7 Critics Who Could Lead Cultural Institutions


Maybe they were trying to get everyone’s attention. Maybe they succeeded. Last month, one of The New York Times’ headlines was:

A Critic of a Design Museum Will Lead It

You see, a cultural institution was doing something almost unheard of:

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The Museum of Arts and Design has named Glenn Adamson as its director, choosing a researcher without the typical executive experience who has been one of the museum’s most scathing critics.

The museum’s board called it a bold choice, and Lewis Kruger, the museum’s chairman, glossed over past criticisms. “He is knowledgeable about the subject matter, a great believer in process, a writer about process,” he said. “I think he will be a great director for us.”

Adamson has been a major thorn in MAD’s side, taking issue with its home of five years at 2 Columbus Circle in New York (following a pitched battle with local preservationists), and taking issue with the museum’s programming:

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In a 2011 review in Art in America that was pegged to a show about contemporary African works, Dr. Adamson criticized the new building. “These galleries are unforgiving in their proportions — too narrow for comfort,” he wrote, “but that has not stopped the curators from packing them to the rafters.” The museum, he continued, “has little more than indiscrimination to call its own.”

Dr. Adamson even questioned the name change. “The new name seemed to have been chosen mainly for its vagueness — all the arts, and design too? Isn’t design one of the arts anyway?” he wrote. “Obviously, the real objective, beyond erasing the word ‘craft,’ was to eliminate all the baggage the term brought along with it.”

Which didn’t endear Adamson to Holly Hotchner, MAD’s longtime director, who he now will replace:

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Ms. Hotchner fired back with a letter to the editor in Art in America: “Through our name change we hoped to change the public perception of the term ‘craft,’ so that we could use it in its true and legitimate sense. We had to face the fact that many people associate ‘craft’ with nonprofessional hobby work or even folk art. So we dropped a word that owned us, so that we could take ownership of it and use it as it should be used – as a verb, not a noun.”

All of which got us thinking: how often do critics lead artistic organizations? Or service groups? Or government agencies? Like, ever? What if one did? Here are seven critics who could theoretically do so — though we know they never will. Who would you nominate?

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critics51) Critic: Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times
Institution: A Chicago theatre artist we know told us that if Weiss were to lead a theatre, it should be the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, which offers mainstream, inoffensive fare like Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 and Disney’s Mary Poppins, since “there’s only so much harm you can do.”
Probability: There isn’t enough ice in hell to freeze over.
Commentary: The League of Chicago Theatres counts more than 220 members, so if Weiss ever left the Chicago Sun-Times, where she has worked since 1984, there would be plenty of candidates for her to choose from. Still, few such candidates would welcome her with open arms, for Weiss might well when the award for most controversial theatre critic in America. In 2004, she called playwright Tony Kushner “a self-loathing Jew” in a short, withering takedown of his musical Caroline, or Change. In 2006, she was lambasted by musical theatre writers for reviewing new tuners which, claimed the writers, were not open for review. Just a few weeks ago, she digressed within a play review to offer her support for racial profiling, prompting the Sun-Times to excise the language in question. (We’ll say this for Weiss: her endurance level — 29 years! — is nothing less than extraordinary, her opinions are spotlessly articulated, and her legacy, whatever one think of her, is absolutely secure. How many critics can we say that about? In the much-changed world of 21st century arts criticism, not very many, if the truth be told.)

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2) Critic: Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
Institution: CalArts School of Theater, where he is already faculty.
Probability: Not unthinkable.
Commentary: The LA Stage Alliance counts more than 240 members and professional affiliations with at least another 200 groups, so McNulty, who has toiled at the L.A. Times since 2005, would be in the same position as Weiss, minus the loathing. His background includes journalism and academia — his official biography notes that the former Village Voice theater critic/editor earned his “doctorate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from the Yale School of Drama,” has “taught at Yale, the New School, NYU, the CUNY Graduate Center and UCLA,” and “got his theatrical start as a literary intern at the New York Public Theater in the days of Joseph Papp.”

