Showing and Sharing in Philadelphia: Local Magazines

In March 2013, Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon, co-founders of Philadelphia’s grassroots theartblog.org, presented a brief guide to blogging to a group of 20 artists, writers, and curators. They invited anyone in the audience—from hoodie-clad teens to bespectacled retirees—who had ever contributed to the online publication to sign their names in marker on a flipchart displayed in front of the group. About half stood up and signed. Then Rosof and Fallon invited everyone else in the room to sign their names, too—a welcoming gesture intended to underscore the decade-old arts publication’s commitment to giving a voice to a broad spectrum of the local art community.

This lecture-cum-performance took place at The Galleries at Moore—the exhibition space maintained at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art and Design—as a part of Show-and-Share, a weekly program by local online journal-cum-arts-organization The St. Claire (the-st-claire.com), held in conjunction with Creative Time’s traveling exhibition Living As Form: The Nomadic Version [January 26–March 16, 2013]. Matt Kalasky, The St. Claire’s director, invited some of the city’s cultural producers to teach open, skill-share lessons on topics at the margins of their practices. The community responded: Institute of Contemporary Art Assistant Curator Kate Kraczon advised on collecting and repairing vintage clothing, and Beth Heinly, an artist-member of the 26-year-old collective Vox Populi, taught fire-sculpting. Following each group of presentations, attendees and lecturers convened and discussion often continued into the night.

The St. Claire is one of several artist-led magazines to have emerged in Philadelphia within the last five years, perhaps as a contributing force in the past decade’s exponential increase in the activity and visibility of collectively organized galleries and creative co-working spaces in the city. Run collaboratively by groups of artists and other cultural practitioners, these publications include Machete (newsprint and PDF, 2009–2012, restarting this year), Title Magazine (title-magazine.com, 2011–present), and Never Edition (newsprint, 2013). Their founding principles have much in common: to provide necessary infrastructure for critical dialogue about Philadelphia’s art, and exchange between its artists. Rooted in Philadelphia’s 45-year history of collective practice and sensitive to the city’s polarized socioeconomic situation, these magazines do far more than cover area exhibitions. They both serve and challenge local audiences, and propose powerful models of critical, creative community-forming and friendship-building, in which artists can learn together, as opposed to merely networking.

All four magazines are Philadelphia-focused in content and mission, yet they reach audiences beyond the city limits. Title and The St. Claire run local reviews, commentary, interviews, and artist projects on their WordPress-driven websites. Just over one third of Title’s readership, and two thirds of The St. Claire’s, is from Philadelphia, with United States readers making up the majority of the rest. Their contributors are area arts professionals, students, and former Philadelphia residents. Following the editorial lead of its parent publications, Title and The St. Claire, Never Edition was a three-issue, eight-page newspaper made in collaboration with the curatorial duo McCartney/Belknap for CITYWIDE, an exhibition exchange between 23 of the city’s artist-led spaces involving more than 150 artists. Never Edition was distributed throughout Philadelphia, and volunteers maintained a special newsstand at the Crane Arts building in the city’s up-and-coming area of Northern Liberties. To extend the conversation, each issue was made available in over 20 artist-led spaces in major cities across the United States, some of which shipped their own publications back to Crane Arts. This interregional participation is evidence of these projects’ ability to translate across state lines—local arts production, it would seem, has national applications.

Machete was a newsprint zine founded, published, and distributed by the artist-led project space Marginal Utility. An integral part of the gallery’s programming since it opened in 2009, Machete’s columns, reviews, and interviews with leading thinkers such as Jacques Rancière and Cornel West operated together as a critical reader with which to interpret work made by artists—like those who exhibit at Marginal Utility—who borrow complex ideas from philosophy, art history, and radical politics. Co-directors Yuka Yokoyama and David Dempewolf noted in a 2009 interview that without such critical apparatuses, “much of the intellectual content of their efforts [is] lost and the work is only read formally and/or emotionally.” They continue, “Philadelphia is developing a robust art scene that will hopefully churn out an articulation of the present that is not derivative of New York and Artforum, but is native of and has grown out of the conditions of living in Philadelphia.” This invocation of Artforum implies that the discourse found in magazines is essential to building strong regional identities and communities—just as much as exhibition spaces are.

