It is that time of year when we turn our sights to the future: so let’s now consider the question of the future of arts publishing.
It has now been a full five years since 2007, the peak of the heady days of the art world, when magazines — well, Artforum and frieze — were as thick as an orang-utan’s pinkie. Though fewer galleries than one might have expected have closed, and to all accounts Miami is still awash with art fair dollars, magazine advertising — one of the first places where galleries slash their budgets — has gone quite demonstrably down, and has by no means regained its pre-2008 level.
There have been some casualties: Art World, an indistinguishable magazine that briefly appeared in 2007, has come and gone; Contemporary moved to Panama (no, seriously); Untitled folded, though its erstwhile editors (Polly Staple, Olivia Plender) remain at large in the art world in interesting, different capacities. In Europe two new magazines, more rough and ready than the dominant glossy model, have emerged — Mousse and Kaleidoscope — with both pulling off the trick of being actually pretty good, and with Kaleidoscope further pulling off the even trickier trick of having been free for a few issues. The DLR thinks it once knew the backstory to that but it has now totally forgotten. Anyone who knows (it isn’t very salacious), answers in the comment box please. The secret to both their emergences is, of course, no secret at all — both sell reams of advertising, and they use a stable of clever European curator-critics, published in the likes of Afterall and Texte zur Kunst, whose trade has been both putting their fingers to the art world pulse and putting the pulse on the couch for some deep theoretical analysis. Also, they are able to keep their metaphors separate, which is one of the many factors – including regularity and writing fees – that separates them from this little blog.
But the big post-2007 winner has clearly been e-flux, whose financial model seems as genius as Google’s. Set up an email list to everyone in the art world, charge institutions $600 for simply sending out an email, and then use this valuable-as-gold contact list as the base readership for a magazine, now that you are rolling in cash and have nothing else to do with it. Heck, why don’t you even use your influence to coerce all the artists into giving you their films and distribute those for free too? Go crazy, e-flux, go crazy. Like Triple Canopy, also new on the scene and e-only, e-flux has been holding up high standards of writing — Hito Steyerl on the factory; Sven Lütticken on art and thingness — with really no overheads. (Triple Canopy, which, like Mute, is also interested in the technical possibilities of web publishing, has more.) So is online publishing the future of arts publishing? The Kindle to its budgetary woes? The iPad to its sub-inflationary salary increases?
This conclusion is hard to wholeheartedly endorse when one considers, on the other hand, the reams of printed matter that are churned out in the art world — not just Sternberg Press, who seem to produce a book a minute, but the self-published and small-scale varieties that populate the ever-growing number of art book fairs: Publish & Be Damned, the New York Art Book Fair (run by Printed Matter), Miss Read in Berlin, PA/PER VIEW in London (what, are these barbershops? What’s with the puns?), the London Art Book Fair, etc. As the recent contretemps in the Art Monthly letters pages suggests, art book publishing is having, as they used to say, a ‘moment’, so it seems ridiculous to write off hard copy publishing at a time when so much interesting work is being done around it. Echoing in some ways the DIY book publisher And Other Stories, which Jenny Diski wrote about in the LRB recently, AND publishing, based at Central Saint Martins, is creating both a pirated book library and a print-on-demand service for art books: ingeniously adding to the pile (and creating many opportunities for artists) rather than digitising it.
So given all these upstarts, both e- and non-e (the old U and non-U?), how are the big guns of English-language criticism – Artforum, frieze, Afterall, ArtReview – faring? Artforum lost its talented editor Tim Griffin last year, replaced by Michelle Kuo, and though the magazine wobbled a bit in its direction for a few issues it still feels roughly the same. And, while not the bloated corpse it once was, it is still hale and healthy in the ad department. frieze, whose masthead hasn’t changed in yonks, has had some strong issues lately – on digital art and the December best of – and its business side continues to make bold, even quite surprising choices (the German-language frieze d/e, the very exciting Frieze Masters, a fair for work made pre-2000, and last but not least the decision to start a fair in New York on an island used chiefly as private school sports grounds) that help to guarantee ad revenue from galleries. ArtReview has a new publisher and the excellent Afterall continues to find new ways to find support within an ailing nonprofit sector, mainly through strategic alliances with different international organisations. So, the long and short of it is, through affiliations with monetary or cultural capital, art magazines are weathering the economic storm.
But what about the future, goddammit, that you promised in the beginning of this post? What will the future hold? Well, we all know it, more will go online, on apps and on the now outmoded non-app regular web, more of that will go behind paywalls, and more creative ways of financing will emerge – that’s not shorthand for Enron but rather things like ‘membership’ schemes (didn’t that used to be called subscriptions?) and reader donations. The current institutional enthusiasm for publishing projects will likely be siphoned off to support journals, meaning a migration of the journal from an independent publishing outfit towards the museum or art space as a host — not necessarily a bad thing, and something that is already happening in their pages anyway, which are written by necessarily partisan curators rather than art critics with putatively no stake in the game. (Show me an art critic with no stake in the game, really. Go on, I dare you.) frieze and Artforum won’t get glossier, not because, O cynical readers, they can’t get glossier than they already are, but simply because the art world is a well-educated group of fools and they like to take a little Badiou in their tea from time to time. And we doubt their general interest profile — Marc Jacobs ads, be damned — is that strong anyway. But they will lose readers, and will look increasingly to their online pages to not only win those readers back but to host discussions among them.
So, forecast for art publishing: online and cheaper to produce. But don’t expect any to fold yet. Indeed, the siren song of the art publication continues to seduce: maybe this will be the year LUX publishes its long-promised artist’s film magazine?