The Privatization of Art Journalism: Journalist Talk at Art Basel Miami Beach 2017 – video summary

Content writers and art reporters Sarah Douglas, Ossian Ward and Mary Louise Schumacher contemplate the future of art journalism in the uncertain times ahead.

Art Radar puts together a brief summary of the Art Basel Miami Beach Conversation that took place in December 2017.

A visitor at Barbara Mathes Gallery, Art Basel Miami 2017. Image courtesy Art Basel.

A visitor at Barbara Mathes Gallery, Art Basel Miami Beach 2017. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Chaired by the Editor-in-Chief of ARTNews, Sarah Douglas, “The Privatization of Art Journalism” tackled hefty questions about the landscape of art journalism that lay ahead. Speaking to Head of Content at London/New York gallery Lisson Gallery, Ossian Ward, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Art and Architecture critic, Mary Louise Schumacher, Douglas moderated the panel that investigated the major shifts that had taken place in the business of art journalism over recent years. Speaking as part of the Conversations series held at Art Basel Miami Beach 2017, the talk teased out the risks and opportunities involved for writers, galleries and other stakeholders.

Sarah Douglas is the current Editor-in-Chief of ARTNews, the digital and print media outlet that had originally been established in 1902. Douglas took over as ARTNews’ Editor-in-Chief in 2014, succeeding her predecessor Robin Cembalest. Prior to that, she has served as Culture Editor at The New York Observer; her post saw her launching the website GalleristNY.

Well-known as an art critic, Ward was chief art critic and visual arts editor at Time Out London. Ward had also written for Art Review and V&A magazine, amongst others. He is also the author of the book Ways of Looking, which was originally published in 2014. Mary Louise Schumacher had also remained as the dedicated art and architecture critic at the longstanding Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 17 years. She was also recently made a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, before taking on an extended leave of absence to pursue making a documentary about art journalists.

Art Basel Miami 2017, Conversations, Journalist Talk, "The Privatization of Art Journalism". Image courtesy Art Basel.

Art Basel Miami Beach 2017, Conversations, Journalist Talk, “The Privatization of Art Journalism”. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Disruptions in the art industry

All three speakers agreed that there was an uptick in what was termed as “the privatisation of art journalism”: the structure of art journalism, it seems, is going through some changes. Kicking off the conversation, Douglas highlighted a litany of disruptions in the traditional art journalism industry: mega-gallery Gagosian, for example, is one of the first galleries to launch their own magazine (also named Gagosian), which they offer to readers as a quarterly. Other galleries continue to follow suit: Hauser & Wirth is soon to offer their own publication as well. Commercial interests, it seems, are intersecting with the creation and publication of art-focused content.

The entry of commercial, mega-gallery players into the art journalism landscape is accompanied by the outmoding of the traditional model which sustains the industry. As Douglas puts it,

The traditional art magazines, the ones that rely on the advertising model, are struggling – I say this with caution because in some ways art news is thriving like never before – and art coverage in newspapers around the country is shrinking, or, just as importantly, changing. Becoming shorter, punchier, social media friendlier.

Galleries, it seems, have hired their own content creators; aided by social media and other outlets, the advertising model that magazines have long thrived on are less and less reliable. In what is perhaps an alternative to the advertising model, the digital platforms Artsy and Artnet were also singled out, where editorial content is also created, but is, nonetheless, not a key feature of the primarily commercial function of those sites.

All these observations seem to spell doom and gloom for the industry; however, as Douglas is quick to point out, there is also evidence to the contrary: PR agencies are also starting up at a time when media outlets are struggling. Not-for-profit publications are also springing up, such as Four Columns. Terming it a “shift towards a privatized model”, Douglas, Ward and Schumacher sought to bring up the risks and challenges involved, and how to navigate these challenges.

Journalism vs Criticism

One thing that I found even more difficult within my small field was finding critics who wanted to be critical.

Drawing on his experience at Time Out London, Ward noted that “we’re all in the art world […] and we all know the galleries and the galleries pay us to do essays and things like that. So it was actually quite hard to get people to say what they thought.” Coupled with the fear of backlash were the logistical challenges of even creating room for criticism, type got larger, column sizes smaller, and space devoted to criticality became reduced. Under the two-fold assault on criticism, it was easier to revert to reportage.

The way out, however, as Ward noted, was digital publishing: where space and audience size posed no logistical challenges or issues. “I was always a print person, a real old-school print person, so I didn’t see that actually there is an opportunity. We did have huge numbers online and we could reach more people.” Digital was a way forward  as Douglas noted, as page counts went down at The New York Observer, the online platform GalleristNY began.

The pull between journalism and privatised content creation 

Being the Head of Content for Lisson Gallery, Ossian explained, meant that “all of the content in the gallery – meaning all the artworks – should, in some way, have something written about them.” Ward’s position as Head of Content can be read as part of a wider trend, where galleries hire their own content creators to help establish their presence in a media saturated environment. As Douglas pointed out later in the conversation, galleries were beginning to offer better salaries to those in traditional journalism positions as content creators for their brand. Citing her own experience, Schumacher pointed out the growing disparity between these two roles: there was a concern amongst those in traditional media outlets that they could not continue to do good work. Schumacher noted that writing for a journal left her

busier than I used to be, when the space is smaller, when I’m writing to an algorithm. All these pressures that have come down onto us… I think that — to be very candid– one of the reasons why I wanted to take a year away from the position and get some perspective… I was reading work that I had done five years earlier and thinking it was better.

The new pressures of a journalist position today may have left traditional news outlets losing out to galleries, where writers had the freedom to “actually think, and be considered and thoughtful, and have the space to do good work”, Schumacher continues. Douglas also noted that traditional news outlets often carried an unspoken corporate culture where employees were made to feel that “you were lucky to be here”. In some ways, old elitist ideals seemed to have seeped through the structure. With more talent opting to leave the media industry and working for galleries with bigger budgets and more manageable workloads, content production leans more towards private, commercial interests. The shift away from traditional journalism is perceptible, as economic and welfare concerns of journalists themselves are called into question.

Click here to watch the Art Basel Miami Beach 2017 Conversation “The Privatization of Art Journalism” on YouTube

Over the course of the 45-minute talk, Schumacher, Douglas and Ward brought up these points and more, trying to make sense of the the future of art writing within this new model. Asking questions that were fundamental to the operating of the industry itself, the Journalist Talk was a welcome part of the Conversations roster at Art Basel Miami Beach 2017.

Junni Chen

 2025

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