Art Works Blog

CriticCar and the Art of Detroit

"You can't separate the city from the arts, it's all part of the same passion." --- Jennifer Conlin, CriticCar

On April 19 of last year, the NEA and the Knight Foundation announced the three finalists of the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge. Each of the finalists offered a new model to strengthen local arts coverage.

Among those finalists is Jennifer Conlin, a long-time, contributing writer for The New York Times. Along with Deb Polich, executive director of Artrain, Jennifer is leading CriticCar, a mobile recording project that crisscrosses the city, offering event-goers the opportunity to record mini video reviews as they exit performances and exhibitions. Those interviews, posted on a dedicated YouTube channel, are intended not only to create buzz about cultural events, but to demonstrate the diversity and excitement of Detroit's cultural life.

Jennifer came by the NEA offices recently to chat about what’s happening with CriticCar.

NEA: You've been at this for several months now, tell me how CriticCar is doing.

JENNIFER CONLIN: In the fall of 2012, I and my team decided to attend several big festivals. One was the Detroit Design Festival (a community-curated festival that highlights the work of Detroit’s creative community) in September and the other was DLECTRICITY (an exhibition of light both on and inside buildings) in downtown Detroit in November. Both were interesting and diverse events that lasted two to three days. We tried to hit as many different venues within each festival as we could. DELECTRICITY was amazing as it lit up the outsides of all these incredible buildings in Detroit, working with the architecture in unusual ways. And there were light shows inside as well. For example, there was a shadow puppet show in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

So, we went around and tested the theory of CriticCar, which is to give people 30 seconds to share something specific about an exhibition or performance that they enjoyed. I've had very few people turn down an opportunity to give their voice to this. We get the audience reactions on our YouTube channel and, starting this week, now hope to get them up either later that day or the next morning. Then, people interested in checking out the festival can see those mini-reviews to figure out what they would like to see. Also, when the festival is held again next year, we can post the interviews in advance to encourage people to go to the festival and experience it.

NEA: I understand that your camera is an iPad. Why did you choose that device?

CONLIN: We want the project to be casual and feel young. If you have a large, expensive video camera or even one of the smaller handheld ones, there's still a sense of formality between the interviewer and the interviewee. We thought the iPad would be fun and we liked the rough look that emerged that in a way matched the edginess of Detroit. The other thing with the iPad is that people who are watching us film can watch it on the iPad too. It allows for another form of involvement in the project.

NEA: What's next for the project?

CONLIN: What we are doing now is getting ready for the Detroit Auto Show which opens to the public on January 19th. The big thing about the show is the design of the cars. Because this is Detroit, obviously, automotive design is part of the culture. The College of Creative Design Studies here is one of the few top automotive design departments. So we are going to ask people what they think of the designs. Plus within the show there will be other cultural events to attend. We are considering this as our big launch and after that we will begin to cover things more regularly.

NEA: Speaking of regular coverage, how do you choose which events to attend?

CONLIN: For me, it's about the diversity of places and different types of performances. We’re interested in covering Wayne State University, which has a wonderful theater program so we'll go to a performance there, or the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, or a church where there's a wonderful choral group. I'm looking to give voice to what people are seeing [so they can] tell us what they like and don't like as "citizen journalists."

NEA: What do you say to traditional journalists who are concerned that developing citizen journalists will encourage newspapers to let go of even more art critics?

CONLIN: Unfortunately, I don't think we have an enormous choice about advances in technology or the rise of citizen journalism because it's happening anyway. I believe it's good to be part of it and help lead it to a more articulate level. We do still have critics in Detroit, of course, who can give us the experienced, professional perspective. I’m hoping that I'll be able to bring out some of those journalists once in a while and have them participate in the project because, as a traditional journalist myself, I don't want to leave them out.

Also I do see a fun factor in having traditional art journalists do some interviews. So for example, if there is a Matisse show at the Detroit Institute of Art, they could ask those attendees more probing questions.

NEA: What has surprised you most about doing these interviews?

CONLIN: What I have been surprised with is the level of articulateness of the citizen journalists. Everybody has risen to the occasion. If you give them a microphone, a moment to collect themselves, and a few prompts, then you get insightful, interesting comments. Children love to talk as well, that's been fun.

In addition, something that I think is very specific to Detroit is when I'm interviewing people, very quickly they will turn from the event to talking about Detroit. They'll say, "We're here watching a performance inside MOCAD [Museum of Contemporary Art and Design] and . . . Detroit is a great place and everybody should come." And frankly, part of my goal with this project is to promote the city and what’s going on here. Come experience the culture. Come participate in this city.

Also, many of the exhibits reflect what’s going on in the city. The artists are working on themes that revolve around Detroit's revitalization. You can't separate the city from the arts, it's all part of the same passion.

NEA: Any final remarks?

CONLIN: One of my other big goals is to get younger people interested in the project. There's a school of the arts here that has a video department and I'd love to get those students involved. I see CriticCar as something run by students and young people with me in an advising role. This could be a source of employment for younger people.

Finally, there is an influx into the city not only of artists but of young new residents and part of keeping them is to have the city feel fun. I'm hopeful that when we get our vehicle and it is parked outside a venue, people will feel more comfortable walking around that area. We've seen that already with food trucks that show up outside a museum or event and draw people to that venue. We want to increase pedestrian traffic, get things happening on the street as well as inside venues. After all, this project is about getting the man-on-the-street perspective.

Want to know more about NEA support for arts journalism projects? Join us for an Art Works guidelines webinar with Local Arts Agencies Director Michael Killoren on Tuesday, January 29 at 4:00 pm ET. Can't make the webinar? Not to worry, we'll post an archived version soon after the event!

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