Report from Frame Espresso IV: The future of art journals

Jenna Jauhiainen 27.2.2014

The crisis in publishing is old news. Publishers of books, magazines and newspapers have all seen better days. The Internet changed the rules. The most efficient distribution channels are online where the customers are keen to share in exchange for free content. Yet, the change is not only about digitalization. It is also about change in consumption patterns – arguably people consume more content, but they do it more sporadically. An article here, a video there. The ambience of change is tangible.
Yesterday’s (26.2.2015) Frame Espresso posed the question, how does all of this effect the future of art journalism? Held in the packed auditorium of the Design Museum, the discussion was held between representatives of four quite different Finnish art journals. The oldest in Finland, Taide was represented by its chief editor Pessi Rautio, the newest, RABRAB by chief editor Sezgin Boynik and Gregoire Rousseau, the digital Mustekala by its chief editor Sini Mononen and FAT, published solely in print, was represented by curator Laura Köönikkä.

The event was arranged by Frame Visual Art Finland, a national advocate for Finnish contemporary art. In introducing the topic of the day, the director of Frame, Raija Koli, told the audience that when Frame was reorganized a couple of years back, they re-evaluated the need to publish their own magazine. In the past, Frame has published Frameworks and Framer, the former of which was focused on critical discourse whereas the latter was more of a lifestyle magazine. Frame ordered two studies on how to build their future publishing strategy. The experts that gave their assessment were Dominique Rutyens of Metropolis M from the Netherlands and Jonas Ekeberg of Kunstkritikk in Norway.

Remarkably, both of the studies came to very similar conclusion. As a national organization, Frame would have the best reach and maximum credibility in promoting Finnish art online. Yet, if they decided to get into art journalism, having an independent editorial board would be a must. A national body’s art criticism would never have the same credibility the independent journals enjoy. In print the focus should be on event and project based publications, such as catalogs and books. In the end, the role of a national organization in today’s world is to build networks. Public relations have become personal relations.

Thus, Frame is not planning to start publishing an arts magazine, yet it still wants to rediscover its role in the field. There are many ways a national organization such as Frame could participate in art journalism, and arguably organizing an event such as this discussion is one. Frame had sent the study reports to all the panelists to read before the discussion.

First, all of the speakers introduced the magazines they represented. Rautio was first to go, representing Taide magazine with 55 years of publishing history. The magazine was founded by Artist’s Association of Finland and is still owned by it. Initially its goal was to represent modern art scene for the average reader. In the early years the magazine’s focus was on art historical texts, but since then it has grown towards publishing criticism. In relation to promoting Finnish art abroad, Taide might have had such ambitions before the eighties, but when it was turned into a company in 1988 it has been focused in catering Finnish audiences only. Taide is published in print yet it also hosts some of its published content online. Rautio highlighted that even though Taide is owned by the Artist’s Association, the association itself has practically no say on the magazine’s content. Taide is published only in Finnish.

Köönikkä introduced FAT, which is short for Finnish Art Today. Before the idea to make FAT came in 2011, she had been part of making Frame’s Framer. She made the shift sound rather natural, as FAT was envisioned to be a lifestyle magazine of the arts in a similar manner than Framer was. FAT was given a grant by the Ministry of Education and Culture, and published the first edition in 2013, the second in 2014. FAT is the first independent English language magazine on contemporary art in Finland.

Mustekala’s history was recapitulated by Mononen who herself has been with Mustekala since 2005. The magazine was launched online in 2003, founded by Irmeli Hautamäki, together with Susanna Pettersson and Veli-Matti Saarinen. Mustekala wants to have a role in the daily talk on arts while publishing academic research on the arts. In addition to publishing four issues per year, the magazine publishes regular blogs and criticism. The magazine is supported by the Ministry of Culture, yet it also gathers income by selling advertising space. Mustekala has been keen on developing and studying different possibilities of online publishing, including sound and video. Today the objective is to keep it going for at least another ten years and raise the budget. Mustekala publishes mostly in Finnish but does content in English and Swedish as well.

RABRAB was first published last October, yet it has been in preparation for years. Even though RABRAB applied for grants, they received none. It is self-published by Sezgin and Rousseau. RABRAB started out as an art journal, but since then has developed into RABRAB press – in the future they will be doing translations and audio work as well. The journal comes out every six months, and apparently the next issue will be available also online. Sezgin said they want to keep RABRAB’s concept open, to have it linger somewhere between theory and art. The keywords today are formal and political inquiries to art.

RABRAB focuses on publishing texts by artists instead of professional historians, curators or critics. This makes artistic research the core of RABRAB. In relation to national promotion, Sezgin defined RABRAB as being against national representations. They publish in English.

