Dependent Publications: Art Publishing Presents and Futures

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Dependent Publications: Art Publishing Presents and Futures

By James McAnally May 6, 2020

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


"Dependent Publications" was originally commissioned by The Chart as part of its 2019 Visiting Critic Lecture Series and appeared its 2019 print anthology. In light of Art Practical's loss of funding and uncertain future, we are republishing this piece a year later, in hopes it will generate further conversations to propel arts publishing forward in new models and forms.

________

Art criticism is comically self-obsessed with its own struggles as an enduring subject and subtext of its own commentary. At the invitation of The Chart as a part of their Visiting Critic Lecture Series and as a process of reflecting on the ending of my own and many of my closest collaborators’ publications over the last year, I was invited to apply this critical solipsism to reflect on art publishing’s presents and futures.

Criticism is a field forever in crisis: purgatorial, underfunded, and dependent on other structures for its existence, so the litany of complaints are both lived realities and perennially relevant. If this is a crisis, then it is clear that it is not getting any better. Yet, despite the long-form observations of our impending colony collapse, contemporary critics on the whole have not applied our faculties of strategic critique to a sustained interrogation of the structural concerns of our industry as a means to propose alternate routes forward. As a first step in what will require many other voices, here I hope to assess some of the publishing structures and tendencies that define our time and to propose others that may be catalyzed to help us collectively keep going.

Foundationally, our reference for what artworlds are possible are conditioned in part by what is written about, archived, and commented upon publicly. These artworlds are framed and disseminated by whatever publications exist and what those publications choose to engage. One litmus of art publishing’s impact is whether our publications limit or expand our definitions of what publics exist, what publics are emergent, what publics are possible.

At present, the most visible publics are still being produced by publications that are centralized in a handful of cities and in relation to particular economies of the art world. Given the distillation of publishing in the shadow of the market, it has no obligation or incentive to discuss the ephemeral, the marginal, oppositional, or decentered work happening in rural places, in smaller cities, even in the DIY or anti-market cultures of larger markets. This connection of the market to publishing is central if, as is overwhelmingly the case, most publishers remain for-profit entities driven by market dynamics and the support of a steady stream of aspirants in the shape of commercial galleries, luxury brands, universities, and a handful of moneyed institutions across the world.

What does this logic produce? It is what we ultimately see today, so we can each approximate an answer. Predominantly, it produces a conflation of different kinds of circulation—that of money and ideas, objects and criticism equally. The public produced through publishing in this mode is essentially what we call the contemporary art world—a deformed version of art and its expressions in institutions dominated by the activities in a handful of cities worldwide and a proportionally limited number of galleries, institutions, curators, and critics. This is the central logic of contemporary art publishing. In short, who or what pays for publishing and where this publishing is sited largely dictate both its terms and possibilities.

Criticism in this mode is centrifugal, viral, centralized. The entire art world apparatus is mobilized around the same set of biennials, exhibitions, fairs, and figures. There are too many Venice Biennial takes. Too many comments on auction prices. Too many market watches and marketing pitches. There are thirteen ways of looking at a Tear Gas Biennial before it even opens. All this unfurls while the underlying work of un-institutions is under-written, and the textures of artistic practice in the present can’t get an audience with a critic. It is the criticism of too much and not enough—criticism in the mode of capitalism.

The glut of words given to these art world moments are leaving some starving—most, in fact, as these other unwritten art worlds recede into word of mouth and memory for only a few and most art being made is never documented in the words of writers giving it as much thought as an artist and curator bringing it to a public in the first place. We leave these publics unformed, anecdotal, unmade. Possible worlds are lost in criticism’s absence. Out of neglect we let these works and their potential impact have half-lives.

There are stakes to this discussion not just about a self-focused lament of a lack of resources for art publishing as if it is an independent sphere. In a widely-circulated 2019 New York Times op-ed, “The Dominance of the White Male Critic,” Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang prompt us to “think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting.”

