Arts Editors Look Back
Local rapper Fat Trel, 2012; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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What does it mean to take your job as an arts editor at a local paper too seriously?

Well, it depends who you ask. And I’ve asked a lot of people—former editors from this very paper’s arts section to be exact. How else could I put 41 years, plus the future, into frame?

“I wanted the section to have news—hard news reporting for the arts and I wanted the section to have really good critical writing,” says Jon Fischer, Washington City Paper’s arts editor from 2010 to 2012. “I wanted us to take it seriously.”

Another former editor, Brad McKee, who ran the section from 1998 to 2000, described the act of critiquing art as “really writing about the meaning of life. This movie—or play—is just your excuse.” Another former editor said, chuckling: “Maybe [that’s] taking it too seriously.”

Christina Cauterucci, the arts editor from 2014 to 2015 (and, full disclosure, a close friend of mine), was at the paper for a short time but says it “looms large” in her career. She, too, notes that City Paper, its arts section and as a whole, took itself more seriously “than anyone else ever would.” She continues, “We expected a lot of ourselves even when, perhaps, nobody else was expecting us to write as beautifully or critique things as thoroughly or do as much reporting as we did. We wanted to do it because we thought D.C. deserved it—the arts scene in D.C. deserved it. And we had so much fun doing it.” 

She’s right. Like Fischer, taking the job seriously is exactly what all of us have done since the paper first appeared in 1981. Coverage goals may have changed from editor to editor, but whether it was having the best written critiques, offering hard news reporting on the local art scene, covering the role of public art in D.C., or the impacts of gentrification, it has always been done with a commitment to excellence, integrity, and, most importantly, the readers and artists who call the city home.

But it’s not about pleasing or placating anyone. “My worry was that we would be missing something that would be happening locally,” says Leonard Roberge, arts editor from 2000 to 2006. “I wasn’t necessarily worried about making the local arts people happy.” Glenn Dixon, arts editor from October 1995 to March 1998, puts it more bluntly: “Every cultural product is always competing with another cultural product … I didn’t want my readers to feel misled the way I sometimes had.”

Alt-weeklies are supposed to be tone setters and sources of discovery, as Mark Athitakis, arts editor from January 2007 to late 2008, sums up. And in true alt-weekly fashion, City Paper has documented the rise, fall, and rebirth of the city’s creators and art spaces as well as their fans and naysayers. 

“An alt-weekly can say what’s worth paying attention to that other places are missing,” says Athitakis, who worked at the Chicago Reader and SF Weekly before joining the WCP staff. Alona Wartofsky, who still freelances for City Paper today, agrees: “I always felt like part of the job was to fill in the gaps the Post didn’t cover.” Wartofsky joined the paper in 1981; during her 13 years on staff she held many roles, including arts editor.

Over the course of City Paper’s history, we’ve chronicled artists who would blow up—GoldLink, Logic, Wale, Fugazi, and Fat Trel are some of the names that stood out to former editors—as well as more obscure local creators such as Mark Chorvinsky and Julian Mazor.

“The things I remember most fondly about the art scene are the subjects of [arts] profiles,” Roberge recalls, sharing details of Mazor, an author who didn’t release a second book for 36 years following the debut of his successful short-story collection. When we hang up, he texts me two more stories from his tenure: one about a couple who attended art openings for the food and a profile on Taka, a 22-year-old from Japan and superfan of D.C. punk. “It’s really these fantastic local characters that I value the most,” Roberge says. “Some of them will still be completely unknown.” 

For Kayla Randall, who edited the section from 2019 to 2020, “D.C. show[s] its heart through its art.” She points to the coverage done during her tenure, including elevating both local legends and independent artists and filling two arts guides. “We could only do all of these things because of the incredible amount of talent and creativity here, and we’ve been lucky to witness and experience it.” 

But coverage has also been a place for budding writers to opine on the state of the arts. In 1997, Jelani Cobb, now a staff writer at the New Yorker, wrote what may have been pitched as an album review meets obituary for The Notorious B.I.G. and his LP Life After Death. Though edited by Dixon, Cobb’s writing in “Preface to a Multidisc Suicide Note” proves McKee’s point: He’s really writing about life and race—the music is just the excuse. “The truth is that to the music industry, the deaths of Biggie, Tupac, and Eazy-E mean a chance to cash in on the posthumous release market. Dead sells,” writes Cobb. “The truth is that … both Tupac’s and Biggie’s seemingly prescient knowledge of their deaths has more to do with history and the meaningless loss of black life than clairvoyance.”


