The Future of Art Criticism and News Online According to Four Innovative Editors
Find out what art criticism and news is going to look like tomorrow.
Everything about publishing is changing, including art criticism and news. What sort of art coverage we consume, how we consume it and on what devices is rapidly, constantly evolving. If art magazines are dead, then what is taking their place and why?
artnet News convened an Internet round table with four pioneering online editors from three online-only art sites, Momus, artnet News, and Temporary Art Review, about their content, their audience, and the future as they see it for art criticism and news online.
When did you start the site and what made you decide to do so?
Sky Goodden, founding editor of Momus
When I began Momus in October 2014 I wanted to continue my pursuit of publishing accessible, evaluative, and stake-holding criticism, but extend the margins of our purview beyond the provincial frame. No more “Canada” (as in my previous position as founding editor of BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada). The art world is international.
James McAnally and Sarrita Hunn, co-founders of Temporary Art Review
We started Temporary Art Review in March 2011 in response to a failure of arts publishing in its extremities—in smaller, off-center cities, and experimental, artist-centric spaces. We were both artists, curators, and organizers already working in expanded contexts in our own practices. Artists and independent organizers have an acute sense of when criticism is failing because it is failing them.
We understood from the outset that we were addressing specific conditions that had perennial relevance in most art communities: most exhibitions opened and closed without public critique, few connections existed between localized critical dialogues and an international audience; there was a continual decline in sustainable platforms for art critics, and consistent oversight of ephemeral, alternative practices—particularly those outside of art centers. We felt that observing these factors was a call to action, so we decided to start Temporary with a range of contributors around the United States interested in these issues. Ultimately, those dynamics are not dramatically different today, although our exact focus evolves organically alongside our interests and the changing ways that artists are working in the present.
Benjamin Genocchio, editor-in-chief and founder of artnet News
We soft-launched artnet News in late February 2014 with the idea that the art world had grown so big, busy and messy that there was a need for a 24-hour art news website. I wanted it to be a nonstop stream of information in the way that Bloomberg News covers the financial world, so I hired staff in London, Berlin, Hong Kong, and New York and away we went, publishing on 8-hour intervals.
How many articles do you publish a day and week and where does your traffic come from?
SG: We publish three to four articles a week. Our readership is 50% Canadian, 30% US, and 20% European, with the latter demographic continually growing.
JM and SH: We typically publish three articles per week. The majority of our traffic is in the US (80%) but we have growing international coverage and interest. Within the US, visitors are notably spread out across the country without one single geographic area driving a dominant percentage of our readership. Our traffic, in a more specific sense, tends to circulate among networks—particularly among those also involved in the artist-centric activities we are covering and who share those concerns. We don’t advertise often and have never emphasized our social media presences, so it really circulates among individuals—a new media form of word-of-mouth, in a sense.
BG: At our peak we published around 600 articles in a single month—that’s a lot of content, at least for an art site! We’ve actually cut it back a bit now as we have a better idea of what our audience is interested in and so we can target the kinds of stories we want to write about and those we can pass on. Traffic comes from a variety of sources, like all sites, including email blasts, social, organic search, referrals, and homepage visits. Understanding each of those sources and finding content that delivers us an audience through as many of those channels as possible, on a day to day basis, is, I believe, a big part of running a news site today and why we’ve been so successful. We hit 1.5 million unique visitors monthly in the first year of operation.
What is the funding/business model you are working with and who are your main advertisers?
SG: Momus is working with over a dozen leading contemporary art galleries and institutions to effect a multi-sided platform, wherein a critical and focused readership attracts and sustains advertisers and partners desiring greater integrity and quality in critical coverage; and advertisers and partners help sustain Momus‘s commitment to paying its writers and designers at above industry-average rates (rates that stalled in the early 1980s at around $1 per word, and have only deteriorated since).
We approach select clients with an offer for a year’s advertising that promises some editorial coverage. We do this carefully, and transparently, emphasizing our right to editorial discretion, and only approaching galleries and institutions whose rosters and programming we largely support. We are trying to adjust the typically unspoken art-publication-advertising model, where everyone’s stakes and commercial interests are laid bare, and our mutual desire for an elevated discourse is held high.