When we acknowledge this lack, this structural failure, we are likewise lamenting open dialogue and debate. The flow of creation to circulation to conversation and, ultimately, to historical context, is being largely controlled by the moorings of the market—for good reason, for those succeeding by its terms—but to the detriment of dialogue and understanding apart from the hothouse of buying and selling speculative goods in the form of artworks.

Art publishing is in the process of being perfected and bound by bloated commercial ballasts. Over the past few years as the latest salvo of a mega-gallery arms race, one of the defining publishing trends has been the rise of commercial galleries as publishers, ranging from Gagosian Quarterly from the art world skymall to Ursula by Hauser & Wirth. In the digital sphere we find Artsy (a venture capital-funded market site) taking on the role of publisher. Artnet has an explicitly a market-driven entity, even though it actively publishes critical content. The Warhol-founded Interview was recently bankrupted intentionally to dissolve its debts and is in the process of being rebooted. ARTnews and Art in America, two of the longest-running legacy publications, were recently bought by the Penske Media Corporation as a part of an ongoing consolidation within the industry, with unknown results as to any effects on their form or editorial focus. The gap between the market and these publications has deteriorated, steadily obliterating distance.

There is of course valuable work here, but what is equally clear is that in the art market's biggest bull season, art publishing gets Ursula, a little bear, a barely-there signifier of the bear-as-constellation, a consolation prize. The market simply doesn't support criticism that isn't self-interested. So those of us outside this system and its intense regionalism are left with extra-market solutions.

Publishing is, of course, happening away from the centers of power and money regardless. Over the past several months, I have assembled a list of recently-active regional and independent publications with at least thirty-four with a substantial public platform. This is the product of incomplete and informal research, filled out by personal knowledge, a social media appeal, and especially draws from a list compiled by Common Field. This incomplete list doesn’t focus on blogs, defined as singular platforms for a small handful of writers, but rather on platforms that are structured to publish writing from a broader roster of contributors. I’m also focusing here on publications that publish criticism specifically, so numerous touchstone platforms like Triple Canopy, Rhizome, and so on are missing here. This isn’t systematic or comprehensive, and is primarily meant to be suggestive of the scope of what exists at present. Regardless of its gaps, the list is notable in its diversity and scope. I would hazard a guess that there are more active arts publications than most would assume, or certainly follow in a regular way.

Another observation in looking at this list is that a very small number of these independent platforms are national or international in scope. The large majority of those publishing in this mode are regional—a product, I believe, of interest, capacity, and economy. To both identify and personally feel a need is always localized first. This is also more feasible in that a local platform perhaps better knows what to cover, is able to find writers and friends to create the content (even if it is unpaid), and to generally feel the task is within grasp without substantial resources.

In my experience regional publications are far easier to fund as well. They may find support through local funders more easily than those with a national or global purview and less defined “place” due to how funding operates on a local level. Given the dearth of national funders interested in publishing as a field, these are often the only approachable sources, especially for the first few years of a publication’s existence. This brings questions as to how national an audience these publications produce — not that this is necessary, or even desirable at all times—but nonetheless produces an inherent limitation of audience or circulation if compared to larger, coastal legacy publications.

Now, here is the list (in red) reflecting publications that have become inactive, have been publishing very infrequently, or are undergoing uncertain transitions within the last year or so.1 I would specifically call out my own publication, Temporary Art Review, which closed in 2019 but recently relaunched in new form as MARCH, as well as ArtSlant, Pelican Bomb, contemptorary, Big Red and Shiny, Post Office Art Journal, ArtFCity, and East of Borneo as having stopped publishing altogether. Many more have begun publishing less frequently or go months without a single published piece. Numerous others are on the brink and almost all operate on a very fragile funding structure with very little security.

