50 / Printed Matter

Conversation with San Francisco Arts Quarterly

By Art Practical Editors January 16, 2012

On November 17, 2011, Art Practical editors Catherine McChrystal, Matthew Harrison Tedford, and Tess Thackara met with San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ) founders and editors Gregory Ito and Andrew McClintock to discuss the differences and similarities between publishing an online arts publication and a print-based one. 

Image: Andrew McClintock and Gregory Ito, San Francisco Arts Quarterly founders and editors. Photo: Josh Short.

Catherine McChrystal: What factors went into the decision to create SFAQ as a print publication instead of an online publication and to do your own distribution?

Andrew McClintock: Greg and I started Ever Gold gallery three years ago, and at the time it was really more of an artist-run gallery space. We were thinking about new ways or mediums to get news about our exhibitions out. Around that time, too, SF Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian cut their art listings drastically, so there was no real, free art publication around. We talked about what we as artists wanted to do and what the city was missing. 

I used to make zines and handmade books and was the photo editor for a publication called Rise Above Haters that I put out with an old friend, Oliver Fader, so I was familiar with the idea of crafting a bunch of pages together. So we pitched the idea of SFAQ to the former president of the San Francisco Art Institute, Chris Bratton, who was able get us some very generous support from SFAI—that’s how we paid for the first issue.

Gregory Ito: SFAQ manifested itself with tall cans in hand on a stoop in the Mission district. We asked ourselves how we could promote events at Ever Gold when there were no real print platforms for the public to use in the Bay Area. We felt everyone in the artistic community was at a loss, so we decided to put out a print publication dedicated to the people who participate and support the arts.

Through the course of developing SFAQ we gained support from our peers, who helped bring the project to life, as well. Our main goal was to make SFAQ free, and we still feel that to make a major impact on our community SFAQ must remain a free public service; this is made possible by the many galleries, museums, and other business that support us through advertising.

CM: What’s your process for planning out your content, especially since it happens so much further in advance than it does for most online publications?

AM: The timeline itself can be scary. It’s one thing if it’s just the editorial part of the magazine, but we have to balance that with the timeline of gathering the time-sensitive event listing information from galleries and museums.

It’s changed since the first few issues of SFAQ, where the listings were in the front part of the magazine. In a sense, the editorial wasn’t the main focus at the time, but now the editorial section is the driving force of the publication because it really opens up conversations and dialogues, both historical and contemporary. We also recently re-launched the SFAQ website, which has all the event listings that are in the print version, as well as exclusive online interviews and content.

GI: The components of the editorial include artist highlights like Chris Burden, Paul Kos, Tony Labat, and Tom Marioni with a pull-out centerfold and other artist projects that reference the history of arts magazine such as Avalanche.

Our content has started to include international editorial and historical pieces. We recently had a two-part piece on San Francisco artists and galleries of the 1950s and ’60s by Paul Karlstrom and John Held Jr.

AM: In terms of content, I think it’s irresponsible for the art community to not function somehow politically. In our next issue, we’re running a story on Townhouse Gallery in Cairo about the trials of running a gallery in the midst of a revolution, as well as a piece about contemporary art in Greece and how the arts community has been affected by austerity cuts. We’re doing an ongoing Latino feature that highlights West Coast Latino artists and curators.

All of this will eventually help build awareness of different issues, and that’s how we’re trying to do our part. On the other spectrum of this I’m going to be doing a series of interviews with Mark McCloud, who is the most famous LSD [paper tab] collector in the world and a counterculture hero. The FBI still follows him around, and he has gotten off on two life sentences for LSD trafficking, so who knows where those conversations will take us or what forgotten counterculture figures will make guest appearances.

Matthew Harrison Tedford: A large portion of Art Practical content has a political edge, too, even if it’s very focused on the art of current exhibitions. I, myself, am almost always only interested in writing about art insofar as it’s political. It’s not enough if it’s just an aesthetic experience. 

Tess Thackara: I think there’s a problem when art stops engaging politics, and Glen Helfand wrote quite a good article recently in the Huffington Post about how he felt that art was at a remove from politics to some extent. I don’t know if I agree with that or not, but I definitely think that art needs to be constantly engaging politics.

For us as San Francisco publications, and given San Francisco’s reputation for being a bit insular, it’s important to engage with international politics, too. We need to be looking outward.

MHT: Let’s say there was a show that you wanted to write about and it closes this month, would that be too late for your next issue?

