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Art and Culture

David and Art - Terry Teachout

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As a critic Terry Teachout had few equals. He was that way as a person as well.

I met Terry Teachout in October 2007.  I was in Washington DC working on my book about the National Endowment for the Arts and at a dinner the Chairman of the Endowment was hosting.  “I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” he said, and introduced me to Terry who was then on the National Council on the Arts.   I was one of the countless people, who, from the moment I met him, felt like I’d known him for years.  He was that kind of person.  He died earlier this month at age 65.

Terrance Alan Teachout was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri in 1956.  He wasraised in Sikeston, about 30 miles south of there.  My parents were born in a small town in southwest Missouri, and Ihad a great uncle who lived in Sikeston. We both made regular trips back to those places and shared a particular reverence for them.

He graduated from William Jewell College in 1979 with a major in music journalism and went to work for the Kansas City Star.  He moved to New York in the 1980s and eventually worked his way up to being the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.  As such, he was one of the most important art critics in America. Not only did he review openings on Broadway, but, in keeping with the way he understood his mission, he constantly travelled the country taking in the state of American theater coast to coast and offering his observations and insights.  When Covid struck, he put out a call to any theater company anywhere that was streaming its productions online. He would watch and write about them.

Terry described what he did as conveying enthusiasm: letting people know that good art is really worth the effort.  That, in the midst of all the other distractions in life, if one takes the time to see this play, the investment in time—not to mention ticket price—will be amply rewarded.

He saw himself as offering another service as well. The herd mentality is strong in the arts, he once told me.  Many otherwise thoughtful people tend to be hesitant to offer an opinion that runs starkly against the current mood.  One of my missions as a critic, he said, was to say that it’s OK to like this, and it’s OK not to like that.

The New York Times called him “one of a vanishing breed of cultural mavens: omnivorous, humane, worldly without being pretentious,” and he was certainly that.  His good friend Richard Brookhiser said that the main source of Terry’s “appetite to taste, learn, and enjoy was his love of all the arts, and of the wonderful sparks cast off by human minds generally.”

I'd like to tell you a little more about him as a biographer, a playwright, a critic, and a friend next week.