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Critical brass

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Joan Altabe, former visual arts critic for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, once opposed a proposal to put a statue of a nude man on the front lawn of Selby Public Library in Sarasota.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2001

Ruffled feathers were all in a day's work for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's arts critic. A layoff stilled her acerbic pen, but controversy rages on.

SARASOTA -- When her boss called her into an office one afternoon last month and shut the door, Joan Altabe wasn't alarmed. "Okay, who's been bitching about me now?" she thought.

Altabe, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's incendiary art critic, was used to people calling the newspaper to rant about her reviews. Her job was to make readers think, to provoke passionate responses. In a city where people already feel strongly about the arts, she raised hackles for more than a decade.

Everyone in Sarasota, it seemed, loved or hated Altabe -- and those who hated her loved to do so. Nearly every time her byline appeared in the paper, she irritated somebody. She crusaded against a statue of a nude man proposed for the lawn of the new county library. She railed about the loss of historic buildings. She exposed an art gallery's plans to sell fake Leonardo da Vincis. She attacked high profile urban planner Andres Duany, whom some regard as a genius of modern architecture. She whipped up opposition to a new bridge slated to replace the old one across Sarasota Bay.

Once in a while she liked something: the architecture of City Hall, for example. But if she thought something was ugly -- a skyscraper, a painting, a sculpture -- she said so. "Ugh" was one of her favorite words.

The newspaper supported its acid-tongued critic. In January, she got a favorable job review and a 6 percent raise (2 percent more than most of her newsroom colleagues). Altabe thanked executive editor Janet Weaver. You deserve it, she says Weaver answered. You're doing a great job.

Joan Altabe’s acid pen
Before she was laid off from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Joan Altabe wrote and filed this short piece attacking a new $130-million hotel-condominium tower being built on the Sarasota waterfront. The newspaper never ran it.
Three months later, Weaver invited Altabe into her office. She had a file folder tucked under her arm. On the cover, Altabe, 66, saw her own name, stenciled in black.

The critic with the notoriously sharp sword was herself about to get cut. The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, which owns the Sarasota paper and a dozen others across the Southeast, had ordered layoffs because of the classic double whammy of newspaper finance: falling advertising revenue and rising newsprint costs.

Altabe (pronounced ALL-tuh-bee) was one of 19 Herald-Tribune employees let go, but certainly the most high-profile and most surprising. Sarasota, which prides itself on nurturing the visual arts, is home to the Ringling Museum and a nationally renowned art school and has high-ticket galleries lining downtown streets, suddenly had no visual arts critic.

Did Altabe "dig her own grave," as one Sarasota insider said? Was the newspaper bowing to pressure to get rid of her? Were Altabe's art standards too cosmopolitan for Sarasota?

Those questions have buzzed about town in the month since Altabe was laid off. Even though her distinctive mug shot -- shoulder-length gray hair, wire-rim glasses, Mona Lisa smile -- no longer appears in the Herald-Tribune, Altabe is still causing commotion.

* * *

Shock waves rolled through the Herald-Tribune newsroom after Altabe was told to clean out her desk.

"There was a long line of people coming up to give her a hug," said features writer Charlie Huisking, who sat next to Altabe.

The next day the newspaper ran a story about her departure, referring to her as "unrepentant and well read." Immediately the phone started ringing. Altabe may have ticked off readers, but evidently they enjoyed the jolt with their morning coffee. Operators logged calls from readers saying they were "upset," "outraged," "disappointed" and "shocked." More than one asked the newspaper to reconsider its decision.

"I knew it would be really difficult," said executive editor Weaver. "It put a face on the layoff. I heard from a lot of people who were huge fans of Joan's."

Weaver said she agonized over what to do after New York Times company executives told her she must eliminate some positions. She first cut loose a community news writer in one of the newspaper's bureaus. Then a graphic designer who worked the night shift. Then her gaze focused on Altabe.

"It's very unusual for a paper of our circulation (107,000 daily, 133,000 Sunday) to have a full-time art critic. It's a very specialized beat," she said. "And in down times, I have to have flexible people (on staff), people I can move around to different jobs."

Altabe, who earned $42,900 a year, had minimal writing experience when she started freelancing for the Herald-Tribune in 1986. In 1992, the newspaper hired her full time. In addition to frequent reviews, she wrote two weekly columns. One, in the business section, frequently skewered commercial architecture, from Publix stores to Starbucks coffee shops.

She occasionally had stories on the front page of the news section. A series she wrote in 1997 about the proposed high bridge that would replace the Ringling Causeway won the Chairman's Award for enterprise reporting, a prize given within the New York Times newspaper group. Over the years Altabe won two dozen other awards, including the prestigious Green Eyeshade Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Altabe, a former high school art teacher, loved what she called the educational aspect of her job. She had a regular Sunday morning television show on a cable channel owned by the Herald-Tribune, during which she would show works of art and talk about them. When she was laid off, she was working on a feature on how to draw the human form that was going to be distributed nationwide by the New York Times Syndicate.

Weaver acknowledges that her art critic was "incredibly prolific." Still, she said, there were times when editors had to assign stories on Altabe's beat to other reporters. "She couldn't write about some things because she had already expressed critical opinion about them," Weaver said.

But the Herald-Tribune has another reporter who writes news stories about TV and theater and also functions as a critic by writing reviews -- the very kind of double duty Weaver said was inappropriate for the visual art critic.

"Part of the difference (with Altabe) is that, quite frankly, it comes down to a question of background and training in journalism," she said. Altabe lacked reporting experience, in other words.