No matter how many people I spoke with and articles I reread, there’s no easy or concise way to sum up four decades of coverage and its impact on a city that can easily be written off as a federal hub filled with too many government workers and khaki pants to be an arts capital. But, as we know, D.C. is more than three branches of the federal government and the Smithsonian. It’s a city with a robust musical history—from go-go and punk to hip-hop, a theater scene that often acts as a testing ground for Broadway shows, and a home for talented writers, fringe artists, multiple galleries, and local filmmakers.

Alona Wartofsky recalls WCP covering local filmmaker Michelle Parkerson (right), pictured in 2021 with Wayson Jones; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

And City Paper has thoroughly chronicled the many scenes that make up D.C.’s arts ecosystem. As we’ve helped record history, the paper—and this section—has become history itself. There was a time when print issues ran nearly 150 pages. Every movie opening and theater production had a review—coverage was bustling, but it was also only weekly. Over the years, the internet changed how every outlet reported. Print dwindled, and staffing did too. (I can’t count how many times in the past month people have told me the end of City Paper’s print era was sad but inevitable.) 

Still, certain impacts are easy to capture: “We punched above our weight, breaking stories and investigating things even as our weight dwindled,” says Emma Sarappo, who ran the section from 2020 until the fall of 2021. “But maybe more importantly for an alt, we always were free to follow our tastes and be idiosyncratic in our arts coverage … That sense of discovery mattered a lot and I hope still will.”

City Paper arts editors have been able to follow their interests and build the section in their image. “I feel like the coverage of go-go and hip-hop at a time when the big paper in town, the Post, was not covering D.C. rappers in the ’90s … they just weren’t doing as robust a job as the reporters at City Paper were doing,” says Sarah Godfrey, a staff writer from 2000 to 2005 who later became arts editor. She had a particular interest in D.C.’s hip-hop and rap scenes. In 2022, those scenes have gained national recognition, but that wasn’t always the case, Godfrey says. ​​“I like to think City Paper’s writers’ devotion to covering that scene so well has played a very small role in its national success.”

It’s no wonder music is what drew her to the paper in the first place. Godfrey, who is Black, recalls the piece that made her want to work for City Paper. On January 14, 2000, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ cover story “Dropping the Bomb,” an oral history of go-go, hit stands. “People still talk about that go-go cover story,” Godfrey says. “I don’t want to take anything away from publications that emerged from the go-go community, but if we’re talking about publications that are not born of the go-go community … I remember it making a splash and being really important at the time.”

The recognition of both Coates’ and Cobb’s work may bring up the obvious, for which there is no sugarcoating: City Paper has been a largely White publication. Dixon, who is White and ran the arts section during both writers’ time at the paper, speaks highly of what he calls City Paper’s “in-groupery,” which encouraged writers to be their sharpest, to retain knowledge (in the pre-Google days), and riff off one another. But the downside, Dixon says, was “we weren’t as diverse as we should have been.” Dixon wrote for the paper for a decade. “The overall sensibility was fairly White, straight, and male. There were women writers, Black writers, LGBT+ writers, but not nearly enough, particularly when you consider who lived in what then was a much less gentrified city.”

“That’s obviously true,” Godfrey says regarding the paper’s lack of racial diversity, “and we can acknowledge the work that Black writers have done in covering the city.” She points to several Black writers who honed their skills at City Paper, including Coates, Cobb, authors Natalie Hopkinson and Marcus J. Moore, and artist Holly Bass. “A lot of folks have done a great job amid what is traditionally a paper that has had a very White newsroom, like a lot of papers,” says Godfrey. “There has been really some excellent journalism done by writers of color.”


It seems impractical, if not impossible, to do the final print issue justice without wading into where D.C.’s art scene is today.

We’re not sure what’s left to write about the COVID-19 pandemic that hasn’t already been said. Every one of us knows exactly how the past two years have sucker-punched just about everything. The arts and culture world is far from the only realm affected by the pandemic, but the loss of artistic outings—movie- and concert-going, art openings, dance performances, live theater—left many of us feeling even more alone. (As Sports Editor Kelyn Soong wrote last month shortly after the end of print was announced, “on this late Saturday evening, the crowd is reminded of the magic of intimate, small-venue concerts. It’s an escape. It’s therapeutic.”) 

The sudden and extended loss of audiences rocked the arts world. Two years and nearly two months since the city shut down and we told folks, “If You’re Reading This, Go Home,”  the District’s art scene is in recovery and feeling hopeful, albeit cautious, for what’s to come. 

Travis Hare, co-principal at Kendra Rubenfeld PR, which works with roughly a dozen clients in the arts, is the first to say that his clients, at least, are optimistic. “People have learned to be so flexible during this time. They’ve learned how to shift and pivot and they’ve learned how to be more resilient,” Hare says. “I think people feel like they can handle what comes. It may not be over, we may have another terrible strain come around … but we know how that goes.”

