at the New Art Examiner profoundly affected the course my life has taken, in terms of my knowledge base, art experience, and, most significantly for me, my writing. It extended my art-world education in a way that would have been impossible to do on my own, putting me in daily contact with contemporary art at all points on the spectrum. From the behind-the-scenes view of a museum curator preparing a major exhibition to one-on-one interviews with visiting artists to the stealth street intervention around the corner, art editors along with critics in general have access to art events that greatly facilitates their ability to discern and discover the terrain. Though their approach is shaped by personal interests and background, all editors are concerned with information gathering, absorption, and distillation. To do this well, they need to be always learning, looking, and reading, open to what the world and artists have to show.
The other large part of being an editor concerns language and writing, as this forms the day-in/day-out substance of the profession. Paramount is a genuine love for art and the conversations it generates. I joined the magazine in 1997, the summer after I earned my MFA, fresh from the wringer of the studio arts program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Primed by that curriculum, which followed years of studying and teaching academic philosophy, I found editing a natural occupation. The faculty at UIC introduced me to contemporary art and showed that it was far vaster and more complex than a neophyte might presume. Their expectation that art be more than personal self-expression attuned me to the broader significance of what artists do. In comparison, philosophy gave me a thorough understanding of argument and the process of putting ideas and thoughts into words as well as an appreciation for clarity. These two tracks of art and philosophy would prove invaluable for running an arts magazine and for working with – and in many instances training – individuals devoted to art writing.
A typical day at the office started with a round of correspondence checking in with writers and skimming press announcements. The office was in a grungy basement space of a small building tucked directly under the El [Chicago's rapid transit system], one block north of Chicago Avenue in the River Loop District. Each day also included a morning meeting among the editors to coordinate our efforts and prioritize tasks, and occasionally a trip to see an exhibition or do an interview.
We also periodically devoted time writing grant applications to various public and private institutions that supported nonprofit arts organizations, which we were qualified for, and planning our yearly fundraisers for the magazine. However, the bulk of the day was spent reading and editing texts at various stages of readiness for print. In many ways editing is a desk job, routinely reading manuscripts and marking up texts for revision and writer approval. Working on a deadline and managing the workflow and production cycle call for practical skills, while finessing content requires more erudite leanings. There was always more work to do than one could plan for, incredible stress at the close of each issue, and never enough money, but the opportunity to shape the content of the magazine was extremely rewarding.
While I was at NAE we made a concerted effort to situate Chicago within a national and increasingly international art-world context and also add a more philosophical perspective in the way we wrote about art and ideas. We also increased the number of first-person interviews with local artists and those coming through town for major exhibitions and expanded the geographical coverage of the Reviews sections. We did this while continuing to showcase what was special about Chicago: the humor, the DIY spaces that continually crop up run by Chicago’s never-ending supply of recent MFA students, and the burgeoning social-practices movement developing in the city (before they were even called “social practices”). Our approach reflected a desire to be understood for our independence and uniqueness but also to be respected by and included in the larger professional art world.
During my tenure at NAE we always had three editors – Editor, Senior/Associate Editor, and Assistant Editor. I came on board as a part-time assistant editor working alongside Kathryn Hixson as Editor and Ann Wiens as Senior Editor. I graduated to a full-time associate editor in 1998 when Wiens left, and for my — and the magazine’s — last two years was the full-time senior editor. Each position had primary responsibility for specific feature essays, exhibition and book reviews, and sundry regular sections such as the Newsbriefs and Scenes. Though each of us took the lead on specific texts, we worked as a team: all of us read everything before it was handed over to design and again in proof pages.
The proofing stage is fairly straightforward; by that point you are mainly looking for misspelled words, incorrect punctuation, dropped text, and bad line breaks. The earlier editing of the writing submissions is the tricky part, both on the level of ideas and on the more personal level of dealing with the writer. The magazine rarely accepted anything sent to us on speculation, but writers were free to pitch ideas and exhibition reviews in advance and we also assigned features and reviews.
Each year the entire staff, which in addition to the three editors included a business manager, an advertising manager, an in-house designer (we sent our features to an outside design firm for layout) and our interns, would gather for an editorial summit, to develop themes for the upcoming year. Some of my favorites were Slummin’ (November 1997), Painting and Performance (September 1998), Art and Public (April 1999), Appropriation (July August 1999), Heavy Emotion (September 1999), Play (October 1999), Animal Behavior (March 2001), our annual Education issues, and our entire last volume: Midwesterness (May June 2001), Authenticity (July August 2001), Flat (September October 2001), Fear and Loathing (November December 2001), Talk (January February 2002), Social (March April 2002), and The Built World (May June 2002). We’d then send the list out to our writers with a request for submission proposals and also solicit specific essays directly from people we thought would do a good job with the topic. The exhibition reviews of current shows were divided into regions — Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, the Midwest, and the rest of the country — and were not tied to the themes. Those too came about through a mix of writers’ suggestions and editorial requests.
