A Field in Flux

 

Some recent news has spurred me to ponder where our field is headed. In July, the Connecticut-based contemporary art collector Peter Brant announced that he had sold three of his four important art magazines. These are Art in America (published since 1913), The Magazine Antiques (1922) and the more recently invented Modern Magazine. Brant is not leaving the field, however: the buyer of his titles is the company that runs America’s oldest surviving art magazine, ARTnews, which was founded in 1902. Since 2014, ARTnews has been owned by a company publicly traded in Warsaw, but now Brant is its majority shareholder.

At first glance, this seems merely a reshuffling of corporate assets, but rest assured that its impact on the art world will be enormous. Specifically, Art in America will still be published (on paper) eleven times per year, but ARTnews will be represented only through occasional themed issues like its annual “The World’s Top 200 Collectors.” Antiques and Modern will drop from a monthly publishing schedule to a quarterly one. Brant says: “We plan to strengthen our focus on digital content and online news reporting across all platforms”—and indeed all of these titles will see their websites consolidated at artnews.com. Revealingly, Brant decided to retain full ownership of his perenially groovy, celebrity-focused magazine, Interview, which was founded by Andy Warhol in 1969.

So what does all this mean for the art world? First, it means fewer printed pages of news, analysis and scholarship across both the historical and contemporary sectors. Second, as nice as it is to ramp up a website, the length and quality of arts-writing online only occasionally matches that on paper. Third, this means more competition for printed coverage among museums, galleries, auctioneers and artists. It is likely that the biggest names—and probably the biggest advertisers—will get their stories “told” far more often than everyone else. The reduction of overall pages will further “dumb down” this field, steering newly arrived or less informed collectors toward the shiniest brands, depriving them of the aesthetic and intellectual contexts that they deserve to know.

This situation provides no joy even for the “competitors” of these various titles. Everyone knows that an art gallery, just for example, rarely thrives in a neighborhood where no other galleries exist. There must be a critical mass of energy for any audience to crystallize and sustain, and so it is with art publishing. If and when American art lovers—through no fault of their own—become less informed, less challenged, less inquisitive, the entire field will suffer. Good artists will become indistinguishable from mediocre ones, upstanding galleries from deceptive ones, commerce-driven museum shows from scholar-driven ones.

I, for one, am grateful that American Arts Quarterly remains dedicated to publishing serious commentary and research that otherwise may not find a platform in print. This summer’s developments make such publications all the rarer.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2015, Volume 35, Number 4