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FineArtViews Interview: Kathryn Born -- Editor-in-Chief of Chicago Art Magazine

by Brian Sherwin on 8/18/2011 10:34:03 AM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Kathryn Born is the Editor-in-Chief of Chicago Art Magazine -- a site that offers Chicago art news, reviews and features... and various information about Chicago artists and Chicago art galleries. Born founded Chicago Art Magazine after "pounding around" as a Chicago-based filmmaker, artist and writer for 15 years. The site is part of a network that includes Chicago-based websites such as Chicago Art Map and Chicago Art Collection.  Chicago Art Magazine began as part of Art Talk Chicago -- a Chicago Tribune sponsored blog network -- and became an independent venture in the fall of 2009. The collective of art sites are a perfect example of what artists can do to help support art in their community.


Brian Sherwin: Kathryn, you are the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Chicago Art Magazine -- which is part of a network of websites dedicated to the arts in Chicago. Can you tell us about the history of the network and why you decided to establish it?


Kathryn Born: I have no idea, in retrospect it's all sort of a blur. I remember everyone bitching about the Chicago art scene and if we only had "criticism" it would save the day, turn Chicago into a world class art town. So I guess I wanted to try it out and either prove or dis-prove.


Sherwin: And what did you discover? Has art criticism 'saved the day' for the Chicago art scene?


Born: Of course the idea that "all we need is solid academic art criticism" turned out to be nonsense, and I have the user analytics to prove the low levels of readership. And obviously, no ecosystem is brought to a new level because of one element. But Chicago is an extremely academic art town, so that's going to be the knee-jerk sentiment – that academia is the center of power, and it can elevate and anoint art stars. I've grown to believe that most people simply want information. Who are the artists? What are they working on? What does it look like? Those are the questions we try to answer by posting curated and straightforward content 3-4 times a week.


Sherwin: The Internet has allowed a new breed of art writer to rise up beyond the physical pages of traditional print. Many have noted that we are watching a new direction in art criticism unfold as self-proclaimed art critics and other art writers reach millions combined in the form of social media. Most of the big art-related stories are old news by the time they are mentioned in physical magazines -- having already been picked up by art bloggers and spread virally online. Obviously the art critics/writers of the old guard, if you will, don't always agree that this is good for art criticism and art appreciation overall. What are your thoughts on this?


Born: The general debates between the local art critics and myself goes a lot deeper than that. But first I'll dismiss the whole paper issue. I think the recession forced people to "let go" of print, and that issue is closed, to some degree. But the Chicago Art War that goes back 40 years has always been Conceptual vs. Painting. Now, technically no one thinks of it as "conceptual art", nor painting really, but the line is between art that is self-explanatory, as opposed to one that needs an expert to tell the average dope what to think.
Those two types of art have been in direct opposition to each other for decades.


Sherwin: So what side does the typical Chicago art critic take?


Born: The art critics take the conceptual side because conceptual art is conducive to criticism, (it's a type of art that's always been a symbiotic relationship, as conceptual artists need critics to validate it, and critics could have a free-for-all, coming up with all sort of meanings.) Chicago Art Magazine's been fighting pretty hard on the side of the painters, and other types of art that don't get much attention.


For example, we had a great writer come in from Mexico City, and he took it upon himself to make sure we knew about every Latino gallery in Chicago. I'm pro Book Art, Public Art, Street Art, Digital Folk art. I like the local Burning Man group, and feel comfortable covering ceramic arts and plein air painters – and I'll choose that stuff over planks leaning against a wall (accompanied by a 20-page essay) any day.


Sherwin: So I take it your opinions are not exactly appreciated among the base of art critics in Chicago -- at least those who support mainstream conceptual art solidly?


Born: I hate art speak with a passion, so does Robin Dluzen, our Managing Editor. End result -- the Chicago art critics will hold big hand-wringing panel sessions about art criticism and not invite us. But I've come to peace with this, as Chicago Art Magazine is the largest art magazine in Chicago. We have approximately 80,000 views each month.


Sherwin: So it is safe to suggest that you have made some professional enemies over the years?


Born: Sure. And quite a few friends. If all the ideas I've mentioned don't adequately explain why I'm not loved by the critical establishment, and why I'm in lock step with Chicago's proud-to-be-an-outcast aesthetic, nothing will.


