Does the Foundation-Backed Critic Represent the Future of Arts and Culture Coverage?

It's a precarious time for cultural criticism of every kind. As any author knows, newspapers and magazines devote ever less space to reviewing books, leaving readers in the dark about who's publishing what. Even the fabled New York Times Book Review is rumored to be facing the ax. 

The story is much the same in other areas, including classical music criticism. Last year, WQXR devoted a show to how cost-conscious newspapers are devoting less space to "serious" criticism. And just a few days ago, Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker announced that the publication will be restructuring its print edition due to a decline in advertising and will reduce its coverage of the arts and culture.

To which a consortium of nonprofits and foundations said, "Enough already."

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, known for its support for symphonies and opera companies will help The Boston Globe pay for writer Zoë Madonna to be a music critic at the newspaper for 10 months. Madonna started work in early November.

At some level, this isn't all that surprising. We write all the time about the growing stream of grants to media outlets by funders alarmed by the rapid shrinking of the Fourth Estate. Typically, though, these funders are motivated by concern over thinning coverage of such critical issues as health, the environment, global affairs and criminal justice. It's less common that they have a cultural agenda. 

And it isn't very often that you see foundations banding together to fund a single job, much less one that most people take for granted, particularly at a national publication like the Globe. It's a testament to the dire state of classical music coverage in the journalism space. It represents the low-hanging fruit of cost-cutting.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the brains behind the arrangement hope it can be replicated elsewhere. And why not? It's safe to say newspapers may be more inclined to publish classical music criticism — or modern art, dance, or architecture criticism, for that matter — if someone else foots the bill.

Then again, questions inevitably arise anytime outside funders foot the bill for publications. For example, the Times points out that the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation provides financial support to many musical institutions, so at times it may find itself underwriting both a performance and its critic. Acutely aware of the optics, the consortium said that the Globe would retain complete editorial control over Madonna's assignments and her work. 

Foundation-funded critics may raise other sticky questions, too, but barring a miraculous financial turnaround for the newspaper industry, it seems like a logical and reasonable compromise. As with so much of the funding coming in to a struggling media sector, the positives far outweigh any negatives. 

Stephen Rubin, the president and publisher of Henry Holt & Company and the founder of the criticism institute, concurs. "I hope the Globe’s willingness to partner with us will be a model for other newspapers across the land," he said.