Bruised by War-Related Boycott, Artforum Seeks a Reset

Bruised by War-Related Boycott, Artforum Seeks a Reset

A skeleton crew of editors needed to take a hacksaw through the December issue of Artforum magazine. There were only a few weeks between the sudden firing of its editor in chief and a print deadline for the glossy’s annual “Year in Review” issue.

The fallout had been swift when Artforum’s owner fired the editor, David Velasco, after the magazine published an open letter about the Israel-Hamas war that supported Palestinian liberation and initially omitted mention of the victims of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

At least six members of the editorial team resigned and nearly 600 writers signed letters boycotting the magazine and its sister publications like ARTnews and Art in America. Regular contributors like the critic Jennifer Krasinski and the art historian Claire Bishop requested to have their articles pulled from the December issue. Others such as the filmmaker John Waters, the curator Meg Onli and the artist Gordon Hall also withdrew their writing.

The “Year in Review” issue that has begun arriving to subscribers is a week later than usual and noticeably slimmer. At 150 pages of articles and advertisements, it is about a third smaller than last December’s 224-page issue.

“There is a before and there is an after in the art world,” said the art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson, who wrote last month’s cover story on the artist Sam Gilliam and said she would no longer contribute to Artforum. “That is how stark the discourse feels after the magazine fired David.”

Hall said the firing was an astonishing betrayal of the art world’s values.

“We may disagree or misunderstand each other,” Hall said, “but we collectively value the ability to express ourselves without risking professional punishment, silencing or shunning.”

As the art world continues to splinter over questions of how to equitably address Israeli and Palestinian suffering, Artforum, which has about 30,000 print subscribers and gets about 8.3 million page views annually, is attempting to hit the reset button.

“We have lost a number of valued colleagues whose talents have been made manifest in our pages and platforms,” the publishers Danielle McConnell and Kate Koza wrote in a note in the December issue. “We have been given reason to reflect on and confront Artforum’s role in times of humanitarian crisis.”

Jay Penske, the chief executive of Penske Media, which owns the magazine and others including Rolling Stone and Variety, also published a statement in the issue, saying that Velasco’s departure had been misinterpreted as the suppression of speech.

“Artforum has a proud history of advocacy and is a platform that inspires debate and discourse,” Penske wrote. “This will never cease under our ownership.”

To Velasco, Artforum’s response is lacking. “Penske Media is underestimating Artforum’s readership if they think these non-explanations will restore faith in the magazine’s credibility,” Velasco said.

Established in 1962, Artforum became a mouthpiece for the intellectuals who shaped American postwar art into a cultural force. The magazine’s direction shifted as its editorial leadership did, but it typically hired artists for exclusive projects and supplemented its subscriber income with advertisements from the galleries reviewed in its pages.

Velasco, who joined the magazine nearly two decades ago, assumed the top leadership role in 2017 with a plan to restore its reputation after its longtime publisher, Knight Landesman, was accused of sexual harassment. As part of that effort, Artforum published essays that helped signal the art world’s shifting relationship with its patrons.

A 2018 project by the photographer Nan Goldin highlighted the role of the Sackler family in the opioid epidemic, which has resulted in the family’s name being wiped from museum galleries around the world. A year later, an essay by the writers Hannah Black, Tobi Haslett and Ciarán Finlayson described the 2019 Whitney Biennial as “The Tear Gas Biennial” because of a trustee’s relationship with the defense industry. That trustee, Warren B. Kanders, later resigned from the museum board.

But the open letter that Artforum published about the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 19, which called for an immediate cease-fire, resulted in significant blowback for the magazine itself. Some large galleries, including David Zwirner, said they would pull advertisements from the publication, and other groups like the Chanel culture fund threatened to withdraw their support, according to four magazine employees.

The letter, which Velasco signed, originated with nearly a dozen artists and scholars primarily based in Britain, including Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect teaching at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“I cannot say in stronger words that artists are feeling persecuted, with attempts of removing them from collections,” Weizman said in October. “Petitions are for offering support, solidarity and comfort. That was the aim of this petition.”

Accusations of censorship in the art world have continued, with curators and artists saying that they have lost jobs and exhibitions for supporting Palestinian causes.

The Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush left her position at the Art Gallery of Ontario after outside activists accused her of “posting inflammatory, inaccurate rants against Israel.”

The artist Candice Breitz had an exhibition canceled in Germany, where officials at the Saarland Museum in Saarbrücken said they would not show works by anyone “who does not clearly recognize Hamas’s terror as a rupture of civilization.” Breitz, who is Jewish and has criticized Israel on social media, said she had condemned Hamas’s actions “loudly and unequivocally.”

And the entire selection panel charged with finding the next curator of Documenta, a global exhibition of art scheduled for 2027, resigned after disputes with administrators related to the Israel-Hamas war.

Bishop, the art historian, said free speech was being stifled in the art world, pointing to the response to the open letter in Artforum.

“This letter — which has been followed by countless others — is like a head on a pike, standing as a warning to other art workers who might dare to criticize Israel,” she said.

The disagreement about who is to blame in the Artforum controversy has extended outside the magazine’s pages. It has been cited at pro-Palestinian protests throughout New York, which have targeted the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Public Library at Bryant Park, where officials said that demonstrators caused nearly $75,000 worth of damage to its facade.

This week, the gallerists Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy and Amalia Dayan said their storefront was vandalized with a fake apology by the dealers, who had published a response condemning the Artforum open letter “for its one-sided view.”

After Penske Media acquired Artforum last year, it had plans to further monetize the publication’s reputation. Four former employees said the company was planning events to coincide with major art fairs like Frieze New York, where editors would lead gallery tours. There was also a discussion about selecting an artist to design the crystal ball that drops in Times Square during the New Year’s Eve celebration run by Penske Media. (A spokeswoman for Penske Media said there were not plans for such events.)

But the magazine’s future is now in flux.

A majority of the authors featured in November’s issue are still boycotting Artforum. The masthead in the December issue includes at least one researcher who had resigned before publication.

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