These kinds of projects, like the spaces and scenes they often document, are notoriously tenuous, but I’m curious if there are more observable factors at work here. Why in 2018 and 2019, at the peak of contemporary art’s power, money, and cultural influence, are we seeing a steady die-off of these smaller scale publications? Before I get into possible structural and financial conclusions, I think one factor worth noting is simply exhaustion—personal, political, financial precarity has overtaken our sector and certain decisions have become harder to explain, even or especially to oneself. The crises of our days aren’t felt most profoundly in criticism. Accordingly, energy that may go into a self-organized project such as a publication snakes off elsewhere for more overt activism, or self-preservation, or paid work, or family. (These were all primary factors for Temporary’s shifts). And, who could blame any of these individuals given that this sector is, by and large, volunteer-driven at the level of editors, even when writers are being paid. A panel at the Common Field Convening in Los Angeles a few years ago focused on creating solidarities among independent publications, of the five publications represented (Temporary, contemptorary, ARTS.BLACK, The Chart, and Pelican Bomb) at the time only Pelican Bomb paid its editors a salary. I know anecdotally this is symptomatic of the field at large.

Like society as a whole, the money generated in our current economic boom isn’t trickling down, just out and back to a handful of artists, galleries, auction houses, collectors, and speculators. It isn’t a trickle at all, but a readymade fountain recycling the same water. We know this on a gut level, but what is happening at auction houses, biennials, and blue chip galleries generally has nothing to do with what is happening in one’s studio or even your city or state if you are in St. Louis, Missouri, or Portland, Maine. As a recent study by John Yao for Hyperallergic of the geographies of the 2019 Whitney Biennial—lauded as the most diverse in its history (which it is by many metrics)—tells us, these alternate circulations simply never overlap. They structurally do not overlap. 53 of the 68 artists live on either the West or East Coast of the continental United States, and 46 of these 53 live in either New York or Los Angeles. Most circulate from a handful of schools and established networks. The contemporary art world as earlier described does not need or want to diversify unless it opens a new investment frontier. A popular view these days—understandable in our present entanglements—is that criticism’s primary purpose is as PR aimed at the market. It is not general audience content, and not often really even educational within our insular spheres, but is most easily instrumentalized by a gallerist to consolidate capital around an artist. Today, critically-acclaimed = market-ready. Don’t @ me.

The market is not charitable and is certainly not an “activist investor” to support regional markets in the U.S. (though, one could argue, this dynamic has been at play globally for a few decades to capture, stabilize, and secure new markets). The incentive just isn’t there precisely because a more dispersed, unpredictable, and contradictory art world that a widespread regionalism would likely produce is all the things a market doesn’t want: centralized, codified, controllable, and internally unified.

I don’t have the data chops or the time to gather accurate numbers here, but I would be very interested in understanding the percentage by field for philanthropic funding of critical writing and (non-catalogue) publishing versus the supposedly “primary” activities of production, presentation, other kinds of “outreach” or “educational” work, and collection. I think we could all hazard a guess. Based on a decade of observation, mine is somewhere in the range of 2%. For whatever reason, funding publications is simply not a priority for most philanthropic structures in the U.S. We support our institutions, to some degree our artists, and certainly a sense of the culture industry as an industry, but writing around these activities lags far behind despite its stated centrality for creating publics around artwork, for archiving this work for posterity, and for deepening understanding of the work being made in the present.

This essay is an attempted criticism of the state of criticism, but I’m interested in the idea, borrowed from Walter Benjamin and Brecht, of the critic as strategist. This is where my own writing and editorial practice is headed with a sustained engagement on the structures mediating our experiences of art, art writing, and one another.

As a start, I have sketched several tentative proposals for how to interrupt our assumptions of how art publishing is sustained and made public. They are flawed in their own ways, but are meant as provocations and drafts towards other forms.

I. Self-organization


Within this model, a self-defined community or region would determine that writing about art and circulating it in the form of a publication is worth an investment not just on the part of those doing it and would organize itself on a municipal level to fund arts publishing.

