I took a road trip to Milwaukee last week to attend an event in support of Out of the Picture, a feature-length documentary about how art critics are faring during what has been a period of unprecedented change for both media and art. Slight aside: The fundraiser was held in the spectacular former UWM Alumni House, now owned and being renovated by Andy Nunemaker, a Milwaukee-based businessman and supporter of the arts. There was some eye-popping art on the walls.

The director of the documentary is Mary Louise Schumacher, an award-winning journalist who was a longtime art and architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In 2019, her position was eliminated in a systemwide downsizing by Gannett. At the time Schumacher was already several years into work on her documentary so when life imitated art, she did what any good documentarian would do — she included the experience of her own downsizing in the film.

I met Schumacher (virtually) last summer at the suggestion of Karin Wolf, the tireless arts program administrator for the city of Madison. Schumacher had told Wolf about an interesting partnership between the architecture school at the University of Texas at Arlington and the Dallas Morning News — the school and paper split the cost to bring an architecture critic to town; he writes for the paper and teaches at the school. Knowing Isthmus’ long history of covering the arts in Madison, as well as the paper’s struggles to rebuild as a nonprofit, Wolf wondered if it would be a model we might want to explore.

Over Zoom last August, Schumacher filled me in on what she knew about the Dallas partnership and we talked broadly about journalism and the arts. I was immediately intrigued by her film. Over the last 15 years or so, as the internet disrupted the traditional financing mechanism for newspapers, newsrooms have been cut to shreds and arts reporters and critics have been some of the first to go. In the relatively prosperous days of the early- to mid-1990s — when print was still king and classified and display advertising was plentiful — Isthmus had on staff an arts editor as well as two staff writers devoted to the arts. While we remain dedicated to covering the arts and culture in Madison, this is the first time since perhaps the very early years of the paper that, due to severe revenue constraints, we do not have a dedicated arts editor. Instead associate editor Linda Falkenstein handles most of the coordination of the arts section, in addition to the features section, with help on the music scene from Bob Koch, who is also the calendar editor.

After Schumacher lost her job at the Journal Sentinel she was able to devote more time to her film. Starting in early 2021, as the COVID pandemic still raged, she traveled the country in her red Volkswagen Beetle, camping out in her car and showering in truck stops “to make it all work.”

The idea for the film dates to the early 2000s, when Schumacher kept hearing about art critics losing their jobs; she started keeping a running tally of cities that lost their critics — journalists who were usually employed at newspapers. “That list was on a Post-It note in my cubicle for years,” she says. One morning she read a blog post by Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, who lamented how few critics were left in the country. The number was startling, she says, fewer than a dozen. “I started wondering what this would do to all of us, to not have witnesses to what artists do, especially in a local or regional context.”

Schumacher says she was eager to drill down to the human story. “Back then, around 2010, the world of journalism was so concerned with the broader story of downsizings that it didn’t really have a conversation about this. The art world, on the other hand, had endless discussions about criticism that never seemed to go anywhere,” she says. “It felt like a story in which the subject needed to be brought to life by the people doing the work, which lent itself to film.” She put together a team and started working on the project.

At first she and her friend Mark Escribano, the film’s cinematographer, looked to places like Seattle, Houston, and Billings, Montana, to feature a “handful of critics we cared about and see what would happen to them.”

What she didn’t expect, she says, is that they would be filming “during a time of historic change to both art and media.” With the advent of sophisticated smartphone cameras and social media channels came a democratization of media. “The once rare tools of the artist are in all of our hands and visual culture is pouring out of our screens and devices, shaping and misshaping how we see the world and one another in entirely new ways,” she says.

The writers profiled in her film, she adds, have pioneered a new way of thinking about criticism and are “as likely to write about social movements, memes and monuments as they are museums or galleries.” They are not, to be clear, the “same circle of white guys in New York City” who have “held more than their share of the visibility, influence and pay. The writers in our film inspire critical questions about who is and who is not equipped to engage the work of today’s artists.”

In a nutshell, the storyline changed. In the beginning, says Schumacher, “we thought about the story as being about the disappearance of the American art critic; today we regard it as about a new generation of critics who are recasting how this work is done.”

Schumacher says she and her team need to raise about $60,000 more to complete the film by July, after which they plan to start applying to film festivals (the cost of the film is $250,000). To help with fundraising or for more information, see the movie’s website at outofthepicturemovie.com.

The filmmakers have high aspirations for Out of the Picture, billed as the only feature-length documentary to be made about art critics in the United States: “It is poised to prompt a national conversation about the nature of art, modern life and how meaning gets made in the 21st century.” 

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