JM and SH: We operate Temporary Art Review as an anti-profit publication, which essentially means that we have removed finances from the center of the site, electing instead to consider our public (both readers and those who we write about) as the central concern over economic considerations. We have written at length about exactly what that means, but, essentially, we articulate anti-profit as an experiment in mutual economies as applied to art publishing.
This financial model, for us, is inextricable from our editorial interests in artist-centric and alternative practices, attempting to merge our form and content more fluidly. Within a field that has notoriously problematic financial models, we view this as an opportunity to experiment with new forms that attempt to embed concerns of solidarity, sustainability, mutual support, and alternatives to capitalism at our core. We use the platform of the site to ask: if neither for-profit nor non-profit models are advancing art writing, what other models could exist to sustain critical practices?
Practically, we offer contributors the option to be paid directly or to be paid in ad space on the site, which they can use to promote a project they’re involved or interested in, sell it for profit, barter it further, give it away, or any number of other approaches. We share whatever resources we have, operating much like a digital cooperative: if we sell ads, receive donations, or secure grants, we pay contributors as well as possible. In the absence of money, we share what we do have—viewers and ad space, enabling a more equal distribution among we publishers and our contributors.
BG: We have a hybrid advertising model, reliant on a combination of brand advertising and endemic advertising. They shake out pretty evenly in the amount of money we receive from each of them but essentially we service two constituencies. Being nested within a larger art-information services business, artnet.com, and successful online auction site, also gives us a wider role and purpose.
Yes, of course, we want to make money and pay our way, which we do, but we also create engagement and drive audience to our scalable businesses. It’s hard to quantify that value but it is an important goal and written into the mission.
How many staff do you have and do you pay your writers?
SG: I am the sole editor of my publication, though I’m eager to hire a full-time managing editor in the coming season. I have a very small staff consisting of one marketing and product manager, a programmer, and a designer, all of whom work on a contractual basis (a few hours a week, on average). I am personally in charge of marketing, ad sales, commissioning, editing (both substantive and surface), publishing, part of our social media presence (Facebook), bookkeeping, and accounts payable, in addition to writing a few features or reviews per month. I have seven contributing editors, worldwide, and numerous freelancers.
JM and SH: We co-founded the site and are still the primary editorial and publishing staff. In 2014, we re-launched with an anti-profit ad bartering model (described above) that sought to share what value had been created by years (and hundreds) of contributing editors and writers via ad shares. In 2015, with a portion of an Andy Warhol Foundation grant (awarded to our publisher The Luminary) and a bit of ad revenue, we started a writer’s fund which allows contributors to choose between the payment or ad-credit options. We aim to instill a kind of alternate economy into the publication, but also operate from the belief that alternate economies can be more generous to more diverse people than those currently in place. We currently pay on scale to most online art publications and hope that expands over time through partnerships, thoughtful advertisers, donations, grants, bartered services, and more.
BG: We hover around 15 full-time staff and 2-3 contractors depending on our areas of focus. If things don’t work out in one area we change things around. For instance we weren’t getting much traction in Asia so we launched a Chinese version of artnet News in January 2015 and shifted our Asian base from Hong Kong to Beijing. We are also investing a lot in video, and work with many freelance writers including Simon de Pury, Adam Lindeman, Kenny Schachter, Colin Gleadell, and Paddy Johnson. So we more or less work with around 20 writers, editors, video producers, both full-time, contract and freelance at any one time.
How does straight art criticism perform for you? Is it something that is popular with your audience?
SG: With Momus, we have sewn into our very tagline (“a return to art criticism”) a commitment to evaluative art criticism, so it’s essential to what we’re doing, as is the risk-taking and claim-staking that our writers demonstrate in their art criticism. My reasoning for a forthright agenda like this is informed by the fact that online publications are numerous and that we’re competing with so much else that we can’t bet on our audience’s attention or fidelity; we need to make our mission and profile clear and nearly aggressive to anchor our audience. Two, I wanted to respond to the so-called “crisis in criticism” of the mid-aughts, and offer a reprieve from a confused spectrum of promotional, casual, under-researched, and tabloid-driven art writing.
What’s interesting and exciting to me is that since I launched the site, the dearth of solid, evaluative, risk-taking art criticism has already begun to fill in. It’s become apparent to me that our tagline might be growing—happily—outdated. Indeed, it’s possible that we’re no longer seeking a “return” to art criticism so much as a way forward, a model for sustainability.