AM: We don’t normally cover shows in the magazine—that’s what the website was introduced to do because it enables a quicker turn around.

CM: So the website is sort of expanding the print capacity of the magazine by adding different types of editorial content? 

AM: Exactly, different editorial content that covers different cities, too, not just San Francisco—something that can be seen on the website and in upcoming print issues. We have a big feature on the arts history of the Lower East Side that’s a conversation between Carlo McCormick and Jocko Weyland in Issue 8 that will be released at the end of January. We also have plans to develop a more in-depth Latino section with short interviews with artists and curators from Mexico City that Julio Cesar Morales is working on. And we’re working on new historical content—a piece on John Cage, as it’s his one hundredth birthday this year. We have an ongoing commitment to involve conceptual and avant-garde artists and movements, which will always be a big part of SFAQ.

GI: It’s a twofold conversation: we want to get people to know what the art scene is in the Bay Area, but it’s also our goal to bring in information from outside the Bay Area. The publication acts as a catalyst for people within the boundaries of the greater Bay Area and the people outside of it. We’re opening the dialogue between the two. San Francisco in particular can begin to feel like a bubble, with such a variety of artistic endeavors to witness and be a part of, but SFAQ works to make it possible to break that bubble and continue to converse with the world around us.


Beat by the Bay, 2011; installation view, Ever Gold Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of Ever Gold Gallery.

TT: The content you’ve mentioned seems to touch on things that are happening in the Bay Area currently. SOMArts is doing something on John Cage, for instance. Is that why you’re covering him?

AM: No, we are not involved with that event space in any way. We are printing an unpublished interview that our friend and curator John Held Jr. conducted in the ’80s, as well as an essay on chance composition. Basically we’re taking a snapshot, but it’s wider in scope while still staying relevant. For example, the pieces we recently ran on the San Francisco Beats—it’s still historically relevant to what’s happening now.

MHT: Yes, it’s relevant, but it doesn’t only exist for this moment. 

CM: Art Practical is always trying to reconcile being a local publication with the opportunities to do things on a national or an international scale, so I’m interested to hear about how you navigate that tension.

AM: There’s always the debate about the magazine being called San Francisco Arts Quarterly. In my conversations with people who’ve been making art in San Francisco since the ’70s, it’s like San Francisco always gets pushed under the radar on a national and especially international level, despite ArtForum or ArtWeek, which were both started in San Francisco.

If there’s a way that we can have a conversation where we export what’s going on in San Francisco and also import ideas by working with people like Jens Hoffman—he’s a San Francisco–based curator, but he’s also curated the Istanbul Biennale as well as many other international art exhibitions—we want to make these connections and have those kinds of national or international offshoots because it helps to elevate the artistic awareness in the local community.

CM: One of the things that we’re piloting as a new model in 2012 is an Art Practical residency program, where we’ll publish an issue remotely, exploring the community in that place, and inviting writers who are local to that area to write for the issue. The idea isn’t to expand on a national level or an international level, but instead to try to establish partnerships with other communities.

MHT: If we just talk amongst ourselves, sure, we can learn something from that, but it can also be kind of limited. Where is your distribution outside of San Francisco?

AM: North Bay, South Bay, East Bay, select galleries in New York, L.A., Toronto, Portland, Seattle, as well as a handful in Europe. We work through low-key networks, and I am a big believer in grass roots expansion, as we have to keep our operating costs very low. A part of this grass roots expansion is through sponsoring art fairs where we also have a distribution presence and branding awareness.

GI: It’s funny to think about our distribution, because it really is as grass roots as you can get. It’s a two-man operation: I have my pickup truck, and Andrew has his bike with a trailer hitched to the back. We are also very grateful for our interns who have been helping us with many editorial tasks and distribution. We also started a yearly subscription for only $25.


Peter Selz and John Held, Jr. Courtesy of Ever Gold Gallery.

TT: Does all of your print content go up online, as well? 

AM: Yes, we have the whole publication online as a PDF. Readers can view it and download it so it’s like there's an unlimited supply. But there’s a difference between having a website that you need to be “in the know” about where to find art resources online and being able to walk into basically any art space and pick up a publication and be connected.

CM: I think that it’s also partly the fact that print publications are still regarded differently than online publications; they seem to continually or inherently hold a bit more weight. Perhaps there’s something in the object, in seeing something printed on paper that makes readers want to go and see what’s being written about. When Art Practical was first starting, one of our goals was to create a website that produces critical arts writing that was beyond arts blogging, something to be regarded at the same level as a purely printed publication.

