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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)

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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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

20 replies on “Why the SF Chronicle’s Choice of a New Art Critic Is Disappointing”

  1. as a student at SFAI, I’m glad Desmarais is leaving – he’s extraordinarily anti-union and is majorly responsible for the poor treatment of adjunct faculty here.

  2. whoa – While shocked at this choice for numerous reasons – how are you lumping the most thoughtful Holland Cotter into this grouping simply as a white man over 60 – I don’t get that point.

    1. If you don’t get that point, you don’t get the core strategy of identity politics, which is to reduce persons into isolated categories that disrepect and disregard the reality of every person’s multiple belongings. I am even surprised you clicked on the headline without expecting Desmarais’ being a white man put forward as a subject. In this case, the criticism wasn’t substantially about his color, gender, and age (three “-isms” enforced by the author as ‘faults’ in others), but about belongings, core professional ones, that are inherently problematic and more pertinent. I find the constant repetition of what is at “fault” in me tiresome and shallow (at least I’m not 60), but it works as a political tool, for better or for worse. I think mostly for the better.

      “[Propaganda’s] chief function is to convince the masses, whose slowness of understanding needs to be given time in order that they may absorb information; and only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on the memory of the crowd.” – You Don’t Want to Know

      1. Well, the author does clearly state that Desmarais’ various unattractive features (age, gender and race) are “not his fault” and that the fault lies in choosing someone with these features in the first place. That the author chose to include this objection in light of the more pertinent objections she highlights does not surprise me. A person’s disposition toward distaste of others cannot easily be suppressed.

        1. They are not “faults” nor are they unattractive features. The are attributes of a person the author has prejudices against.

          1. What I think, feel, or believe does not effect what the author wrote; I just exposited it.

            It’s a mistake to assume that when criticism is placed against an argument that the critic holds a particular view, even one that necessarily opposes the aims of the argument criticized. As for me, I support increased diversity in the art world no less than any writer I’ve read here, but I do not think many of the arguments and criticisms circulated here are persuasive or sound enough to be successful as arguments. For example, this author should have been encouraged that Desmarais is of the generation that is aging out.

          2. It exists, but making bias the basis of an argument (well, it doesn’t even qualify as an argument to just shame folks for doing things you don’t like) is a failure to take seriously the critical faculties of those you wish to persuade.

          3. Her argument is more focused on the potential conflict of interest. That was just another point that people are noticing about the hire.
            When you look across the country it’s noticeable that full-time newspaper critics are all white. There isn’t even one. You don’t think that’s odd, particularly since we’d talking about cities like SF, LA, and NY, where almost all of them are.

          4. If newspaper criticism was a growing field, I might find it odd. But since newspaper critics are dying off like an endangered species, jobs made available will go to those who have long careers and with a wide audience in tow. White men over 60 are tenured. You don’t need to kill them. You need to be patient as minorities in the arts develop their career, going from – in academic terms – adjuncts, to associates, to full-time, then tenure. It’s how all career fields work.

          5. The point of my answer to your question is that there is no problem of race, gender, and age here. Nor is it in many other places if you account for generational divides. It might look like there are widespread diversity problems, but that’s because comparisons of professionals of whatever identity sets are not “synchronic” – cross sections of people the same age, specifically those under, say, 40 or 45. If you do a synchronic analysis of diversity in the art world, it reveals a heterogeneity that “diversity activists” too loud-mouthed and indifferent to relevant data can recognize.

            No one wants to admit they’ve been barking up the wrong tree so publicly and for so long.

    2. Holland Cotter is an amazing writer and art critic whose work I admire (bordering on idolization!), but none of that changes my larger point: we need new voices and perspectives, desperately, in art criticism.

      1. What makes you think dynamic and intelligent new voices want to work for an old, dying media outlet like The San Francisco Chronicle, which pays peanuts? (Literally: they offer only two cans of Planter’s Peanuts — okay, sometimes Mixed Nuts — for each article.)

  3. Given his lack of preferential treatment to SFAI students during his tenure as the school’s president, I see no reason for him to have a conflict in that regard in his new position. Also, I’ve never heard him speak intelligently about art while I was a student there, to say nothing of his writings…

  4. Of course you don’t know how many people were offered the job and turned it down. Given what The Chronicle is paying and the future of the newspaper business, he may have been the fourth or fifth choice.

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