This view sees publishing as both an opportunity and obligation of all of the stakeholders within a particular place and organizes collectively in order to produce a publication (or numerous publications). Building from the impulses of self-organization already present in most independent publications, this municipalist approach to publishing would involve one or more publishers whose commission would be to holistically cover the region’s disparate activities.

The basic mechanism would involve patrons and supporters of all levels paying in to a shared pool. Museums, commercial galleries, larger independent spaces, small artist spaces, even artists themselves contribute to a publication fund alongside any other funders. If writing about art isn't a line item for those of us whom directly benefit, then who is it for? (Clearly no one, given where things stand).

The fees could be based on dues, scaled to one’s size and budget (for an institution) and individual generosity (for artists, patrons, and so on). The publication’s obligation would be to its place, and to publish actively on the range of art being produced and presented in that place. It would be beholden to all of these stakeholders equally, and idealistically perhaps, therefore beholden to none.

II. Regional Coalitions


A second solution is to work through the foundations, grantors, larger patrons, and regional art councils already present in a particular region. In this model, a coalition of funders would commit to funding art writing and publishing through an allocation of a proportionally small percentage of their overall funding.

Most, but certainly not all, regions in the United States have a reasonably evolved funding ecosystem of art councils, corporate funders, family foundations, individual patrons, and other grantors deeply invested in the success of art and cultural activities in their region. However, how many of these entities have any dedicated funding for art publishing, much less a long-term investment in criticism and publication as an essential part of the ecosystem? Publications are unique in this regard because they bolster the work of the whole, building visibility and viability for the artists and organizations already active. They provide a service for the whole that no other structure offers and directly extend the investments being made in institutions and artists within a region.

As stated above it is clear that publications and those committed to a conversation about art lag far behind those producing and presenting art in terms of granting percentages. At even the most generous view the proportions are resoundingly off. Publications are remarkably lean operations, requiring something equivalent to a small- or mid-sized nonprofit to operate at a reasonably high level, publishing several times per week at minimum and employing numerous writers and editors. There’s no mid-sized city in America that couldn’t make this model happen if it were a priority from the existing funding community to work on behalf of the whole.

III. National Coalitions


In view of the perpetual lack of national platforms with an ability to document the work happening in rural communities and smaller cities, this model comes from an intentional investment on the part of national foundations and funders to support art publishing. This model looks to some of the dynamics emerging after the 2016 election in which strategic investments began to rush to rural news organizations and platforms like ProPublica able to reach areas that had not been adequately addressed by existing publication efforts.

This approach is very targeted to the handful of foundations or funders with a national purview. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts is already a leader in this area, both with their partnership with Creative Capital for the Arts Writers Awards, which supports individual writers (disclaimer: I am a past recipient for Short-Form Writing), as well as blogs and books. The foundation also supports individual publications through its regular grantmaking activities. The Portland, Maine-based Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation has likewise made a substantial commitment to art writing by offering eight unrestricted grants of $50,000 to writers each year. The Ford Foundation, with Allied Media, supports critics of color through their Critical Minded initiative. The National Endowment for the Arts funds arts publishing through its competitive grant process, and the Knight Foundation funds publishing substantial in its active cities. However, again, as a field art publishing lags far behind other areas in terms of overall funding and is demonstrably insufficiently supported, particularly on a national view. Much of these funds are for individual writers as well without an industry-wide purview.

Though organizing on this scale involves substantial advocacy, there are opportunities for coalitions and strategic initiatives to form to bolster diverse, dispersed publishing activities nationally.

IV. Import | Export


This is more of a complimentary model than a stand-alone solution, but one that can be implemented in lieu of or in addition to any of the other models. With this approach, individual or collective institutions or funders intentionally cultivate ways of bringing in writers from outside the region, cultivating writers within a region, and generally circulating the work within the region through existing outlets.