MHT: Art Practical actually operates similarly to the SFAQ model—issues come out at specific times; it’s paced regularly. In many ways it’s still an issue model, a print model online.

TT: Do you foresee a time when you might feel that the printed publication is obsolete and you just focus on the website? Or do you feel that they serve very different functions? 

CM: Especially because the print publication is available online, too, by download.

AM: The printed aspect of SFAQ is the driving force and will always be the main focus. 

GI: Print will always hold a special place in the lives of people. The experience of staring at a computer screen is very different from the experience of printed matter. We feel that it is our obligation to set the separation between the two. 

AM: Both of us as artists realize that everything we do is part of our art practice, so actually biking around with my bike cart [and distributing SFAQ copies] felt really good because I was actually performing and exerting the physical energy of my practice.


Tom Marioni. Stand-up comedy performance. San Francisco, March 2011. Courtesy of Ever Gold Gallery, San Francisco.

TT: There’s something really nice about producing something physical at the end of the process. At least for me, with Art Practical, I’m happy that we produce an issue because it’s a cohesive kind of package, a complete thing.

It’s interesting that Art Practical leans so much on print culture in that way, just like SFAQ, because there’s something about an issue that invites you to draw connections and comparisons between different topics and artists and subjects in a way that the endless, flowing stream of online content just flooding in from one day to the next doesn’t really encourage. That’s something that we appreciate about print publications and that we try to carry through to Art Practical issues.

GI: We formulate the ideas for an issue beforehand, but it’s all about page count. Dealing with the actual printing isn’t that much fun. And once you print, if there’s a mistake, it’s there: you have thirteen thousand copies with the same mistake. This is something we work very hard to avoid.

CM: There’s something really appealing to me about actually getting to say, “Here. I have this thing that we made and you’re in it, even though I spelled your name wrong, we MADE this.”

AM: That in and of itself the traditional object is an artistic statement, too.

GI: We truly enjoy going into spaces and bringing our publication within them. It allows us to see so many shows year round, and to meet so many inspirational people. It happens all the time during my distro runs that I see some of the most amazing shows at spaces I never knew existed. The Bay Area is a very vibrant place. People have been very supportive.

AM: That’s a large part of what we do: going around and sitting down with a person, especially since we’re so interview based. Things come up in the conversation that you couldn’t anticipate if it were just over an email exchange or a set of preconceived questions.

When we were working with Tom Marioni on an artist spread, he made a mock up of the actual size the spread was going to be, and I didn’t know what to do with it. It made it really clear how dependent we all are on technology as well as how much the process of print has changed. The thought of setting type for one hundred or so pages seems insane…but then again everything changes with time.

TT: One of the nice things about working online is that once you’ve done all the work on a website, it’s there forever, indefinitely, and it functions as a constant archive. I’m interested to know whether you’ve started archiving your old issues from before you started developing out the SFAQ site.

AM: The site has all the back issues on it, but it’s interesting taking the idea of a tangible object or archive—what if there’s a fire? It would disappear, and there’d be no archive outside of the website. But we have started to get a lot of requests from museums and libraries for full sets of past issues, which is a great compliment because we are inserting our contribution into the canon of contemporary art.

CM: It seems like there’s a lot of cross-pollinating and that we all have that sort of anxiety about archiving. What are we archiving for? What’s going to happen when it doesn’t exist anymore?

AM: At the same time, unfortunately, it seems like the desire to learn from our past is dissolving, which is another reason why we find it important to publish the historical pieces that we do.

GI: That’s why show reviews don’t hold up as long [as editorial content] in print. In some ways you can say that an art review doesn’t begin the conversation for a particular exhibition…it ends it. It is the artists’ job to open that conversation with the viewer; we at SFAQ just tell you where and when the show is using the event listings.

CM: I think that over time, if you’re consistently creating a dialogue outside of the publication, then it means something.

MHT: That’s one of the values of being a living archive. As time progresses, an exhibition from three months ago might not be super interesting, but a couple of years from now it might be really interesting to see what was relevant at this time and what people were writing and thinking about. Even if it was a time that you lived through, you can view it differently or maybe see trends that you don’t notice now.

Imagine in ten years, picking up one of these old issues. I imagine there will be nostalgia, but also something more, like, a time capsule of what was happening at a different time.

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