Here’s to a Year of Art Beat

BY Arts Desk  December 4, 2009 at 12:32 PM EDT

Hard to believe, but it’s been a year since we launched this blog. After our first weeks, I wrote a thank you to our “first responders” — the people who’d written in to say how much they appreciated and supported our goal of providing a place online for the arts and culture. One year later I’m amazed by the number and quality of stories and conversations we’ve presented on Art Beat, proud of the effort by our small group here at the NewsHour, and continually gratified by the response from our readers.

For the NewsHour generally, Art Beat has greatly increased our ability to delve into the arts, reporting on and presenting so much more than we could ever put on the program. The arts have been valued here from the beginning: Both Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer are writers with a wide range of interests and a belief that the arts and culture should have a place in the daily news. But, of course, time, resources and the press of other news limit how much we can cover. Art Beat offers a whole new space for us. It’s also worth mentioning one other important role Art Beat has played institutionally: It’s been at the forefront of the NewsHour’s concerted effort to bridge the television program and the internet, to think in new ways about how — and where — we present our “content” (to use the ugly terminology of the day).

For me, Art Beat has been (almost) all pleasure. Before sitting down to write this note, I printed out the list of the posts I’d done. Please believe me when I say that I’m not blase — and hope never to be — about talking with the likes of Joan Baez, Werner Herzog, Geoffrey Rush and so many others, including a number of today’s leading novelists. Just in the last few months, that list includes: Barbara Kingsolver, Colum McCann, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, Lorrie Moore, Hillary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and Richard Russo. I love fiction. I read these people anyway, for myself. But to read them for “work” and then be able to talk to them about it — that’s not bad.

Some personal highlights? Talking with Brian Dennehy and Robert Falls about their production of “Desire Under the Elms” — a virtual Eugene O’Neill tutorial from two very smart friends; chatting with rock star Mark Knopfler — dad to dad — about our two guitar-playing teenage sons (this was after the formal interview, sorry folks); a conversation with Patti Smith about her friend Jim Carroll; sitting with biographer John Richardson in a gallery as he pointed to Picasso’s paintings and told stories of his old friend; watching, with Sharon Jones, a tape of one of her performances and having her respond, “Oh, yeah,” when I said it looked like she was having fun.

I could go on. But most important is to say that I’m very aware of the great privilege we have here at the NewsHour, the access we have to our finest artists and writers who are willing to have a substantive talk about their work. And it’s a great pleasure to be able to share that with you.

Just as much, I’ve enjoyed reading the posts that my colleagues have written this year. When we began, we knew we wanted something every day, but we had to figure out how to do that — both what to cover and who would do it. The “what” has turned out to include a wide range of artists and events. For me, one of the most pleasing aspects of this has been reading the work of my colleagues and, often enough, being introduced to an individual or a body of work. That sense of discovery is another thing we want to bring to Art Beat.

The staff of Art Beat: Zoe Pollock, Molly Finnegan, Mike Melia, Tom LeGro and Jeffrey BrownAs to who makes this all happen? Most of the heavy lifting is done by a small group. Tom LeGro and Molly Finnegan keep the train running while also contributing regular posts. (Fans of Monday’s “Weekly Poem” — and that includes me — can send special thanks to Tom.) Mike Melia and Zoe Pollock have been there from the beginning and continue to offer weekly posts on an ever increasing range of subjects. In addition, we’ve had regular contributions from many others on the NewsHour staff, who take time from a heavy workload to report and write stories for the blog.

There are certainly moments when we wonder who’s taking in Art Beat. Several times in the last year, I’ve said to our group not to worry about blog traffic, just to see what we can create. And I still feel that way. But, of course, we’re in the business of reaching people, of helping to advance public discourse and information in this country. So, yes, we want to reach you and we want to gain new readers. The New York Times had a story the other day on some of the changes we’re undertaking at the NewsHour. The article referred to “Mr. Brown’s popular…Art Beat blog.” Was I happy to see that? You bet. Of course, the same sentence mentioned that the blog is “often hidden.” But the exciting news is that you’re now able to read this and the rest of Art Beat on the NewsHour’s newly re-designed Web site. The whole site looks great to me, very inviting and easy to navigate, and Art Beat will continue to have a prominent place on it.

As we mark this anniversary and think about what we’ve done and where we’d like to go, we very much want to hear from you. What do you like or dislike? What do you want to see more of? Just as important: Help us build this community of people who love the arts and culture. How do we reach them? Tell us. And tell your friends about us.

One year later, thank you again for joining us on Art Beat and the NewsHour.