JM and SH: Art criticism is never very popular except for those it involves directly. It exists in a kind of limbo for us because we do not typically cover blockbuster exhibitions that, presumably, would drive more views. We intentionally publish criticism that is less likely to have a mainstream audience, but that cultivates a public conversation around work we find valuable. Criticism, in this sense, performs more like a condensed conversation in a small room, which still has power, but not an expansive audience. One aspect of our emphasis is that we are historicizing sometimes marginal work, advancing what we hope is a more inclusive view of the present. Counter-publics are often more powerful than the high-profile activities publishers tend to consider, and a far more interesting question of how criticism circulates for us is how valuable the criticism is within these smaller, perhaps more marginal, groups.
BG: I’ve spent most of my career as an art critic, working full-time for newspapers here in New York and in Australia, and so have a strong attachment to criticism and critics in general. I like them, I like what they do, and I support them and criticism as best I can. They are my people. We have hired full-time (and as contract writers) several critics, most prominently Blake Gopnik, Christian Viveros-Fauné, and Ben Davis, who is our full-time national art critic with a mandate to cover the best shows and issues nationally.
We also work with Paddy Johnson, here in New York, and JJ Charlesworth, in London. In general criticism performs no better or worse than other content on our site, which is good, but when it is opinionated it has the ability to outperform almost anything else and so it’s one of those things which is worth having not just because of its elevated intellectual tone, but because it can deliver serious traffic when a critic really hits the mark. Our costs are such that criticism, like everything else, has to pay its way.
How is your site and content responding to changes in the way people consume content on the web using different devices?
SG: I’m fascinated by art criticism’s recent history and self-actualized drama, and what that tells us about our reluctant but eventual advancement. The so-called “crisis in criticism” (heralded by James Elkins and Raphael Rubenstein, but never agreed-upon by their constituent critics) revealed itself to be, in hindsight, a red herring. We were undergoing growing pains, it seems, as criticism shifted from the pages of print to the invigorated forums afforded by online publishing. We were also watching the academe’s stronghold on language and theory-based reception (over evaluation) diminish in popularity. I think of this shift as tectonic plates grinding and shifting weight, with certain things falling through the cracks but the majority of them simply settling into new postures. Criticism’s relevance and the value of its currency has been reinvigorated online, absolutely, heightened and amplified far beyond the status it enjoyed before. Critics and art publishers’ newly elevated exposure and vulnerability has demanded of us better and more urgent writing.
To your question: our content, whether on a desktop or mobile screen, invites durational reading. And we continue to be amazed by just how many people read long articles and reviews. People are engaged, and our readers are sticking with our articles for, on average, 10-15 minutes. I am wholly encouraged by this, and made to think that the previous half-generation of internet content-providers were sorely underestimating their readership’s intelligence and attention span. People are, essentially, smarter than we give them credit for; they do want value, they do want narratives, they long for theses. I think of Woody Allen’s joke, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” / “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” There’s been a wrong-headed approach that promulgates that irony, assuming more is more, even if it’s bad. I think we’re beginning to awaken to the reality that people have an interest in quality, and don’t desire quantity on the level we thought.
As Dan Fox, editor of Frieze, reiterated at a recent criticism conference, “Let’s slow down the Internet.” Momus is making that very effort. Let’s slow it down, and in so doing, make it better.
JM and SH: People consume content on multiple timelines online. We may consume information very quickly through social media, but keep a long-form essay open in a tab for over a month to read through it thoroughly. Our site exists in this in-between, in some ways moving very slowly through articles like profiles and long-form essays that avoid time-sensitive content, and in some ways more expansively through experiments like our “social responses,” which are more digitally embedded in that they display a collaborative text that is constantly revised and complicated over time in a way not really possible in print. Periodically, we’ve also used ad space as a critical platform and encouraged our contributors to do the same, publishing criticism or artist projects within our ads.
The constraints of web publishing means that, formally or even technically, those experiments are always hacks to a system that promotes a fairly traditional idea of content. The reading experience on our site (and most others) still follows a printed logic for the most part. It feels like a technical limitation for us more than a conceptual one and is something we are working against.
