Why the SF Chronicle’s Choice of a New Art Critic Is Disappointing

Lajos Tihanyi, "The Critic" (1916), oil on canvas, 20 1/8 x 16 3/8 in (51.1 x 41.6 cm), Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Right Reverend John Torok, D.D. (image courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)
Lajos Tihanyi, “The Critic” (1916), oil on canvas, 20 1/8 x 16 3/8 in (51.1 x 41.6 cm), Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Right Reverend John Torok, D.D. (image via the Brooklyn Museum)

This past May, after 30 years on the job, Kenneth Baker announced his retirement as art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Today, his replacement was announced: Charles Desmarais, currently the president of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Desmarais will step down from his job at SFAI and begin his new role on November 1.

This news has me feeling baffled. I worked with Desmarais briefly at the Brooklyn Museum, and I always found him to be a perfectly nice guy. But I’ve never seen or read any of his writing — never knew he was a writer, until now. His Wikipedia page claims he “has written more than 100 articles, as well as books, and was awarded an Art Critics Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979.” An admittedly cursory search has not turned up any of those articles — maybe they are in scholarly journals? — and the NEA award is interesting, albeit from 36 years ago.

In those intervening decades, Desmarais has become a seasoned arts administrator. When I knew him, he was the deputy director of the Brooklyn Museum, a job he held for six years (before leaving for SFAI). Prior to that, he directed Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, the Laguna Art Museum, and the California Museum of Photography. It’s an impressive track record.

(screenshot via @sfchronicle/Twitter)
(screenshot via @sfchronicle/Twitter)

It’s also a veritable hornet’s nest of potential conflicts, as I and a number of other art critics pointed out to Desmarais this afternoon on Twitter. How will Desmarais fairly write about exhibitions or others goings-on at SFAI? Review shows by students from the school during his tenure? Cover goings on at any of the institutions he’s directed? Think and speak critically about donors he’s worked with and the shows they pay for at various institutions?

Being an art critic is messy for everyone, myself included — you write about an artist’s work, then you meet them, then you like them, become friendly, and then you find yourself questioning if you can ever write about their work again. How we approach these conflicts and when we choose to recuse ourselves is a personal matter that can, I believe, be successfully navigated with real honesty. (I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for a year, but I feel comfortable covering — and being critical of — the institution’s work.) So I don’t think Desmarais is necessarily doomed in this regard. But his conflicts are far more numerous and of a much higher order than your average art critic’s. It’s shaky ground on which to be starting. (His wife is also, incidentally, an assistant managing editor in the features department at the Chronicle.)

Still, if we’re being honest, none of this confuses or disappoints me so much as the paper’s actual decision to hire Desmarais. There are publications producing some excellent writing in the Bay Area: SFAQ, Art Practical, and Daily Serving, to name a few. Could the Chronicle not find a single writer whose work appears in these places — someone who knows the local art scene and has been covering it for a while — worthy of the job? Were the pickings so slim that they felt compelled to hire someone with no recent record of published criticism? On top of which, the Chronicle has brazenly ignored the field’s deep crisis of diversity by offering one of the very few full-time art critics’ jobs left standing in the US to a white man over 60 (let’s think about some of the others on this list: Peter Schjeldahl, Jerry Saltz, Holland Cotter). Desmarais’s identity is certainly not his fault, and he may yet prove to be an excellent writer and critic, but that doesn’t make his hiring any less of a disappointment.

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