There is a precedent for this type of local, printed discourse in Philadelphia Arts Exchange (1977–1981). This bimonthly, low-gloss magazine founded by Richard Flood and Joan Horvath emerged shortly after the city’s first group of collective spaces—such as NEXUS, Bricolage, Étage, Old City Arts (all founded 1975), 3rd Street Gallery (1976), and Muse Gallery (1977)—established themselves. Like its contemporary counterparts, Philadelphia Arts Exchange featured carefully edited, locally focused critical content, as well as artists’ interventions (often perforated, pop-out mailers), and articles that engaged both the city’s socioeconomic conditions and those of artistic labor in general. Columns such as “Philadelphia: Lost and Endangered” reflected upon problems of urban development and decay; such series as “Information Exchange”—contributed by the Philadelphia Bar Association—provided legal advice for artists on topics including contracts, copyright, and droit de suite. In 1977, the periodical co-hosted a symposium with the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts). The focus, as in today’s artist-run publications, was on how to develop Philadelphia’s cultural scene from a grassroots perspective.

Labor remains a concern across contemporary initiatives’ organizational values, published content, and the extension—and/or integration—of several magazines’ editorial remits into public programming. “Any responsible and earnest examination of Philadelphia’s cultural output would also have to encompass a broader network of social, political, and labor issues …. To talk about an art show but not about the artist’s professional career as a dog walker/nanny/waiter is just plain negligent,” Kalasky explained in a 2013 interview. Accordingly, The St. Claire’s recent podcast “Light Refreshments on Radical Pedagogy” included a passionate conversation on the rights of adjunct professors, and a Title review writer’s byline describes her as “currently traveling, curating, making art, writing, and waitressing.” Artist and Drexel University professor Cindy Stockton-Moore’s personal response to a recent New York Times series, “The Cost of Being an Artist,” appeared in a recent Never Edition essay titled “Giving it Away.” She comments: “The underlying sentiment [of the Times series] is that working gratis makes one an amateur or—even worse—a dilettante,” before outlining why she chooses to donate some of her scarce, uncompensated time to co-direct a nonprofit gallery. Drawing upon the sociological concepts of “bonding” and “bridging” capital coined by Robert Putnam, a Harvard public policy researcher, Stockton-Moore notes that donating her time “builds a peer support system and offers insight into my otherwise-solitary studio practice.” This bonding, in turn, provides the foundation for bridging—working reciprocally with other communities in Philadelphia, the United States, and internationally. The magazines considered here offer similar opportunities. This is not to say that these projects matter because they have somehow escaped the requirements of financial capital—volunteers such as Stockton-Moore and the collectives that organize Philadelphia’s artist-led magazines are able to “donate” their time because they have paid employment in such fields as web design, photography, and gallery administration—even marketing and accounting.

Theoretical discussion of labor naturally segues into a very practical conversation about cash. Jeffrey Bussmann, one of Title’s co-editors, told me the magazine is entirely volunteer-run: Philadelphia is a transient city—perhaps because there are relatively few full-time arts jobs here—and Title’s editorial team of Jeffrey Bussmann, Samantha Dylan Mitchell, Jacob Feige, and Daniel Gerwin put their (unpaid) effort into mentoring writers who will eventually move on, either when they graduate from MFAs and seek work elsewhere, or when adjuncts migrate in search of tenured teaching positions. “We value people’s time immensely—the people who participate are putting in the effort because they want to represent themselves and be part of something high quality,” Bussman told me. The St. Claire’s team raised $8,000 in general operating costs through a Kickstarter campaign; most donors belonged to Philadelphia’s art community. Kalasky assumed that having financial resources would cultivate a business-oriented model for the magazine—one in which paying writers would ensure specific results, such as met deadlines and an end product, again, of “high quality.” “As it turns out,” he told me, “unless you are paying people a professional wage—and perhaps even then—your compensation is more of a gesture. No one is going to support [herself] in Philadelphia getting paid $50 for writing an essay or $100 for running a group discussion. Our honoraria are good faith tokens that let people know we do value labor.” In a beautiful reversal of that assumption, almost all of The St. Claire’s contributors so far have chosen to donate their honoraria back to the organization—a measure of “belonging” that Kalasky and co-editors Stephanie Bursese, John Crowe, Emily Davidson, J Makary, Stuart Lorimer, Bethany Pelle, Suzanne Seesman, Mike Treffehn, and Nicole Wilson have cultivated over a short period. This is “bonding capital” in action. As in Stockton-Moore’s proposal, this initial bond provides a support system for outreach to ever-broader groups of artists; this in turn boosts participants’ professional networks. It also models a generous community-based approach that co-exists with the concerns of financial capital and competition. For example, The St. Claire’s 2014 event series The Night Course: An Independent Art Seminar—which might be said to have “bridged” many artist groups—included a discussion on the history of Philadelphia’s co-operative spaces in the general context of collectivism as a still-valid historical model for contemporary practice.

