” — as in, “That blankety-blank umpire couldn’t call a blankety-blank pitch in a blankety-blank grade school game!”

Those were the days.

And these are these days, when the daily newspaper is teetering on the brink of (choose one or more):

— Irrelevance.

— Extinction.

— Rebirth.

Not a lot of people are betting on that third option. By the time I bailed out of the full-time journalism racket almost a year ago, after nearly 40 years of writing and editing for other people’s publications, we in the working press had pretty much taken to referring to ourselves (or at least, our institutions) as the Titanic, muttering with grim humor about rearranging the deck chairs.

And we did so in pretty much a vast silence, as onetime readers and never-bothereds ignored our flailings in droves — at the same time our advertisers were scuttling toward the greener pastures of Craigslist and television and direct mail and, if we were lucky, those preprinted inserts that arrive on your sidewalk with the morning news but don’t pay the newspaper what an old-fashioned ad on the page pays.

Long before Wall Street’s spectacular tumble, newspapers started taking it on the chin. Massive layoffs and buyouts, from the Washington Post to the New York Times (100 lopped from the newsroom) to the Los Angeles Times to The Oregonian, where I was one of nearly 30 members — all with decades of experience — of the Buyout Class of 2007. Now The Oregonian is in the process of another huge voluntary buyout, cutting 50 people from the newsroom and lots more in other departments. In Portland and across the country, it’s a journalistic brain drain of astonishing proportions.

What brought a great American institution to such a pass?
Over at Culture Shock, the sharply inquisitive blogger Mighty Toy Cannon has begun a fascinating conversation on newspapers and readership and the link between a critical press and a city’s cultural life. It’s a great discussion, right up Art Scatter’s alley, and I encourage you to join the fray. But the existence of broad and lively cultural coverage in the local press also depends on the health and stability of the press in general, and that’s a deeper discussion. So here goes. You’re going to read a lot of generalizations here, and a lot of tentative ideas. But it’s a start. Feel free to pitch in.

Continue reading Newspapers: Leaner, meaner, livelier or else