Posts Tagged ‘Art Criticism’

PostHeaderIcon Independent Art Voice Revived

Derek Guthrie

Derek Guthrie

It has been 10 years since The New Art Examiner published its final issue. The monthly magazine, which called itself “Chicago’s Independent Voice of the Visual Arts,” enjoyed a rough but highly-respected run from 1973 to 2002. It was born in controversy by founding editors, Jane Addams Allen and Derek Guthrie. Besides coverage of local and regional exhibits, the publication adopted a reportorial, contrarian stance toward the value systems and practices of the art world that raised a lot of critical dust.

Under the helm of successive editors, it gained a large following among artists, a national readership and critical influence beyond the Midwest. It was disheartening to hear at a panel discussion last November that the history and contribution of Chicago’s only successful art magazine was virtually unknown among younger critics and art students.

Authors Terri Griffith, Kathryn Born and Janet Koplos have now stepped into the breach and assembled an enlightening anthology of articles in “The Essential New Art Examiner,” newly-published by Northern Illinois University Press. In so doing, they have resurrected this ever-lively publication and shown what was lost with its passing.

Griffith, at an all-day symposium (“Re-Examining the New Art Examiner”) last Saturday at Northern Illinois’ campus, called the Examiner “a newspaper for artists” to which each editor, over its 30-year run, brought their own views and interests. These new voices, who shared the founding editors’ commitment to an independent local outlet, not only kept the Examiner alive once Allen and Guthrie relocated to Washington, D. C. but also helped establish Chicago’s growing national recognition as a true art center.

The New Art Examiner published my first forays in art reportage. A cover story on an infamous trial of the 1980s involving the George F. Harding Museum earned me my first Examiner byline. Following that scandal, I next investigated the nationwide lack of defined ethical guidelines at major art museums.

While most institutions now have written guidelines governing staff, trustee and curatorial conduct, ethical issues around collection management still arouse controversy 30 years later.

While I hung around the Examiner’s office mainly from 1980-82, Guthrie’s introduction to the book, along with his and Jane Allen’s opening essay and Frank Pannier passionate rant opened my eyes to Chicago’s art world circa 1973.

Essential New Art Examiner

Essential New Art Examiner

Besides giving young art writers their first exposure in print, the book contains many thoughtful essays that still resonate by prominent critics and curators: Peter Schjeldahl (now at The New Yorker), Hilton Kramer (The New Criterion), Janet Koplos (Art in America), Alice Thorsen (now at Kansas City Star), Lynne Warren (MCA) and Hamza Walker (Renaissance Society). Schjeldahl’s 1985 “Chicagoization” article is a classic. The historical recaps by five former editors are a nice personal touch. Only a handful of the 27 selections were duds.

While the book does not pretend to be a complete history, which remains to be written, it is an essential primer to a colorful and contentious period in Chicago art lost to generations who came after. (NIU art historian, Barbara Jaffee, has written a highly perceptive analysis of the Examiner’s origins and history. For a copy of her catalog essay that accompanied NIU Museum’s exhibition on the New Art Examiner, write bjaffee@niu.edu.)

Unfortunately, the New Art Examiner was never supported with advertising by most dealers or, especially, the city’s two major museums. Book artist, Buzz Spector, called the New Art Examiner “the chronic outsider of the art world.” An early director at the Museum of Contemporary Art banned the magazine from the museum’s gift shop.

Guthrie writes that he and Jane Allen “learned by bitter experience that there is no freedom for criticism or criticality.” Dealers at the time failed to see any reason to support a publication with an independent voice that could not be controlled.

Former NY Times reporter, Judith Dobrzynski, in her recent blog on ArtsJournal confirms that Guthrie’s complaint lives on today. She asked, “Does the visual arts world need sharper criticism? Yes….When was the last time you read a learned, thoughtful, well-argued critique of a museum or gallery exhibition that was negative?”

One would like to think that Chicago’s frosty reception toward the Examiner is a thing of the past. However, the more recent demise of Chicago Artist News in 2010 is a fresh reminder bespeaking a pattern of poor institutional support.

While blogs proliferate online, none carry the critical authority and agenda-setting power of a print publication like ArtNews or Artforum. So long as Chicago’s art community fails to support its own artists with its own editorial outlet, New York will monopolize the national art dialogue. Chicago will continue to make do with periodic scraps and its art community will remain a provincial center.

The Essential New Art Examiner is now in bookstores or from the publisher at www.niupress.niu.edu

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