It’s not often a newspaper writer makes the news rounds, but when Jori Finkel, the former arts reporter at The Los Angeles Times, was laid off last week, it didn’t go over well with the arts community, resulting in a Change.org petition set up by the Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin.
Finkel, known for her encyclopedic coverage of last year’s citywide Pacific Standard Time initiative, has been with the L.A. Times for about three years. Now directors behind most of the major museums in the L.A. have lined up in support as well. Speared by Philbin, 14 other directors, including Michael Govan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Jeffrey Deitch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jim Cuno and Timothy Potts of the J. Paul Getty Museum, have written a letter to L.A. Times editor Davan Maharaj, calling for Finkel’s reinstatement.
The letter reads in part: "It is especially unfortunate to see you dismiss your only staff reporter specializing in art now that Los Angeles is increasingly recognized worldwide as the most influential center for contemporary art and culture. For instance, just as she was being laid off, the New York Times dedicated nearly three full pages to L.A.’s significance within the international art world. Without a dedicated art reporter the competitive positioning of the paper is seriously undermined. … As Los Angeles Times readers and advertisers, we expect more from the paper. Moving forward we hope that the L.A. Times restores this important position and better recognizes its responsibility to cover the art and culture that shapes our creative city."
“[I’m] incredibly grateful,” Finkel says in a phone interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “This is one of the reasons I like covering art here, which is that it is a community filled with really dynamic people who are not afraid to take a stand, and I was really moved that so many museum directors would organize so quickly to support arts writing in L.A. And they’ve opened the conversation up where they’re now putting up the petition that anybody can sign. I took a look at it, and I don’t know most of these people, so I thought that was very cool.”
Finkel wasn’t able to talk details of the layoff on record, but her departure comes at a strange time, and that might be the reason behind the blowback: Los Angeles is a growing arts community — why let go of an integral piece and a powerful voice? LACMA is in the process of organizing a massive $650 million makeover, MOCA is finally stabilizing after years of financial woes, and a recent survey by the National Endowment of the Arts found that 4.86 percent of the Los Angeles workforce was employed in the arts, the highest percentile for any city, including New York. Finkel was among more than 10 employees laid off at a moment in which the paper is up for sale and is suffering profit declines. (In an interesting wrinkle to the story, Joanne Heyler, director and chief curator of the Broad Art Foundation, signed the letter of support; Eli Broad, who also sits on the boards of LACMA and MOCA, is rumored to be interested in purchasing the newspaper.)
Regardless of the reasons, the layoff leaves a void in the paper’s arts coverage. “Eliminating the art reporter position reinforces a negative stereotypes that L.A. isn't a serious city,” says Bettina Korek, the founder of ForYourArt, an L.A. arts organization, in an email. “Our cultural infrastructure is still in its teenage years and Jori's coverage of L.A. art activity and production has helped to reinforce its stature internationally. It's extremely shortsighted for the L.A. Times to eliminate her position now, when there is more interest than ever in the LA art community.”
Art collector Jarl Mohn, who sits on the board of directors at Scripps Networks (home of HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, etc.) and the former CEO of E! Entertainment, was similarly outspoken in his criticism of the Times’ decision to lay Finkel off. "Clearly, the powers that be at the paper have no idea that L.A. is the most important city on the planet today for the creation of art. This is like not having a reporter for the film industry. What in the world are they thinking?"
Asked for comment, Maharaj forwarded the request to a spokesperson, who wrote: “We have received the letter in question and appreciate that the museums care passionately about the Los Angeles Times and our coverage of the arts. As a policy, we do not discuss employee relations, but our commitment to intelligent and illuminating reporting of arts and culture in Southern California is in no way diminished. We devote more staff resources to the arts than almost any other general news organization in the country.”
The Change.org petition has been signed by more than 500 supporters as of press time.