Guest Blog: Time Out NY Thinks Cultural Elite is…WHITE?

I got this forwarded to me in email. I’m not endorsing the cultural “elite” framework but I think it’s an interesting view into how these “best of” lists get created, which often are sorely lacking in people of color representation(in this case, the people of color chosen by Time Out NY for it’s favorite people of the last 13 years, were also ALL MEN) . If journalism is the first draft of history, then it makes sense why we always have t go back and re-vise both. Check it out:

Dear Friends,

Two weeks ago Time Out NY featured the Top 40 list of New Yorkers who have made a “lasting, positive impact” on NYC in the last 13 years. The cover featured a group of prominent individuals who have in fact
made a positive impact on this city, but only three people of color made the list – Jay-Z, Derek Jeter and Junot Diaz.

To make matters worse….. the editor’s response as to why there were so few people of color mentioned, was New York is “a city whose cultural elite have been mainly white.” The entire response gets much worse (see link below).

I am writing because I think it is essential that people write Time Out (especially if you have a personal connection to any of their writers and/or editors), send a response to Editor Michael Freidson, post a response at the link below and forward your response widely to people that will care and respond.

Time Out NY: Where Are All The People of Color?

What is revealed in the Freidson’s letter (linked to above) is the closed cultural world of Time Out.

This issue privileges personal rolodex-list-making over actual culture reporting.

It’s a list of “who we know” not a list of “what we can discover.” How to find the top New Yorkers? Do you interview top curators, politicians, non-profit leaders to find the surprise folks? Nope… You ask only your staff and then process only with your editors…Without any self reflection about who your staff is, what
their taste is, and how well they represent New York as a whole…

If Time Out wants to be taken seriously as culture reporters and not just a smug magazine of listings then they need to take their jobs and their place in the city more seriously. Michael Freidson Editor, Time Out New York states, “We chose only those who have made a lasting, positive impact in TONY’s 13 years. They had to still be active, still creating. The pool was nominated by the entire editorial staff and then whittled down by a panel of five editors.” In his letter he then goes on to offer a defense of how certain people were or were not chosen. However these rules are quite randomly applied, and when you only have forty slots this makes for a real absence of rigor…

For example, Bill T Jones isn’t immediately “vital” enough for Time Out NY, but Eliot Spitzer is cool even though he’s not exactly “still active still creating” unless harassing the new governor counts…Visual arts are so grossly underrepresented that somehow they’ve managed to make a list of New York cultural elites that doesn’t include Thelma Golden (!) and that ignores proven international artists like Kara Walker while great-but-still-niche white dance and film artists carry many slots……In fact, Mr Freidson’s main complaint about “people of color” is that they aren’t famous enough, he goes on to use Jeffrey Wright as an example saying he doesn’t have the big credits of Liev Schreiber or Philip Seymour Hoffman, but then he doesn’t compare Jeffrey to the equally talented but equally unheralded Elizabeth Marvel who does appear ….

And this is the great problem with the list….the choices are random, taste-based and cliquish….

Tim Gunn (who?) Tyra Banks (oops?)… John Zorn is an active icon but the only NY rep for jazz???? His full-on peer William Parker is still kicking more ass then ever ….. Or on the younger tip Matthew Shipp, and Vijay Iyer…..Also, Alicia Keys and TV On The Radio give our city a vital pulse and move music forward and they definitely are more proven (“over the last 13 years”) than Nellie McKay (who is also a great addition to the new york music scene).

Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) truly is a great visionary of the small human drama but so is Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop)…Chris Wheeldon is a fantastic choreographer but so are Miguel Gutierrez, Nami Yamamoto, Ron K Brown, Donna Uchizono, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and their impact is notably greater and in some case far more international….. You’ve got Mr Shakeshack (Danny Meyer) but not the the culinary genius of David Chang (Momofuku)?…….Sure Tony Kushner is crucial but Adam Rapp over Suzan Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, Talvin Wilkes, and George C. Wolfe?

The truth is that the folks on the list are important and talented and we are lucky to have them be New Yorkers, but they aren’t the only ones who are important. The New York cultural scene and its “elite” are a multifaceted and diverse pack of people–and if a first-pass list isn’t reflective of our great city, it should be Time Out’s mandate to discover the people that bring the richest range….

It is an exciting reporting challenge to surprise both reader AND writer. Sadly, the Time Out editors are happy to stick to what they know, not what they can learn or what surprises they can share as true cultural reporters. And when called on this approach, they retreat to the age old argument “Well the cultural elite is white” which should be more accurately phrased as “For Time Out’s list making purposes we’ve chosen to define the cultural elite as white….”

……… Imagine if some real reporting were applied to this exercise……maybe then we would have been able to give Spiderman’s slot to an actual person……..and maybe this list would represent the surprising New York I love, not the the odd “white new york elite” that TONY seems to believe in….

Let’s fight for the representation of the New York that we love and not the New York that Time Out and Editor Freidson so lazily inhabit and promote…..

Best,

Esther Robinson