That’s certainly true for some of the venues I spoke with. Joe Lapan and Alisha Edmonson, owners of Songbyrd Music House and Byrdland Records, say ticket sales and show attendance have been more consistent this spring. They use words like “blessed,” “lucky,” and “privileged” to describe how the venue managed to survive the past two years. They managed to keep staff employed by working with World Central Kitchen, opened Byrdland Records, and moved across quadrants to a street-level space near Union Market.

“To make it this far and to see Songbyrd have good programming now and into the rest of this year, of course I feel good, but any small independent business in the arts is always concerned—you just go back to the regular challenges: Is your rent going to get too high? Is your business going to be sustained?” Lapan says. “But generally, I think we feel pretty good.”

Edmonson continues: “We feel good, I feel like we know that we can adjust, pivot.” But, she adds: “I do … I feel a little fragile.”

She recalls just five or six months ago, when the omicron variant hit D.C. and sent case numbers skyrocketing. People were catching COVID at rates not seen since the early days of the pandemic, and event producers had to pivot once again. Shows were canceled, others were rescheduled, understudies were called in, and we returned to Zoom for meetings and virtual performances. (As I planned for the February release of the Spring Arts Guide, I also wondered what shows would be going ahead by the issue’s publication date; to my relief, most of them have managed to go on as planned.)

Jen Clements, Theater Alliance’s managing director, calls last winter the organization’s pandemic low point. Now in its 19th season, Theater Alliance produces socially conscious works to start dialogues and spark community action; it’s the company in residence at the Anacostia Playhouse. After more than a year of running digital-only productions, the company resumed live performances in October 2021. But on December 28, just weeks before it was set to begin rehearsals for a modern opera celebrating activist and artist June Jordan, the company decided to nix the show completely due to the omicron variant. 

“For the safety of artists [and] audiences, it just didn’t seem like the right time,” Clements writes over email. The ensemble changed course again, creating an entirely new production in Jordan’s honor. Though each pivot has been a success, Clements says making this decision was exhausting.

“After two years of commissioning and producing new work, building new plays with more than a dozen playwrights, there was a sense of, ‘I’m out of ideas.’ Everything we’d produced since 2020 had a Plan A, a Plan B, all the way through Plan F. Our contingency plans had contingency plans,” says Clements. “So by the end of 2021, we were feeling a combination of decision fatigue and inspiration fatigue.”

Today, Theater Alliance is back and rehearsing for its final main-stage production of the season, Do You Feel Anger?, which opens this month. 

Across town, things are also looking up for Shakespeare Theatre Company. According to Neal Racioppo, STC’s senior director of marketing and communications, the company had its best overall ticket sales ever for the Britney Spears musical Once Upon a One More Time and its production of The Merchant of Venice also saw a record-breaking number of tickets sold. STC has managed what many venues are hoping to achieve “post” pandemic: reaching new audiences. And subscription sales for the 2022/2023 season are currently trending ahead of projections. 

“Choosing to go to a restaurant or a baseball game or a play shouldn’t be a life-or-death decision. And, for a time, it suddenly felt like it was,” Racioppo writes via email. “Today, if someone chooses to see a play at STC, there is an intention to their choice.” 

On May 12, the company’s production of Our Town opens with an all-local cast. A play about community and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, Racioppo says the pandemic will change the way audiences see Thornton Wilder’s work. “I don’t think it will feel like the same play, even though I’ve seen it before. Our lives have been changed, so our response to the arts will change.”

Our response to the arts may change, but so have the arts in general. As in the health-care industry, arts organizations had to adapt to a digital format, testing out virtual performances, events, and teaching. Graham Elliott, the executive director of American Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the country’s top orchestral trainings for musicians 21 and under, says going virtual with AYPO’s Music Buddies program allowed the nonprofit to reach more underserved kids who wouldn’t have been able to travel to and from class. And while AYPO is now back in person, Elliott says enrollment numbers have continued to climb in the past few years. This season’s class is AYPO’s largest ever, and judging by application numbers, next season is looking to be even bigger. Elliott confirms, it’s “almost certainly the case” that the influx of students are coming from the virtual classes.

“We got through it” was the resounding theme of my conversations. Though no one proclaimed the end of the pandemic, there’s a sense of relief that the worst might be over, and, if not, we know how to come together to keep going. 

Matt Cohen, arts editor from September 2015 to June 2019 and a local musician, says the art scene’s resilience as well as its commitment to working together is what sticks with him today. “Diversity, resilience, supporting each other. … Whatever problems arise, we work together to address them,” he says. 

And that’s just what City Paper will do too. Like any good alt-weekly, we’ve become a close-knit group that supports a community that it both loves and pushes to be the very best. As Wartofsky told me earlier, the end of print may be jarring, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of our coverage or our commitment to keep reporting on arts news, offering thoughtful reviews, and telling stories.