Sherwin: Back to online publishing... as you know, one problem with online publishing-- specifically when art is the focus-- happens to be the issue of funding. As online magazines and art blogs become more ambitious the growth spurred by that ambition often means that some form of funding is needed... be it to improve the website or to pay staff. I understand that you approached-- and solved-- this problem by initiating a countdown to destruction, so to speak.


You threatened to shut down the site on 10/10/10 if the site failed to become financially stable. Obviously your challenge worked because Chicago Art Magazine is still going strong. With that in mind can you discuss that history of Chicago Art Magazine and why you decided to take drastic measures? Would you have really shut down the site had the financial expectations not been met?


Born: Ha ha. Well, as we always tell artists: "multiple income streams", and that ultimately became the financial answer for the magazine network. But we absolutelyy would have shut down – the staff and writers get paid (a little) and where would the money have come from? But the update I haven't had time to write is that we're subsidized by a few things: one is that I opened a tech magazine (TINC Magazine – and those guys aren't a bunch of broke hippies eschewing money.


Tech is a healthier industry. So the ironic thing is that I couldn't break even (consistently) with an traffic-laden, social media centric, SEO-optimized, Integrated Marketing art magazine, but I could make money teaching other businesses how to grow their web audience using the methods we'd created at the magazine.


Sherwin: Can you go into further detail about the lack of support?


Born: Someone once said, "never expect the art world to take care of artists", and that's the truth. We couldn't get support from the art galleries, MCA, Art Institute, Columbia College – several of these institutions said our reader demographic simply had too low an income, and (I quote), "the audience we want is big donors."


At one point, I was so angry at all of them, we didn't do reviews for a year – just to make a point about their lack of support. But now I'm left with loving art and loving publishing and emotionally attached to the staff of the magazine. I love the idea of a team, and I wouldn't want to write alone. I just sort of forgave the art world for being inept.


Sherwin: Big donors are one thing... but the public, overall, is a force to be reckoned with, true? Shouldn't these institutions take the general public more seriously?


Born: The art world is changing, and I'm probably the only one who likes the direction it's going. The public is coming; the larger audience we've all been talking about is starting to arrive. But they're leapfrogging high art, and going right to the stuff they intuitively like. Their tastes will improve, but I believe few will go into the deeply conceptual/academic stuff, and that arena will always stay small.


The public will want to make their own decisions and be drawn to artwork that has meaning in the work itself, and not the essay behind the desk. Even the professional community is having a "crisis of authority" and don't want to follow what the experts say. People feel very betrayed by experts, whether its economists or politicians, so they're not going to sign up for an authority figure in deciding how to spend their money. Not unless they're spending hundreds of thousands on a piece.


Sherwin: Can you tell us about a few artists, art galleries, and art writers from Chicago that you feel people should be keeping an eye on?


Born: Too many great artists to mention, I always say Tom Tourmelke because I want him to be a big star. Then public artist, people you never think of like John Adduci, Nick Briz. And then there are people at Pumping Station One Hackerspace knitting with "soft circuits" and hacking Speak and Spells. I'm drawn to things that are really new, genuinely creative and innovate. That's probably why I'm as comfortable reviewing art, along with reviewing an Android app or a business plan. When something makes you say, "Holy crap. That's fucking awesome", you push back the other articles and put it on the top. It's either brilliant and exciting, or it's not.


Sherwin: What about core art bloggers from Chicago? For example, when one thinks of art blogging in New York one tends to think of Paddy Johnson, Hrag Vartanian, and Edward Winkleman -- these individuals have made an impact in their community. Who are the bloggers of the Chicago art scene? Can you point us to some Chicago art blogs?


Born: I'll give you a small list: Paul Klein – Artletter, Jyoti  Srivastava does a great photoblog, Jason Foumberg isn't a blogger, although the site is Wordpress, Artslant – Abraham Richie and Erik Wenzel are contributors, Art Talk Chicago – Stephanie Burke (owned by the Trib). Interestingly, none of these are really blogs, right? I think the lone art blogger is sort of gone, with Facebook and all. Now it's group art blogs or affiliations with someone else.