3) Critic: Paul Goldberger, Vanity Fair (and Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at The New School)
Institution: The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Probability: Could happen.
Commentary: Merely introducing Goldberger to those unfamiliar with him defines absurdity, but here are a few morsels: 1997-2011, architecture critic for The New Yorker; Dean of the Parsons school of Design; The New York Times architecture critic (1973-97), chief cultural correspondent (1994-97) and cultural news editor (1990-94); five honorary doctorates. The idea of Goldberger heading the LPC is a natural: In 1996, Rudolph Giuliani bestowed him with the LPC’s Preservation Achievement Award, saluting his unparalleled efforts to save the Big Apple for future generations. In a post-Michael Bloomberg world, the LPC may need a figure with integrity and vision.

4) Critic: Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine
Institution: Dance New Amsterdam.
Probability: Unnecessary.
Commentary: We teamed Perron, who has sat atop the Dance Magazine masthead since 2004, with Dance New Amsterdam to bring to light our frustration with the plight of the dance troupe, which has been embattled in one financial noose of one kind or another for several years now and declared bankruptcy a few months ago. The issue, we feel, is neither Dance New Amsterdam’s current leadership, which has been valiant and unstinting in its efforts to save its Tribeca space and to keep the 29-year-old organization afloat, nor about Perron gliding in a unicorn. Rather, we’re dismayed that New York City seems less and less able to support companies like Dance New Amsterdam — and if we know one person in Gotham leading the change charge, it’s Perron. (Wendy, thanks for letting us use your good name to spotlight an area of the field that clearly needs more attention from everyone. You’re awesome, whatever you do.)

5) Critic: Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker
Institution: The Paley Center for Media.
Probability: Maybe one day.
Commentary: We think Paley Center President and CEO Pat Mitchell is doing a superlative job, but if Mitchell, who arrived in 2006, elected to leave, why not the wonderful TV critic of The New Yorker? Sure there would be some hurdles: Nussbaum, so far as we know, has no experience running a cultural institution, having instead done tours of duty at New York magazine and other publications. But we also think brilliant writers can also be brilliant administrators, so why not? (Update: Turns out Mitchell is leaving the Paley Center — next year. So how about it, Emily?)

6) Critic: Michael Philips, Chicago Tribune
Institution: The Paley Center for Media.
Probability: Maybe one day.
Commentary: We still think Paley Center President and CEO Pat Mitchell is doing a superlative job, but if Nussbaum passed, or even if Nussbaum didn’t pass, Philips would be fierce and fearsome competition. Currently the film critic of the Chicago Tribune, he used to be the Tribune’s theatre critic and has also served as a critic at the L.A. Times, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Dallas Times Herald. Famously, he filled in for Roger Ebert on At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper from 2006 to 2008 and then was hired in 2009, alongside A.O. Scott of The New York Times, to breathe new life into the show. To repeat, we think brilliant writers can also be brilliant administrators, so again, why not?

Brantley7) Critic: Ben Brantley, New York Times
Institution: A new Off-Off-Broadway theatre company yet to be identified.
Probability: Three levels below nil.
Commentary: Famously shy, famously caustic when hating something, famously orgasmic when loving something, famously averse to any interaction with the artisans of the stage, there is even a website devoted to the tempestuous passions of Brantley called Did He Like It?, which comes complete with cartoon expression figures seemingly drawn by patients of your local schizophrenia ward on visiting day. Originally from North Carolina, Brantley has been on the staff of the New York Times since 1993; his petard was hoisted up to become Chief Drama Critic (now Chief Theatre Critic) three years later. In an era in which criticism of all kinds, but particularly theatre criticism, is considerably less essential to the buying habits of the public (no reviewer can close a show singlehandedly these days, period), Brantley is nevertheless seen as one of the last of a dying breed as well as a beacon of sorts, the trusty barometer by which audiences may source their validation and their execration. As for whether Brantley would ever head up a theatre company of any kind, the answer is thumbs-down. And certainly we know Charles Isherwood, Brantley’s #2, would love the chance to move up. For all of us, then, sometimes it’s fun to dream.

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