The editorial policies of these artist-led publications tend to encourage alternative approaches to established journalistic and critical formats. “The Form Review,” a regular feature of The St. Claire, invites both critic and exhibitor to respond to the same five short prompts, employing a simple Q&A format to subvert the usual roles of the observer and the observed. Straightforward cues such as, “Who would be this exhibition’s parents?” and “What might its children look like?” gently mock and repurpose the interpretive platitudes common in art criticism; the resulting replies appear as a pair alongside the usual installation shot. By including exhibitors outside The St. Claire’s established pool of writers to contribute—such as ICA’s chief curator, or a collective member based elsewhere in the city—some efforts are made to move beyond a “clique” mentality. (These are, however, first steps only, and more could always be done.) This experiment and similar ones seek to stimulate readers, too, making them complicit in these publications’ apparent communal goal: to short-circuit critical and curatorial authority, and to do so with humor.

Machete’s mission was similarly inclusive. As Avi Alpert, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate and frequent Machete collaborator, explained in an email, its contributors “often wrote collectively, anonymously, or with pseudonyms,” producing “nearly fictional pieces,” “lists of theses,” and similarly experimental forms alongside more traditional critical work. Theirs is, ostensibly, a performative approach to criticism. A way of “inhabiting the world as a critical subject” also found social form with the Machete Group’s monthly public seminar, co-founded by Yokoyama, Dempewolf, and Alexi Kukuljevic, and attended by philosophers, critics, and other creative practitioners who also ran the event. Discussions addressed topics such as appropriation, “The ‘End’ of Art,” and its politics. “We would pre-circulate texts,” recalls Alpert, “then two of us would give mini-presentations, which acted as ‘prisms’ that refracted the text into a series of interventions and concerns. This was central to our understanding of public pedagogy as a process of learning together … to create a space in which we could collectively think together.” The results fed back into Machete’s content. Later, the group joined the Occupy Philly movement, holding similarly political conversations at Dilworth Plaza opposite City Hall.

The St. Claire, which began as a digital forum for free exchange between critics and artists organized by a group of Tyler School of Art graduates, quickly expanded into in-person gatherings that engaged the magazine’s published material. As Kalasky explained, realizing a goal of free creative and discursive exchange requires “an expanded range of engagement beyond journalism.” Increasing Philadelphia’s art-minded readership, for example, the organization “would first have to nurture and coalesce the larger art community from which it draws.” Event series such as Show-and-Share, Local Instruction (2013), and this year’s Night Course have provided multiple forums for these social goals and demonstrate the enriching reciprocity that can exist between print and live event. In the right environment, the events proposed by Philadelphia’s artist-led magazines surpass their established use-value of professional network-building. Instead, they become conducive to a kind of friendship.

In “Giving it Away,” Stockton-Moore notes that such “lofty goals” are, of course, not always met: “Inequitable divisions of labor and interpersonal politics can (and do) temporarily sour working relationships …. Those sacrifices can breed tension if left unchecked.” Yet the possibility of “tension” may be worth the productive potential of such community-driven structure—and not only in Philadelphia. “When friends connect, it’s not to gain value for the individual, but rather to strengthen and invigorate the community as a whole,” Kalasky writes in an email. His description of this social capital-driven model might apply equally to any city. “Granted, friendships take time, patience, generosity, and unquestioning love, while ‘network’ connections are quick, easy, and efficient … but strong communities are how art scenes survive and thrive.”