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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

ART PAPERS delays hiring an editor, runs with series of guest editors

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It's been five months since the board of Atlanta-based international contemporary art publication ART PAPERS announced the departure of editor/executive director of eight years Sylvie Fortin. (Full disclosure: I interned at the Little Five Points-based pub a decade ago.) The subtext of the personnel shift was that the board was looking to nurture a stronger rapport with the local art community. Former CL contributor and ART PAPERS board member Cinque Hicks was immediately appointed interim editor. While the magazine got a new executive director (the board split up the dual position with Fortin's departure) this summer in Saskia Benjamin, previously of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, it finds itself again without an editor now that Hicks' contract has run out.

In his place, Skowhegan co-director Sarah Workneh will be stepping in as guest editor, picking up with the November/December issue. She'll be assuming duties, however, from out of town and will be the first in a series of three guest editors. I spoke with Benjamin this morning about the board's decision to delay the hire (the goal is to have someone in place within six months) and new directions for the magazine.

How have your first few months been?
They have been busy; they have been a period of discovery, but great. I loved where I was and worked with great people. The reason to leave was for the challenge and to learn something new — you know that old cliché, it scared me so it was the thing to do.

Cinque’s contract has run out and Sarah Workneh from Skohegan is being brought on to guest edit. Where is the board in its process of finding an editor for the magazine?
I’m excited by the news. Cinque was amazing, did two issues and did a tremendous job. The interim position wasn’t intended to be long-term. So we decided to try a little something different. There’s a lot of excitement and opportunity around working like this. It’s challenging to work this way; I’ll give you that. The November/December issue we’re working with Sarah Workneh, who is co-director at Skohegan, is going to change a little in that it’ll be more or less the same format but there’s going to be more front-end features and fewer reviews.

We’ve given the upcoming guest editors freedom to mess with the magazine a little. There’s specifications we have to stay within but it’s not necessarily about making it look the same and that’s really one of the opportunities that excites me about working with these guest editors. It allows us to begin shifting the publication a little, trying new voices. These are not folks that have thrown their names in for the editor position, so this is not like an audition process. These are new voices in the magazine. We are waiting a little, and I will say that, in all honesty, it is a financial decision. Summer into fall is always slow for nonprofits waiting on grant money to come in and some of those have been delayed and we want to be very responsible and sustainable in our decision. I’m much more involved in this issue and will be the next few issues in a way that I wouldn’t have been if an EIC were on board already. I have a much more deep and broad understanding of the magazine, which is one part of the organization and it’s helping me figure out who will be the best person for the editor in chief position.

Because your background is not in journalism, right?
No. Nonprofit administration. It’s been a crash course in publishing and putting a magazine together. And you know, I wasn’t hired to put the magazine together, so this is a bonus for me in that way but I was hired to be an administrator. To do the grant writing, the outreach... the EIC will report to me so it’s creating the checks and balances needed.

The edit staff seems to be just the editor in chief doing everything as far as I can tell from the masthead on the website. From the outside it looks like you guys might be reinventing the wheel every issue by bringing in a new person.
The guest editor scenario is something that came out of the board by people who are well aware of the complexity of what’s being asked of the staff. We are aware of the challenges. We’re asking a lot of the guest editor and the staff that’s here. We’re wanting consistency in quality and in the uniqueness of the vision and the voice of the publication. I’m less concerned that it looks exactly as it has. I think that is allowing us a little of the flexibility to do what we need to do. I want to solicit input form our readers and supporters during this time as well. The magazine had such a clear look and voice and framework that shaking it up a little ... We’re heading into a strategic planning process and I need to be gathering input anyway. I know the community has strong opinions about the publication. And I think when you begin to alter things a little it allows you to see it again. It’s not just a reaction against something, but about something new. I don’t think it’s going to be anything radically different. Cinque’s already started that. [In the current issue] the imagery’s different, the voice is a little different and people are looking for that.

Normally the fact that a publication has a strong, clear vision and voice on the surface is a good thing. Was there a sense that the magazine had grown stale or wasn’t as relevant?
I think that when there’s been a centralized, very strong vision and voice for an organization, all aspects of it are very much in the vein of that person’s strengths, or interests, or contacts. That’s not a bad thing, but I think that there was the feeling that the magazine needs to be altered. There were some concerns particularly in the local community that maybe the organization wasn’t as reflective of the local community as it could be and I think some of it is responding to that and figuring out what that looks like and how that manifests itself.

So are the guest editors a way to buy time while you guys figure that out? And Workneh won’t be working in Atlanta ...
No, she’ll be working from her office in New York. It gives us — me and the board — time to start that strategic planning process and really see inside the organization and give a little perspective and time to get into our new fiscal year.

How many guest editors do you have lined up?
We have three.

So that would be six months worth [Art Papers publishes bi-monthly]?
Yeah, three issues worth, six months worth.

Are you trying to adapt the magazine a little more in the way other arts journalism entities have had to evolve?
I don’t know exactly what it means for the print publication in all honesty. That’s something the new EIC is going to help shape. What I do know it means is we are behind technologically. We’re not really involved in blogging; our social media isn’t ramped up. There are a lot of aspects we aren’t hitting on. I think an online presence, we can have a slightly different voice there and that’s one way we can broaden our audience and engage additional writers and support younger writers local and beyond. I’m excited about the possibilities of what that can do for us.

What is the composition of the staff right now in terms of editorial?
There’s a group of contributing editors. They’re all over the world, and a lot of them contribute and produce content for the publication. These are folks that have their ear to the ground in various parts of the world. They also serve as our barometer, keeping us apprised of what’s going on out there. We have the guest editor, who’s working with us closely. We have writers who are local, national and international. And I have some board members with expertise in this area who are stepping up to provide their services in this time as well. So I feel that we have a lot of people who are very knowledgeable in the contemporary art world and also publication.

We do have a copy editor and a proofreader that have worked with us before; the creative director has been with us for six years. Cinque created a tremendous framework for us too because there was a vacuum of knowledge and he did an amazing job in creating a procedural framework. I am confident in the quality and the oversight and in the direction of the publication. It’s risky, it’s a challenge, but I think we have a framework in place to make it successful. I’m confident in what we’re doing.

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