A number of cities and individual publications have been piloting various residency and fellowship models that bring writers and editors in from elsewhere and cultivate writers from within. I’ve done this informally in St. Louis at The Luminary through our residency program, but others have built out intentional programs for critics, including Antenna and Pelican Bomb in New Orleans, Burnaway in Atlanta, SPACES in Cleveland, and The Chart in Maine, whose Visiting Critic Lecture Series prompted this piece. Localized fellowships for art writers have cropped up in places like Oklahoma, organized by Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition; and in Richmond, Virginia, organized by curator Lauren Ross and others, and likely many more not noted here.

This also happens as singular institutions or a coalition of stakeholders in a region fund a particular regional focus by a publication. Art Practical has done this often, as has Bad at Sports and others. Temporary Art Review did this as well, though it was typically self-organized rather than by invitation of an institution. This happens organically at times. Notably, Art in America documents three distinct regions per year through their Atlas series (which I contributed to in St. Louis), and Hyperallergic has actively expanded their focus on non-coastal communities.

An import of critics happens all the time through press junkets around major art events, but that process tends to exacerbate the “boom and bust” model in which only those who can afford to organize press trips, and events deemed worthy of a trip by coastal publications and writers, are ever engaged. However, even those trips can be extended by encouraging writers to experience other spaces, smaller galleries, and artist studios. These small gestures help circulate work unpredictably, but happens far too rarely due to a tendency to hoard contacts and resources for an individual institution’s benefit.

This model acknowledges the larger networks of publication already in place and attempt to deploy that thoughtfully, not just around a triennial, art fair, or particular prize, but the subtle work of a garage gallery, student shows, university galleries, and artist spaces that often anchor these scenes. Again, the costs of these things versus what people are spending to produce events offer clear in-roads to seed more discourse. Despite its problematics at times, this model creates a pollination among different regions that is helpful for all at its best.

In complement to these, programs that cultivate and train writers locally can lead to lasting shifts in discourse. This trend acknowledges the de-professionalization of criticism. In a time in which there are only a handful of full-time critics in the entire nation, most art writing is done by artists, students, teachers, curators, and whatever assembly of people willing to be underpaid to think and write about art. Fellowships and art writing programs help build up a roster of more confident writers able to start their own publications or contribute regionally or nationally to the discourse within their region.

Each of these approaches are atomized on their own and tend to perpetuate the precarity of the field without parallel investment in publications able to commission their writing, pay them equitably, connect the writing with publics, and generally sustain the practice.

V. Institutionalism


The last—and this is my least preferable option because at best it is not a dramatic enough departure from the market based approach we have now and at worst could tend to vanity project status—is the continued expansion of institutionally-supported platforms in which well-funded institutions found and support critical writing on their own platforms. Notable examples of this include Walker Reader and mnartists through the Walker Art Center and Open Space at SFMOMA, each of which I would point to as among the best active art publications in both generosity to writers and strength of content. On some level, Temporary Art Review acted similarly in that it emerged out of The Luminary as a nonprofit independent space, though at a much reduced scale to all above.

These platforms all graft off of the larger budgets and missions of critical institutions to develop semi-independent publications. Departing from the norms of insular-focused publishing about the museums’ activities, here their focus is outward, supporting often critically-engaged and free-ranging writing and cultivating publics for art, which is typically a stated central mission of these institutions. This would at least lead to a potential incubation of new ways of working beyond the institution.

These five proposals are scalable. They can start small, or be expansive at the outset. They can stitch together multiple cities and regions. Regardless, they move towards creating a sustainable and collectively-minded publishing ecosystems, wresting control of our narratives and circulation from the market and geographic centers of influence. They create new publics, deepen discourses, create platforms for sustained conversation. They ultimately make our art worlds far more complex and honest to the range of work being produced. Importantly, none of these options detract from what is currently existing or one another—they are mutually supportive, interdependent even.