In the past, we’ve proposed new platforms to embed criticism as a more active, fast, and experimental practice but we are interested in experimenting with these different timelines in more expansive ways, both on our website and apart from it. How do we productively speed up content? Slowing down the internet (as proposed by Triple Canopy) is interesting too, but complicating the timelines among multiple modes seems far more creatively productive for us.
BG: This is a difficult question because the answer is really technology as opposed to editorially oriented. The internet is changing and so is publishing and so is the art world and so is the way people find and consume information and so we have to continually change as well. The site we had in 2014 is different to the one we have now, as it will be different to the one we have this time next year. We are in a period of constant innovation and evolution in website technology and so the pace of change is relentless. We have to adapt or die and that is what has driven us, me, at artnet News to find a profitable online model for art news and criticism.
What stories tend to do well for you and why do you think that is?
SG: The open secret we art publishers fight to correct is that nobody reads reviews. It’s a problematic and yet all-important keystone in our economic model. Where think-pieces, features, and interviews do well, and carry the potential to go viral, reviews go quietly into that good night, read and shared by only a handful of people, an intimate but influential circle that informs ad sales, and the optics of our democratic interest.
I think the reason for our interest in features is reifying: we want to be connected by big ideas; we’re starved of assertiveness, definition, and summary. We need to be galvanized and inspired and contradicted. Pop music is comprised of anthems, now. In a post-post-modern state – what we’re inclined to call an extended moment of modernism – we’re running to grand narratives again. As such, we need critics to resume a posture of authority, however tenuous and performed, and say “this is that.”
JM and SH: Our stories tend to move in sync with broader issues without attempting to respond to news items in a journalistic or social media sense. Essays that intersect with what artists are thinking about or articulate something that people feel but haven’t seen expressed in other forums tend to circulate best. I’m thinking about recent pieces like Sam Gould’s “The Afterlife: Art in an Experience Economy,” Gelare Khoshgozara’s “Belaboring the Fringe,” Rianna Jade Parker’s “Sweetness in a Bitter-Leaf,” and Steven Cottingham’s “No one cares about art criticism,” among many others, that have a timeliness and a timelessness simultaneously. Thoughtful writing is always in fashion and we think the pace of responding to every crisis, artworld meme, or international event brings about a fatigue we fight against. We hope the consistency of our publication helps these kinds of pieces circulate more broadly, but we think good writing creates its own context.
We also consider our public – as opposed to our audience or readership – as central to our idea of a story doing well. Beyond the traffic or circulation of a story, we consider its value for the field, its archival nature of preserving a perhaps ephemeral practice, and the creation or advancement of a conversation we find valuable. In that sense, we think of Temporary as a project in which the component parts, whether articles, talks or events, all complement to advocate and advance particular types of artistic practice, as well as a more equitable and interesting art world. One story may be more representative or more successful than another, but only as viewed as part of our entire archive.
BG: I have found that stories about things in the art world that people care about, I mean really care about, are what do best overall: the Venice Biennale, MoMA, the Tate, stories about famous artists and the important glamorous people or shows—that’s where the serious traffic is. Unfortunately we don’t get stories on those subjects all of the time and so have to cover a wider variety of things that vary in relevance and importance. Bald Hollywood celebrity stuff is bland and disposable so we avoid it, well, mostly.
Who are the art writers you most like to read and why, or do you tend to go to art sites over specific writers?
SG: Ben Davis. Christian Viveros-Faune. Peter Schjeldahl. Claire Bishop. Orit Gat. Gilda Williams. Johanna Fateman. Christpher Knight. David Balzer. I don’t go to art sites, I go to sites for writers. I think this is a problem, really; I wish more online art publications carried a consistency in their voice and critical tenor. I’m encouraging my contributing editors to produce columns for Momus (like Andrew Berardini’s successful “How To” series) for this reason.
JM and SH: We read artists’ writings more than any particular art publication, but we consistently read anything written by Lucy Lippard, Hito Steyerl, Orit Gat, Chris Fite-Wassilak, Ben Davis, Lane Relyea, Karen Archey, and, formerly, William Gass before he retired from art writing. We think following the work of specific writers is extremely valuable (and less common, now, with the loss of full-time critics in many of our cities) in that you follow a writer’s voice in a more durational way that extends the value of any single piece of writing into a longer, more complex argument. When a critic evolves in some way in their writing or follows a line of questioning over the course of an entire career. That is interesting in ways that can’t be replicated.