Finance is naturally an issue both in the arts and in publishing. Köönikkä told the audience that when they applied for a grant from the Ministry of Education and Culture, they were faced with enthusiasm – apparently not many apply for money for publications from the ministry. This turned out to become a pro tip: art journals in Finland should attempt to reach out to the Ministry of Education and Culture and see if they are greeted with the same support as FAT was.

Sezgin said that RABRAB’s intention is not to capitalize on its contents, and thus it is not paying any of its contributors. This drew a rather fiery response from Mononen who emphasized that it is a political choice to pay for people who write and produce content for Mustekala. Nobody makes a living working for Mustekala as of yet, but the principle is there together with a goal of increasing the budget.

Rautio turned the question around and asked, should there be more national support for critical theoretical magazines like RABRAB, or should the emphasis be on supporting organizations like Frame that promote the careers of individual Finnish artists in the globalized art market? The question comes down to whether money should go where the large audiences go or not. Museums and other institutions are made to count numbers these days – how many people visit an exhibition defines how successful it is. Taide magazine’s goal has been to try to find a balance between the fact that more and more people are interested in the arts, and the fact that they rarely want to go too deep into critical theory of the arts. For this reason, and because they pay their writers, Taide can ask their contributors to write in a manner that has the larger audience in mind. Because the audiences for art are so little, Rautio does not want them to get any smaller – which is what difficult art talk could lead to.

Sezgin replied by saying he is against commoditization of art. “We don’t want to be actual, we want to publish a text that can be read years later.”

This poses a curious question about the temporality of art criticism. What differentiates the kind of criticism that can be read years if not decades later from the kind that loses its topicality almost immediately it is published? Personally I think this is a matter of style. Short, descriptive criticism that has a promotional air to it usually falls to the latter category. In depth, contextualizing criticism instead has the possibility of living on, granted that the art or philosophies it deals with attain their place in history. Criticism is also impacted by the same conformities as the arts themselves – in time, we become interested in the early work.

Köönikkä gave an example what might happen to an art journal that is not temporal. In the end Framework, which constituted of critical theoretical texts, was in storage in Turku by the thousands. In order to empty this storage they decided to give out the magazines for free, yet barely anyone wanted to have them. Köönikkä interpreted it as a sign of a lack of interest on the part of the art audience. Partly because of this FAT became more like a lifestyle magazine. The problem they wanted to face was how to get the whole audience interested in art, not just the art professionals.

This led to the question, how important is it for art criticism to find the non-professional audiences? Rautio was first to answer by saying that it is very important, and Taide is trying to be a magazine that does just that. Yet, it does not mean that the articles in it are childish – they want to be witty and wise but still the kind that can be read and reached by a larger audience. Thus the question becomes, if the content cannot reach an audience, what is the point of publishing?

Köönikkä said it is “super important” for FAT to reach the common people. In her opinion there is too much toothless criticism, whereas there should be more “blood, sweat and tears.” She would love to read criticism and articles that move the readers, the kind that give a feeling that someone really has had an emotional experience from art. This kind of an approach could reach more audiences. Overall, art magazines should avoid elitist views.

In Mononen’s view, Mustekala should try to reach audiences that are not initially interested in the arts, but still should not cut back on the theoretical discussions. Philosophical questions can be discussed in layman’s terms as well.

Even though RABRAB is theoretical, it is not a difficult journal on Sezgin’s opinion. Popular discourse on contemporary art is not the right answer, because contemporary art is contemporary, not populist.

Rautio nailed the underlying point pretty well by saying that good artists do not think about their audiences, and so do not many of the good magazine’s out there. In Rautio’s reading, FAT was like a curated art show whereas Mustekala and Taide deal with more traditional art journalism.

The final question that Frame posed was, should we need more event based content in the magazines?

Rautio pondered that maybe it is easier to get funding for a catalog, yet added that “the world is full of seminal publications and I don’t know how many of them are ever read.”

Köönikkä went on to ponder whether it would be more interesting for museums to give a yearly publication for their audiences instead of a catalog for each exhibition. The primary question here is, why do you publish anything at all?

In Mononen’s view writing is a very essential form of thinking. As written word is more democratic than events are, she thinks that in this culture that is event based texts provide more diversity.

RABRAB’s goal is to create events, said Sezgin. The event they create through their publications is the event of artists writing.

The overall air of the discussion was inspiring, and many questions were still left unanswered. The discussion is set to continue in IHME festival of March, 29th of March on Sunday, an open debate on the subject will be had then.