CONCEPTUAL FINE ARTS

Do I still have to call it art magazine?

Stefano Pirovano

Digital media has been rapidly changing the way the art world is communicating. Here is how art agencies step in the realm of the art magazines.

When it came to light, in February 2012, Conceptual Fine Arts was the first art magazine published (online only) by an art gallery. The gallery was that of Fabrizio Moretti. The art world’s way of communicating was rapidly changing. Social networks were in full bloom and theoretically offered every ‘agency’ the possibility to build its own distribution network based on ‘friends’ or ‘followers’. Everyone already had a Facebook or Twitter account, many artists and art writers were also active on Tumblr. The current industry leader, Instagram, was then starting to take hold. As many of the great gallerists of the past were also extraordinary publishers – think for instance of Ernst Beyeler, who started his career assisting an antiquarian bookseller – it seemed to us that producing an online art magazine was the best way to take advantage of the new opportunity offered by digital media and bring to the art community the cultural message of a gallery owner, Moretti, who wanted to prove to be able to deal with old masters, modern and contemporary art with the same expertise. Moreover, once the editorial lines were set (we still have the same ones), the publisher guaranteed to CFA’s editor in chief full editorial freedom.

ole Eisenman
Nicole Eisenman, Breakup, detail, 2011. Note: this work was exhibited for the first time at the Whitney Biennial in 2012.

The gallery art magazines

At that time all the main art galleries were opening their social media accounts, managing them in more or less effective ways, but mostly using these new channels to communicate themselves and their artists. Some even created ad hoc art magazines. Gagosian pioneered its own between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. The magazine – printed on paper, four issues a year – was initially entirely financed by the gallery itself. Today Gagosian Quarterly is a main part of Gagosian’s website (by far the most advanced art gallery website around) and sells ads to major fashion brands, while continuing to write exclusively about the artists represented by the gallery – and this is a first strong indicator of where we are.

Gagosian wasn’t left alone for long. Koenig started publishing its own art magazine in 2017. It is released twice a year and, like Gagosian Quarterly, it collects writings about the artists represented by Koenig gallery. Koening magazine also sells advertising to the main fashion brands. In December 2018 Hauser & Wirth launched Ursula, that also is a four-issues-a-year magazine published on paper, yet not exclusively dedicated to its artists, as stated by the publisher itself: ‘Ursula will showcase not only the work of artists and estates represented by Hauser & Wirth, but also a wide, adventurous swath of the international art world of the 20th and 21st centuries‘. A choice of the articles is available on the gallery’s website. Last November another top art dealer, Marco Voena, launched the first issue of ‘Il Libro‘, an art magazine that aims at communicating the splendour of Italian art to a non-Italian audience.

David Zwirner doesn’t have its own art magazine yet, but on the occasion of the gallery’s 25th-anniversary he enriched his website with two very interesting sections. The first is entitled ’25 years’ and accurately covers the gallery’s history. The second section collects a series of podcasts about the work of some of the gallery’s artists. Gavin Brown is doing something similar. In the ‘Library’ section of his website he is also presenting videos and writings dedicated to the artists represented by his gallery.

The museums’ online publishing platforms (the quasi art magazines) 

Over the same period of time, the websites of some of the world’s leading museums have also evolved, becoming powerful publishing platforms aimed at spreading the knowledge preserved and generated within the institution itself. The best example is the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the first museum of this scale to have established a department dedicated to the digital media. And to get an idea of the resources that the Met has invested in this strategic sector read this passage from a statement published by the museum itself back in 2015, four years after the launch of its website. Also note the emphasis that is given to the fact that the results in the world of digital communication are always the effect of a diligent day by day practice:

The Met’s digital work has proven to be one of the Museum’s most effective tools for sharing our collection and scholarship with both new and existing audiences. The team has delivered on both big, buzzworthy projects and small, incremental improvements; it has been at the cutting edge of museum practice and has continued the unsung, day-to-day work that makes the digital Met possible.

That of the Met is still one of the very few museum’s websites where the user has the chance to hear the voice of experts, who, in the section named ‘Online features’, publish in depth writings about exhibitions, artworks and the museum’s collections. Moreover, in 2017 the Met made available 375,000 high-resolution images of works of art from its collections. The images are available free of charge and without restriction of use, according to the standards of the Creative Commons Zero license. That same year the Met’s website received more than 30 million visitors, 32% of them from abroad. The museum’s Instagram account has currently 3.5 million followers. In 2017 it already had 2.5 million. It should also be noted that the Met’s annual ‘real’ visitors are less than 7 million.

The MoMA has also invested in the digital media communication. Last winter the museum launched its art ‘Magazine‘, which it describes as follows: ‘Passionate perspectives on art, artists, and ideas that shape culture today‘. Also in this case the art magazine is a collection of writings by ‘experts’ at the service of the museum’s narrative. And the same could be said of the Louisiana Channel, a nonprofit website based at the Louisiana Museum. The website was launched at the end of 2012 and now contains more than 500 videos. Nothing could better describe its nature than the statement posted on the museum’s website:

Louisiana Channel contributes to the permanent development of the museum as a cultural platform, expressing a desire to sharpen the understanding of the importance of culture and the arts. We see Louisiana Channel as an integral part of a museum for the 21st century, capable of engaging a new generation in our cultural heritage, in an intelligent present and an ambitious future.

Not even the main market platforms, i.e. art fairs and auction houses, can today do without editorial content. Since 2015 Christie’s has been running its weekly ‘Online Magazine’, which later was printed on paper, bimonthly (Christie’s Magazine), and is now on the verge of becoming exclusively digital again. In 2019 Art Basel opened its own editorial department, whose products are intended for the ‘Stories’ section of thewebsite of the art fair. Frieze has never had this problem, as the fair is already the result of an established art magazine. And the same could be said of the journalistic Artnet news, which in fact serves to ‘sell’ the database and related services offered by the company.

Conclusions

We could give further examples, but at this point some elements should already be clear.

1) The digitisation of the media is leading the ‘agencies’ of the art system (galleries, museums, institutions) to produce and distribute, according to their capabilities, editorial content that is instrumental to the mission of the agency itself (this is a trend that does not only affect the art world).

2) In this scenario, the traditional specialised press struggles, and must therefore try to sell services or products other than pure information. This ends up compromising the theoretical added value represented by editorial independence.

3) If the art agency has a commercial nature, the type of content it produces necessarily has a promotional (commercial) function, and it could not be otherwise (in fact none of the gallery art magazines we have mentioned is a nonprofit activity). The only ‘guarantor’ of the message is the agency itself, which also becomes the only reference context for the information.

Moreover, insofar as this is theoretically possible, producing qualitative content and distributing it effectively is a cost that not all agencies in the art world can sustain, aside from the not secondary problem related to the contextualisation/de-contextualisation of the message. Is that the point where the future begins?

March 3, 2020