Sherwin: Back to art writing in general -- do you have any advice for art writers? Specifically those who desire to utilize a blog in order to establish an audience? Any words of wisdom?


Born: If no one is reading what you write, say it in a more interesting way, or write about something else.


Sherwin: So... in your opinion, is there really a battle gong on between art writing and art criticism? Between, for example, art bloggers and art writers who still work in print?


Born: The question isn't about art writing vs. art criticism, but paragraphs vs software. The question I'm asking (and projects I'm consulting on), is studying how we find art, and how we can find art without having to take on art collecting/art appreciation as a hobby. Wealthy professionals simply don't have time to muck around with galleries or wait to read current critical dribble in a print art magazine. That's the leapfrogging I mentioned before, about the public finding art on their own terms and skipping the art world's lack of respect and inefficient methodologies.


Sherwin: So how does this direction benefit artists?


Born: Today so many people make art, more than all the artists in the past combined, and there's the fast-developing demand for local, original work. So I'm interested in the idea of algorithms to narrow it down to help people get to the art they want in their lives more efficiently. It ultimately lets the audience find their voice and taste, and delve deep into the pool of contemporary art - and not just the art pushed upon them by artists who know how to aggressively market their work, (or worse, purchased work as a way to prove you "get it" even though you hate it.).


Sherwin: So the role of art writers, in general, is changing?


Born: I'll answer your question with a question. Once people start finding, buying and falling in love with art, without experts, critics and tastemakers, will we need art writing at all? Probably not. Art is thriving everywhere, but the system is slowly closing out critics and elite gallerists.


Sherwin: In closing, would you like to add a final thought?


Born: A new, healthy art + public populist model will continue to emerge, but it simply won't include art critics, assuming they keep using ridiculous language and the writing stays dry as a bone. So whenever a critic gives an apocalyptic view of artwork, I always consider that they're probably in a panic about their rent. Make no mistake -- the "art dying" rants often come from a speaker who is actually the one at death's door.


Take care, Stay true


Brian Sherwin


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Topics: art appreciation | art criticism | art websites | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | support local art 

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Clint Watson
"Once people start finding, buying and falling in love with art, without experts, critics and tastemakers, will we need art writing at all? Probably not. Art is thriving everywhere, but the system is slowly closing out critics and elite gallerists."

That's a great quote. I think the future is bright for those who adapt, "non-elite" gallerists, one might say. Also, art is thriving, however the amount of choice is now overwhelming - I think critics and writers can find a place in helping people to find great artists - there's always going to be room for people who help to curate - those people help increase the signal and decrease the noise.

Joyce Dade
I loved reading this interview and the comments made about art critics and new and authentic trends as they continue to emerge and "planks leaning against a wall..." Thank you for this one, Brian and thank you for your candor and intelligent, your apparent chutzpah and maverick commentary, K. Born. The "closing out of elite gallerists," sounds like an old schoolers nightmare but, a point very well made and taken to be sure. Thank you for the informed QandA! Others may be timid in making these kind of statements, I'm so glad someone has the courage of conviction, experience and audacity to make it so clear to us all.

Donald Fox
Criticism isn't only for the purpose of reviewing a show or attempting to promote a particular artist or agenda. Critics sometimes express appreciation for an artist's work by placing it within the larger context of a particular time, an entire career, or an even larger historical trend. Some of these pieces don't show up in the regular art press but in other publications like the New York Review of Books, Harper's Magazine, or collected essays. Few art critics could match the art writing of the late John Updike, for example. Criticism can also illuminate the art of a particular historical period by examining the relationships between artists, their concerns, their societies, and their influence on others.

Personally, I think people who appreciate art will continue to write about art. Whether these people will be called art critics, I can't say. My main concern is with the quality of writing. Already there has been a significant decline in literate writing, perhaps partly due to the increase in self-publication via the internet. The rush to publish does none of us any favors. I'm hoping for a pendulum swing away from quantity towards reason, literacy, and quality.

Casey Craig
"The public will want to make their own decisions and be drawn to artwork that has meaning in the work itself, and not the essay behind the desk." ~ Refreshing!!! Thanks, Brian and Kathryn.

Jo Allebach
This was a great interview. What a concept -

"they're leapfrogging high art, and going right to the stuff they intuitively like."


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