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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Critical Mass: Then and Now

Shreveport and San Diego Closer Than You Might Think Creatively

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Shreveport and San Diego are 1,359 miles apart, as the crow flies. But in emotional and symbolic terms, they are far closer for me. I have returned many times in the last eight years and come to know many visual artists and their work as well as a spectrum of writers, musicians, actors, dancers and arts patrons. It has been an altogether inspiring experience. 


What has made this happy situation possible? A remarkable program called Critical Mass and the people with vision who made it possible: The Shreveport Regional Art Council (SRAC) and its board of directors.


The genesis of the program was a 2011 exhibition at Artspace, open to all artists in the directory of SRAC. It was organized in impressively rapid fashion when the director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, was coming to Shreveport to honor it as a city that had nurtured the arts in a significant way and recently received a sizable NEA grant. 


But SRAC's executive director, Pam Atchison, aimed to do more with the show. She wanted it to be seen by a visiting art critic, who would award a "best in show," and write a review that would appear in both  The Times and The Forum. The chosen artist would then get a solo exhibition and a cash prize; the critic would return a few months later to review the solo exhibition.


Through some fortunate twists of fate, I turned out to be the critic who came to town. I selected Rachel Stuart-Hass for "best in show." A few months later, I returned for her radiant solo exhibition, spoke about her work and wrote another review. 


This improvised series of events became the template for the Critical Mass program. Now there have been seven versions of it (eight if you count the year of Impromptu.) Pam Atchison enlisted me as its critic/curator, inviting other critics to town each year to judge the exhibition open to all directory artists, choose a “best of show” and write a guest review in the local press. 


The roster has expanded to the performing and literary arts, as have the range of artists showcased and the critics who award prizes in each area and the number of reviews that appear each year. The enthusiasm for Critical Mass has also been the catalyst for a thriving collector program. 


None of this would have been possible without the remarkable community spirit of the artists in all disciplines in Shreveport and its tremendously supportive arts council. What seemed like a vision has become a marvelous reality.


Robert l. Pincus, who was the art critic of the San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years, teaches at the University of San Diego and California State University, Long Beach. He is the author of numerous exhibition catalogs and wrote a groundbreaking book on the art of Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz. On a Scale that Competes with the World. 

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