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Everyone's a Critic: Walker's Superscript Conference Ponders the Future of Arts Journalism

A writer and a critic face off in the semi-finals of Write Fight I, a project by Revolver during Northern Spark, 2013

A writer and a critic face off in the semi-finals of Write Fight I, a project by Revolver during Northern Spark, 2013

The Walker Art Center launches a first-of-its-kind conference this week, bringing together arts critics, journalists, and thinkers to deconstruct the role of arts journalism and criticism in the digital age. The Superscript conference -- headed up by Paul Schmelzer, who runs the Walker's innovative website, and Susannah Schouweiler, editor of mnartists -- will examine how we think about art, how to cultivate new audiences, and the role of the professional critic in the age of democratized media. Guest speakers include professionals from Buzzfeed, the Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, and Vice. 

In addition to attending the conference, the Walker is offering alternative ways to participate, such as the free event on Thursday night, which will include activities run by Revolver. The local literary magazine will be seeking submissions of "the worst and harshest criticism you've ever received," says Schouweiler. Afterward, they'll assemble quotes into a chaplet that they'll hand out at the conference. The evening also includes food, film, socializing, and a live DJ. 

Throughout weekend, the Walker will not only be live-streaming the conference, it will also provide live stenography.

"This is a crowd of journalists,"  Schouweiler says. "We want to make it easy for people to grab quotes." It should also be fun to watch the stenography unfold in combination with following the tweets and social media posts throughout the conference. 

The Superscript conference has been in the works since 2011, when the Walker revamped its homepage to be a news hub. Part of the idea was to address the changing landscape of media and how that shift has affected arts writing. 

Ryan Schreiber founder and editor of Pitchfork

Ryan Schreiber founder and editor of Pitchfork

"The terrain has changed in the media," Schmelzer says. "There are more newsroom cuts and fewer legacy media that have arts staff. Also, social media has changed since we launched." Superscript is a chance to "have a moment to convene a conference about the challenges we are facing." 

Schmelzer calls Superscript a first of its kind. While journalism schools have held conferences that focus on the arts, "no art institution has done this," he says. 

"I think we just want to be a part of the conversation about this changing industry," Schmelzer says about the Walker's goals for the conference. "We are in the business of the contemporary moment, so this is a logical arena for us to be engaged in." 

"I'm a media nerd," Schouweiler professes. "I love this stuff. I would love to see the conversation continue well into the future." The topics explored in the conference are threads that mnartists will pursue. "People are experimenting with innovative ways to tell stories," Schouweiler says. "There's great stuff happening right now."

While the industry hasn't yet cracked the code for how to fund arts journalism, it's still proliferating. "I've never read so much arts writing right now," she continues. "What isn't always happening is finding a way of making this thing have value in a professional way. The professional paths are a little murky." 

At the same time, Schouweiler points out that what we think of as traditional platforms of hiring arts writers in staff positions hasn't been around that long, but from after World War II to the 1990s these types of jobs flourished.

While it might be reasonable for journalists to expect to be compensated, "I'm not sure you can expect there to be a ready staff position," Schouweiler says. "You kind of have to carve out an eccentric path. That doesn't mean it's impossible to make it. Plenty of people are doing it, you just have to be a lot more entrepreneurial." 

A career in the arts is never a sure thing. "However, the web offers more possibilities for a wider variety of choices," says Schouweiler. 

IF YOU GO:

The Superscript conference kicks off Thursday night with Everyone's a Critic, a free and open event that runs from from 6 to 9 p.m.