Certainly she had made enemies in the arts community. Once, someone put sand in the gas tank of Altabe's car. Another time she drove to work, unknowingly, with a large cardboard phallus tacked to the rear bumper.

When Joan Altabe voodoo dolls started circulating around town, the newspaper asked police to look into the matter.

During Weaver's two years as executive editor, things have been quiet. "I've not had people demanding audiences with me, demanding Joan's head," she said.

In 1998, Sarasota magazine ran a cover story on Altabe, crowning her "Joan of Art." After probing Altabe's rocky relationship with the city's arts elite, the story suggested that maybe Sarasota was finally beginning to accept its keen-eyed critic.

Maybe not, said expressionist painter Gale Fulton Ross.

"Many artists in town had a problem with Joan's critiques. They could not accept her . . . acerbic, I guess that's the word, nature. And the way she reported whether she liked something or not."

* * *

Altabe, born and reared in New York City, cut her critic's teeth in the museums and galleries there. At Hunter College, where she majored in art, her mentor was legendary painter Robert Motherwell.

Fulton Ross suggested that Altabe's ties to New York gave her a sophisticated artistic sense that might have been too advanced for Sarasota.

"As far as I'm concerned, Sarasota is about 20 years behind a New York way of thinking," Fulton Ross said. "People come here to get away from thinking about anything other than that which is lovely."

Michael Corbino, who owned an art gallery for 10 years in Sarasota and now has one on Longboat Key, said Altabe was hamstrung: Her job was to review the art in Sarasota, but that art was bad. So when she used traditional critical standards to judge it, she came off like a sourpuss.

"Let's just say that in New York they wouldn't have even considered it worthy of mentioning," Corbino said. "So at times she seemed to attack work that was obviously inferior."

Several years ago, Altabe stopped reviewing gallery shows.

"It's mostly junk," she says now, looking back. "So I didn't see any point to it."

Many of the art buyers in Sarasota, Altabe says, are interior designers purchasing paintings and sculpture for their clients' homes. Some accept kickbacks for buying from certain galleries, she says.

"So what you get is sofa art, pictures to match slipcovers. Everybody's making money, and art be damned."

Allyn Gallup, owner of Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art/Mira Mar Gallery, said Altabe at first reviewed his exhibits "regularly and quite favorably. Then she stopped coming in."

When she made disparaging remarks in print about pop artist Andy Warhol, Gallup said, he "lost patience with her." He acknowledged that a critic's role is to be outspoken and controversial.

"But she went well beyond mere controversy. She could be really mean-spirited and vindictive."

Corbino disagreed. Altabe was fair, he said. The fault lay with the gallery owners.

"They weren't looking for art criticism," said Corbino. "They were looking for publicity."

Compounding the problem, said Fulton Ross, the painter, was that many Sarasota artists aren't comfortable with criticism.

"A critic acts as a severe coach, as in football or basketball. The very talented, the real artist, understands that, because it makes you look within yourself and question whether the critic was wrong or right."

Altabe's supporters say it's simple: She was doing her job.

"She said what she thought, and she stood by it," said Kevin Dean, director of the Selby Gallery at the Ringling School. "And even when she wrote a negative review, it brought people in."

Jack West, an architect who has worked in Sarasota for 50 years and who designed City Hall, said he had plenty of disagreements with Altabe over the years. But he admires her courage.

"Ms. Altabe has not hesitated to negatively criticize many of the sacred cows of both the elites of the 'arts' community and the business/political hierarchy," West wrote in a letter to the editor of the Herald-Tribune.

* * *

Now that Altabe's voice is absent from the Herald-Tribune, West and others wonder who will spice up the debate over art in Sarasota. Executive editor Weaver says the Herald-Tribune plans to use its reporters to write about upcoming art exhibits and will invite freelance writers to serve as guest critics.

"I hope that will give us more diversity of critical opinion," she said.

Patricia Caswell, executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council, embraced that idea.

"I will welcome a change, a new voice," she said. Caswell stopped short of directly criticizing Altabe but said that everyone she has talked to is happy and thankful the critic is gone.

Altabe, meanwhile, seems alternately bemused and depressed by the firestorm. Since her layoff, she has spent a lot of time pondering what went wrong.

"I know I ruffled feathers in the development and real estate community," she said in her surprisingly soft voice. "But I don't see where I had this terrible effect. I don't think of myself as a muckraker, I think of myself as a commentator."

She was touched by the outpouring of support from her newsroom colleagues, her friends in the art community and from strangers such as the man who appeared at her front door, stuck a bouquet of roses in her hand and left without a word.

"But then you get in bed at night and you think, 'Yeah, but I still don't have my job. The paper has no more art critic.' "

Altabe misses her job terribly.

"I had a good gig. I got to say what I wanted. I looked forward to every day."

Separated from her husband for 18 years, Altabe lives alone on Siesta Key. Both her children -- a son who is a New York high school principal and a daughter who is a Tampa psychologist -- are married. She has six grandchildren.

In her expanded free time, Altabe has been tinkering with one of her earlier loves: cartooning. An easel waits in a back room of her house for when she's ready to take up painting again. (She paints only in black and white. "Light and shadow are my favorites.")

But the critic's voice can't be muzzled for long. Last Sunday, Altabe's new freelance column, "Streetscene," debuted in the Bradenton Herald. It will run every week.

The first installment: a review of Mel's Diner, at the corner of Cortez Road and U.S. 41.

"It is so perfectly Art Deco '50s, I went all nostalgic over it," Altabe enthused.

In other words, she liked it.

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