In her final weeks, Farr continued reviewing; it was important to her to get as many shows down for the record as she could. On November 21 she introduced readers to painter Grant Barnhart's show Remember Me When. Farr painstakingly describes his feverish talent: "Barnhart's addled brand of neo-Americana is built on order, chaos, dark omens and a touch of humor. . . . The imagery turns from innocence to a nightmarish medley of brutality and glitz, testosterone, bare midriffs and vicious girl fights."
In the review, you can almost see the work — you want to see it, perhaps even to drive across town to see it, the way people come out to see a rare star when it appears in the night sky.
The White essay is worth reading in full, exploring the decline of arts coverage at daily papers. It's particularly noticeable in Seattle, since the recent scaling back of arts sections. White served for several months as The P-I's arts and entertainment editor, where her efforts to shake things up went badly and she departed, soon shifting to the new post at City Arts. Her experience at the daily indicates one problem these papers are having: getting long-established critics to change their approach is not easy. (Witness the huge furor at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer for moving a classical music critic off a beat where he may have become wearily predictable.)
In the place of departed theater, (Joe Adcock) art (Farr), and music (Melinda Bargreen, Patrick MacDonald) critics, both papers are using a lot more freelancers, and White correctly notes the problems with the freelancers' life and their difficulty in establishing deep authority:
Seattle native and LA Times staff rock critic Ann Powers describes the freelancer's plight this way. "A [freelance] critic is never able to be comfortable that they own a space in the dialogue, that they will have a true place in the community conversation." If staff critics like Farr and Powers feel compelled to articulate the cultural history of their cities, the freelancer's survival instinct compels him or her to secure the next paycheck before embarking on any history lessons.
Maybe. Many great papers have deployed marvelous freelance critics, who often keep themselves vital by being active participants in the arts and writing books in their freed-up time. A critic who stays on too long can often become too close to the artists he or she is writing about, or start mailing it in. And don't forget it is often the newspapers' unions which also discourage developing a pool of good freelancers, fearful of job-displacement. That said, losing Sheila Farr is a shame.
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