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New Art Examiner, R.I.P.?
by Victor M. Cassidy

The New Art Examiner is in trouble again. Said to be $150,000 in debt, Chicago's only art magazine shut down in May of this year. It canceled the July/August issue, laid off the staff and closed the office. Just a year ago, at a cost of more than $100,000, the Examiner was "re-launched" following another financial crisis. The magazine has survived similar episodes in the past, but never has ceased publishing. Is this the end?

Not so says Curt Conklin, who became the Examiner's unsalaried publisher in April. As he tells it, the Examiner was hemorrhaging money and had lost touch with the art community. He closed it down to raise money, remedy its problems and point it toward the future.

Conklin hopes to save the Examiner by building a "foundation of community support" among top art dealers and museum people. "If those people want the Examiner to succeed," he says, "they'll lead me to donors."

In public and private meetings, Conklin has asked Chicago's art community if it really wants an art magazine. How should a revived Examiner be run? What should the editorial be like? Who will read it? This article is my contribution to the discussion.

Once a backwater
History helps place the present crisis in context. Chicago was an art backwater when the New Art Examiner began publishing in October of 1973. Chicago has since become a major art center. There are several reasons for this.
  • The art expositions held each year at Navy Pier since 1982 brought dealers, curators, collectors and artists to Chicago from all over the world. The expos gave Chicago an international profile. Local dealers widened their contacts and increased sales. Chicago artists gained as the world saw and purchased their work.

  • Since 1980, James N. Wood has led the Art Institute through unprecedented growth and development. He presided over a building program that continues to this day, the celebrated rehanging of the permanent collection, expansion of the 20th-century galleries, and establishment of a contemporary art exhibition program. Wood has shown how a public institution can accommodate change and withstand fierce political pressures without compromising its standards.

  • Two university-sponsored institutions -- the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago and the Block Museum at Northwestern University -- have expanded their programs, collections and facilities in recent years. Both museums have purchased and exhibited Chicago art.

  • The Museum of Contemporary Photography, which started in 1976, has presented many excellent shows and won museum accreditation as it built a collection of more than 4,500 American photographs by 500-plus artists virtually from scratch. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, which was started in 1982 with $900, has become Chicago's finest ethnic museum. The Evanston Arts Center and the Northern Illinois University Gallery are smaller venues with excellent exhibition records.

  • The Museum of Contemporary Art has improved noticeably since Robert Fitzpatrick became director in 1998. Recently, it has mounted a series of solo exhibitions by younger Chicago artists.

  • The Chicago Art Dealers Association has 44 members today. Only four of these existed in 1973. Chicago's dealers represent many local artists, providing them with income that enables them to continue their work. Three Chicago dealers have moved to New York and three others have opened branches there, making it possible for some Chicago artists to show in the world's art capital.

  • As Chicago has become a better place for artists to live, many have made their careers here instead of moving to New York. Chicago has a very strong group of mid-career artists, some with national reputations. Local sculptors have organized international, summer-long outdoor exhibitions at Navy Pier. Chicago artists have created alternative spaces, cooperatives and weekend galleries where young people often get their first shows.

  • Chicago's city government established the Chicago Cultural Center, a kunsthalle that presents work by local artists. Chicago has the best public sculpture collection of any U.S. city -- works by Moore, Picasso, Nevelson, Calder, Miró, Oldenburg and more.

As Chicago's art community went from triumph to triumph, the Examiner ignored, opposed or belittled its progress. I am one of many who long ago lost patience with this silly, cranky enterprise.

An editorial vision
A freshly reconceived, financially stable, editorially relevant Examiner should begin, I believe, with an agile board of directors that commits itself fully to its job of financial oversight, long range planning and fundraising. The board must build financial checks and balances into the renewed organization from the very first day.

Most readers won't care about finances as long as the articles are good. The Examiner's editorial mission must be to report on art and artists in Chicago and the Midwest. The Examiner must present a variety of viewpoints and welcome responsible commentary from all parts of the art community. It must avoid partisan politics and controversy for its own sake.

The Examiner should post some editorial on its website because this is quicker and cheaper than going to press. Calendar listings, opportunities for artists, classified ads and the like can all go online at low cost. This should be the first part of the revived Examiner to appear.

News and reviews can also go on the Internet. Reviews should be posted no more than ten days after openings so readers can see the show while it is still up. A typical review will be 400 words -- the same length as in Art in America. Major shows will get longer reviews -- up to 800 words, which is about all that most people are willing to read online.

Fine art images do not reproduce well on the web, but this won't matter much because interested readers will go see the art. News and reviews should be the second part of the revived Examiner to appear.

The printed Examiner must be attractively designed with top-quality images. Sculpture Magazine is a model of graphic excellence. The Examiner should become known for the grace and variety of its writing. This means finding the best art writers in Chicago and the Midwest and paying them market rates.

The Examiner's editor must be a person of proven commitment to the Chicago and Midwest art community. He or she must be an excellent writer with a solid list of publications, an experienced editor and a responsible manager who observes budgets.

The editor will report to the publisher and the board of directors, but he or she must also be accountable to a board of editorial advisers. The advisers will be volunteers who have no fiduciary responsibilities and no obligation to attend meetings more than possibly once a year.

Chosen from all parts of the art community -- painters, sculptors, photographers, curators, teachers and dealers -- the advisers will work informally with the editor to help him or her find writers, articles and article subjects. They will ensure that the Examiner stays focused on art and artists -- and serves the entire Chicago and Midwest art community.

Editorial will consist of general articles, regional reports, analytical pieces that are too long and complex for the news section, and portraits of (or interviews with) artists. The revived Examiner will give major coverage to mid-career artists -- the most neglected group today. Sculpture Magazine publishes 1,000-word portraits called "Focus," which can serve as a model.

There will be a section of shorter vignette pieces on emerging artists, art organizations and unusual happenings or people. I have written articles like this on a textile artist who raises dye plants and dyes her own yarn and another textile artist who works on a Jacquard loom. There should always be room for nuttiness, like the performance artist who stages cake fights and calls them an antidote to road rage.

To give it variety and surprise, the Examiner should have a department called "Passions" in which some person (not necessarily from Chicago or the Midwest) describes an artist or a type of art that they love. The only rule is that the writer must be absolutely passionate about the work, which can be any kind of art -- the Venus of Willendorf, Ottoman calligraphy, Fragonard paintings, Giacometti sculptures and more. "Passions" could become a very popular feature.

The New Art Examiner may have a future after all. We hope that Curt Conklin can bring Chicago and the Midwest the art magazine that it has needed for so long.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.