By Kahliah Laney
When new Editor and Vice President of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Jeff Light, laid-off renowned art critic Robert Pincus early this summer, the backlash that ensued was unexpected. Readers in the art, culture and book communities were outraged and organized themselves via Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere.
Pincus had been with the paper for nearly 25 years and had firmly established himself as the voice of San Diego’s arts and culture community. When that voice was lost readers united forming a new voice – one of protest. The culmination of this protest was the July 9th Warwick’s Forum.
While the forum did not lead to the reinstatement of Pincus, it did open up a dialogue about an alternative method of supporting his position; a consortium between the San Diego Union-Tribune, the University of San Diego and an unnamed arts organization.
“I think people maybe initially thought it was a ‘rehire-Bob-Pincus’ thing but that was never our goal,” said Adrian Newell, book buyer for the 100-year-old Warwick’s Bookstore which was the site of the forum.
Because Pincus had been acting as the paper’s book critic for the past two years, the book community was also swept into the fray. Warwick’s staff approached the forum with the overall goal of at least retaining both book and art criticism in the paper. “Our goal was to say, ‘Okay, these changes are happening, so what can we as a community do to ensure that there’s still good coverage and that the [books] page doesn’t disappear completely’.”
And while that may not have been a shared goal among attendees that is exactly what seems to have occurred – at least partly – as a result of the Warwick’s Forum.
According to Hugh Davies, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, at the time of this interview, Jeff Light had a meeting scheduled with the University of San Diego’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Mary Boyd, to discuss a financial collaboration that would allow Pincus to continue on as the art critic for the Union-Tribune.
Some attendees of the forum even indicated that Davies initially volunteered to be a part of this trisect.
“Hugh Davies said that he would pledge to bring resources or bring his backing potentially to some kind of a blog or collaborative effort or foundation that allowed Mr. Pincus to keep writing,” said John Seed, a Huffington Post writer and art and art history professor at Mt. San. Jacinto College.
At the time of the interview, however, Davies confirmed that he would not be participating in the structuring of any possible consortium.
“I’ve deliberately stayed out of the loop because I don’t think it’s appropriated for me to be involved any further, I don’t want to compromise my relationship with our art critic,” he said.
“When it comes to fundraising all my energy goes toward raising money for my museum – that’s what I’m paid to do.”
And while it appears that one potential player has already removed themselves from the creation of a possibly successful alternative, others remain optimistic.
“He assured us that his goal is not to do away with the book section at all,” said Newell of Light who met with her and other staff from Warwick’s bookstore after the forum. “He’s actually expanding it to a full page and giving it slightly better placement in the paper and wants it to really feature more local [topics].”
Light was also given a vote of confidence by Davies.
“I must give credit to Jeff Light … for stepping up and agreeing to make a … commitment in the amount of $25,000 or $30,000 a year to challenge the community and to create the opportunity to pioneer a new model in supporting art criticism,” said Davies. “I find it very exciting because this is a problem in every city.”
Other players in the book community are a lot less confident in the ability of Light to produce a quality book review page and are skeptical as to whether or not he will retain the page at all in the future or follow through on creating the collaborative.
“The only good news out of all of this, and this is the bottom line,” says Sandra Dijkstra, San Diego’s leading literary agent, “Because the citizens did put up a fight there is more arts coverage than ever before and then we saved the book page, at least for now.”
Dijkstra says that reporters have been ardently covering the arts in the past couple of weeks perhaps as a result of the forum.
“Jeff’s original idea was to get rid of the book page I mean that was what he was going to do,” she said. “He was saying that we don’t need the 12th review of a book as if to say every review of a book doesn’t matter.”
If the books page were to be cut, Dijkstra fears that publishers will decide not to come to San Diego which could translate into a huge blow for the city’s book industry.
The art community on the other hand was less concerned with how losing Pincus would impact the business end of things and more concerned with losing the unique identity of the San Diego art scene which Pincus has helped craft over the course of a quarter century.
“What you lose, when you lose art critics, is you lose the authority and you lose the context,” said Seed of the overall implications.
“I don’t think that there’s anyone in that community who better knows every artist, the artist’s development, the development of the local galleries and institutions,” he said of Pincus, “So he really is a historian of that scene and when you lose him, you lose the richness of that history.”
Furthermore, Seed believes that Light made a bad business decision.
“I think Jeff Light has it wrong and that he made a practical mistake in letting Mr. Pincus go because I think that he really offended a very large dedicated audience,” said Seed. “In other words, just from a business perspective obviously Mr. Pincus was a senior journalist and well paid but I think Mr. Light made a business mistake.”
Dijkstra echoed that sentiment.
“This is the point I’ve been trying to make to Jeff, that, ironically, the further back they dial, the voices of local writers who are here … the more generic the coverage becomes, the less reason for people to read it. But he doesn’t seem to get that.”
For some members of the arts, culture and book community it is not enough to simply have any book or art critic; they want someone with “credibility and continuity” as Seed put it. They want Pincus.
Other stakeholders, however, don’t see a reinstatement happening and think reader’s energy would be better spent developing the alternative that was discussed at the forum.
“I really don’t see, and this is my opinion but I think it’s shared by those of us here at Warwick’s, we really don’t see Bob Pincus ever being rehired,” said Newell.
Davies seconded Newell’s statement and went on to point out how receptive the Union-Tribune had been to the wants of the community even though they didn’t have to be.
“This is a very generous and constructive offer from the newspaper and I applaud them for doing it. They didn’t have any obligation to do this.”
Whatever the outcome may be readers were successful in capturing the attention of newsmakers, getting them to listen and then act. Moreover they were successful in letting the editorial board know what they want to see in their daily paper: Arts and culture coverage.
And despite having lost his job of nearly 25 years, even Robert Pincus was hopeful about the prospect of a public/private collaboration to support the arts. Through his ordeal, he found validation in knowing that readers still value the role of the art critic.
“Until it happened, I didn’t realize how strongly readers felt a bond with what I was doing,” he said. “I think it’s an interesting development because people really do want this kind of coverage.”
In the face of having to make cuts to meet bottom lines, some media outlets may be wondering if people want this kind of coverage in their daily paper. For the readers of the San Diego Union-Tribune, there is no question; the answer is yes.