We do think of art publications as their own ecosystems that communicate as a whole, so often survey what specific publications are doing. While we don’t read everything by a long shot, we at the very least check into online publications like East of Borneo, Art of the Rural, Rhizome, Art Practical, BURNAWAY, MNArtists, Pelican Bomb and some smaller sites we work with like Post-Office Journal in Baltimore and Eutopia in Texas.
We also spend a significant amount of time avoiding Jerry Saltz’s Instagram feed, Artforum’s Scene and Herd, and anything related to art fairs on art blogs.
BG: In truth, I love to read mostly the writers on our site—I hired them so in some ways I’m biased, but I do love reading criticism by Blake Gopnik and Ben Davis and Christian Viveros-Fauné, even if I don’t always agree with them; or reported stories by Rozalia Jovanovic, our executive editor, Brian Boucher, Hili Perlson, and Eileen Kinsella; or our younger writers Cait Munro and Sarah Cascone. Beyond the site I obviously read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and still enjoy Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker though he feels like the Father Christmas of the art world these days, dolling out gifts in the form of appreciative reviews to grateful artist children. I’ll also read the guy from the Guardian [Adrian Searle], Jerry Saltz (no more nudes please), Holland Cotter, and Roberta Smith. Bottom line is this: there’s a school of opinion, and I’m enrolled in it, that says the best criticism is opinionated and salty and that’s what I look for in a critic and piece of criticism, including my own. I want the writer to take a stand, one way or the other.
What do you think of and how do you treat the relationship between art and fashion and popular culture?
SG: My strength and fault, potentially, is my purism regarding a focus on art (visual art) and its criticism. I think this focus is part of why we’ve had such a successful first year; our agenda is immediately legible. However, people I respect are telling me I need to expand, that I need to include film, dance, theater, music, et al, in order to harness a greater audience and, in the offing, more advertisers and patronage. I’m skeptical. I’m reluctant. I value focus. But I’m willing to listen.
JM and SH: Fashion and popular culture are interesting without art, but we are interested in art that’s not always recognizable as art and art that can exist a step outside of capitalism. Sometimes that may look like fashion or exist within popular culture, but, beyond that, those aren’t productive overlaps for us.
BG: We’ve found that too much fashion-celebrity-art crossover content turns people off, so it’s a fine line.
Do you see a continuing place for printed art magazines or do you think web art publishing will eventually replace them?
SG: This is like asking if porn can replace sex. We go on wanting the tactility, the certitude, and dimensions of print, because it feels like harnessed potential, like desire made nearly real. Meanwhile, online advertising carries the effect of imposition, or irritation. The problem doesn’t lie with online publishing platforms or its clients, but with a privileged readership that was told it could have it all for free too early in the game. Now we’re struggling to pull back on the promised benefits of online publishing, and educate our audience regarding our content’s essential value. The quality of online publishing has changed and advanced, but our readers’ expectation, demand, and sense of entitlement hasn’t moved. This is a problem.
JM and SH: We think the multiplicity of sites is what’s most interesting about publishing right now. Print has certainly decreased in terms of mass circulation and functional financial models, but smaller-run, niche arts publishers are more interesting than ever. The success of artist book fairs, zine publishers, and independent publications all point to a continuing interest in print as a viable medium. That said, we think the work to be done is to experiment with art publishing on the web to the full extent of the platform’s possibilities. At this stage, it is startling to see the lack of truly forward-leaning formats online and the replication of print’s logic into a space not meant for it.
BG: Pretty soon a lot of printed art magazines are going to go away—it’s inevitable. Some will remain, a small few, that can really own a niche in print and a niche audience, and they will remain beautiful things for people to handle, but the rest will disappear because the economics of magazines are bankrupt—paper and printing are what kill you and every year those costs grow while your subscriptions are stagnant or falling. There are no more newsstand sales as there are no more newsstands. To put it bluntly there is very little that they can to do to survive and thrive as businesses. Online, however, there are multiple opportunities with varying cost structures to publish and as, I think with artnet News, we’ve shown you can also make money.
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