The primary editor of any given piece handled all communication with the writer. She did the first read of the original text and once it passed through the hands of the other editors it was her job to consolidate our comments into a singular, manageable response and send these to the writer. If the original copy was a bit of a mess and warranted it, the primary editor also did a “hard edit,” working with the writer on the text before passing it over to the other editors for inspection. It was always a treat to receive submissions that needed little from us. These were well written and accessible, expressed a consistent voice, and shed new light on the topic or artist(s) discussed. Editors become accustomed to immersing themselves in the writing, sussing out the main through-lines and tone of the text, looking for contradictions and redundancy, anticipating points of confusion and distraction on the reader’s behalf. When that editorial instinct to intervene doesn’t kick in and one can simply be a reader rather than an editor, the job is relatively simple; just double check for house-style and grammar rules, and send to press.
Of course, as writing is such a difficult endeavor no matter how natural it appears when done well, we received our fair share of texts that needed far more editorial intervention. Sometimes it was a matter of writer laziness or presuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader: the points weren’t connected very well, transitions were skipped, key terms or names were left undefined, and/or not enough historical or cultural context was given to anchor the argument. Sometimes it was necessary to reorganize the flow of the writer’s thoughts, cutting and pasting sections in a different order and expanding where necessary to make more sense. These kinds of editorial requests, sent back to the writer, were fairly easy to address.
The hardest edits, those that require serious revision, are both the most challenging and the most rewarding. Given enough trust between editor and writer, most writers appreciate constructive criticism and feedback. But it can be hard when a writer gets defensive or thinks too highly of his or her own first impressions, which makes the writer unwilling to dive back into the text and make changes. This kind of rigid response was rare at the magazine, but when it happened it was as emotionally fraught as any sort of interpersonal conflict.
I write as someone who operates on both sides of the editor/writer relationship. While I was at the magazine training on the job as an arts editor I also became a writer, joining many other artists and critics who started their writing careers at the New Art Examiner. For me, one of the most significant accomplishments of the magazine was its support of quality arts writing and the mentoring of new arts writers. While we published experienced academic scholars such as Henry Giroux, Donald Kuspit, Susan Canning, and Jennie Klein, and well-known art critics like Eleanor Heartney, Terry R. Meyers, Jan Tumlir, and Polly Ullrich, we also created opportunities for newer and younger folks to enter the field. Fresh with their new art degrees in hand, Nato Thompson, Jenni Sorkin, and Lori Waxman wrote some of their earliest pieces for NAE and have all gone on to become prolific writers and art-world regulars. I know in my case the writing-specific feedback and tutoring I received from the other editors whose tenures overlapped with mine — Hixson, Wiens, Kathryn Rosenfeld, Franklin Cason and Tony Neuhoff — all helped shape the writer I’ve become.
The magazine was especially friendly to artist-writers — David Robbins, Michelle Grabner, Nicholas Frank, Dan S. Wang, Matthew Girson, Mark Van Proyen, and Shana Lutker, among many, many others. Artists who write make the connection between the two creative processes while also understanding that art and arts writing need each other. Every vital art community has this means of discourse and feedback.
However, this mutual dependence has its limits as to what it can accomplish. Eager to expand our impact even further, during the last volume of the magazine we grew the sponsorship and Board, in the process securing a generous but one-time investment by Lew Manilow, one of Chicago’s premier art collectors. This allowed us to increase the business staff to help with further fundraising and also to initiate a redesign by Jason Pickleman of JNL Graphics, which along with stylistic changes included a larger page-size, higher page count, and more color. However, unfortunately for us, we grew the magazine at exactly the wrong moment economically. Without continued external financing, and with nonprofit funding diminishing and the stock market falling, the magazine found itself in over its head and we could not sustain the higher costs the expansion entailed. The last six months at the magazine involved a slow, painful, and inevitable entropic slip into chaos, as the magazine virtually imploded under the pressure.
Under the circumstances, it is a testament to our love of art and commitment to the magazine that the last volume reads and looks as good as it does. Some of our best work was done in terms of content and quality of the writing, and the magazine itself looks absolutely beautiful. And for the last issues we did this with a reduced staff and for no pay.
Since leaving the magazine and Chicago and moving to Minneapolis, where I now teach at the University of Minnesota, I have gotten over the upheaval and frustration of the last year at the magazine. I now view the experience of those last months as an incredible learning opportunity and choose to focus on all the good that occurred there: the high of putting an issue to bed and seeing the first copy in print, the nervous excitement of interviewing someone I admired artistically, the camaraderie among the staff, and the great fortune of having work that was both intellectually and creatively fulfilling.
Working as an editor and writer for the New Art Examiner, I was surrounded by people who believe in art, and was thus able to cultivate an indelible sense that art is important. This belief is crucial given the myriad reasons to doubt art’s social place and the economic obstacles facing most artists today, not to mention the curious infighting that occasionally flares up.
On this note I want to close by recalling my editorial published in the last issue of the magazine, which came out in May 2002. Regarding the issue’s theme, The Built World, I began by ruminating on the idea of “nothing” and continued to describe the generative impulse artists have to create something out of nothing. Rereading the words today I am reminded of the incredible optimism of the creative fields and the remarkable feat writers and artists accomplish when given the space and context to do so. Though they come and go, outlets like the New Art Examiner provide such a place.
Jan Estep was an editor at the magazine from 1997 to 2002.