The question is which region(s) will take a lead? Or will we all? If the crisis in criticism is as profound as we have been collectively decrying for decades with the collapse of art writing in newspapers and alternative weeklies, the atomization of online publications, and scarce other alternatives in existence, who will make a profound and ambitious attempt at addressing it?

It is not so far-fetched to see any of these scenarios take root, and I would be interested to see which region would incubate some version of this. The most written-about art scene in America.

This all returns to a central understanding and the title of this piece. Criticism is a dependent practice. It is conversant with and responsive to the concerns of art and artists. It emerges immediately as a form of dialogue. Likewise, publications are intertwined with the structural concerns of the art world as a whole. Art’s social circulation is also dependent on the work of criticism and publication. We glibly use the image of an ecosystem to point to the fragile dynamics that coalesce to sustain the lives of artists’ work, but underlying this metaphor is an understanding that these set pieces are cyclical, dependent. What is clear at this late-crisis date is that the problems are only deepening and as a field we have made an insufficient attempt at intervening.

Every essay etymologically is an attempt and this is an attempted intervention. Each of these tactics are untested, but it is beyond time to try.

________

Temporary Art Review/Test Case Addendum

I come to this conversation as a curator, critic, and publisher, most centrally for this discussion as the co-founder and editor (with Sarrita Hunn) of Temporary Art Review, an online publication focused on artist practices and artist spaces operating primarily outside of art centers. Temporary Art Review offers a helpful test case for this conversation about regional and independent publications and their role in their respective ecosystems—as well as some reflections on its limitations and failures, and what opportunities remain. Temporary was founded in 2011 by Sarrita Hunn and I out of a series of conversations at The Luminary, an artist-run space I co-founded in St. Louis, in which we connected over an interest in self-organized spaces and methodologies as an ideological form and talked through the failures of publishing to properly document what was happening outside of art centers. These two interests defined Temporary as a project, with a backdrop of a widespread post-recession, post-digital freefall in the publishing industry.

By then the so-called art publishing “industry” was no longer workable. Newspapers were actively shedding art critics across the nation, print was supposedly dying, and no one had figured out paywalls or online ads (not like they have now, either). However, we were also emerging from a foundational understanding that this industry had never worked for most in the field—the self-organized spaces, the peripheral geographies, the radical undergrounds that define most artistic activity around the world. For us, this all felt ripe for experimentation. We felt very much aligned with that moment of industry collapse to operate in the cracks: operating on a makeshift Wordpress page and launched for somewhere around $50, we circulated in the mode of the self-distributed pamphlets of the earliest critics, the mimeographed magazines of the 1960s, the queer and punk zines of the 80s and 90s. Temporary was partially named in solidarity with the ephemeral nature of the artist spaces we were interested in documenting as well as the temporalities that these spaces, and us as a publication, could manifest. A space of possibility that operated outside and often against the prevailing tendencies in arts publishing.

We felt publishing was the right mode to make this public of arts organizers, alternative spaces, apartment galleries, warehouse spaces, and autonomous practices coherent—first to each other across distances, and then more broadly to the art world and its various actors. As a project, it lasted eight years with the thinnest of funding to pay writers and our baseline expenses, but through that time we tested numerous approaches from a no-money-in, no-money-out approach of a DIY project, to an all-barter “anti-profit” model to, finally, a traditional journal with grants, ads, and paid contributors (but not paid editors). It was a self-aware experiment of what a publication could be at present that was built for those that had traditionally been under-covered by other national publications. Those tests ran their course, in part because I believe any approach needs to be more systematic and structural. It is a system change needed, and any individual experiment becomes untenable in the long term without a more holistic approach. Though it entered hiatus officially in 2019, Temporary Art Review will relaunch in 2020 with a refined focus as “MARCH: a journal of art and strategy” aimed at the social and institutional urgencies of the moment.

Notes

  1. Since the time of this essay's original publication in 2019, more of the listed publications have closed, likely as a result of the impacts of COVID-19 and its subsequent fallout.

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