The Ups and Downs of the Bizarre World of Public Sector Publishing
by David Brittain
Issue 28 Autumn 2001
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When I worked in commercial 'zines I couldn't see how anyone got Arts Council cash for producing a weird little mag that came out irregularly and which no one seemed to read. Now that I am emerging, blinking, from 10 years as editor of one of these magazines I would liken the experience to being involved in a collective delusion. Flashback to the mid-90s and I'm sitting in our Hoxton offices facing a panel of Arts Council appointed 'experts' on a fact-finding mission. It includes one man I managed to vote on there myself - the only person present with any knowledge of magazine publishing. Repeatedly, I am asked what I would like to do if I had free reign and repeatedly I hedge (Is it a coded way of telling me the funders hate what we're doing? Can it be that they don't realise that an editor just doesn't think like this?). My man, who has been hearing this with mounting frustration, suddenly exclaims: 'If you want him to edit it differently then you need to tell him what you want!'
Funders aren't supposed to tell editors what they want of them, but sometimes it might help if they were able or prepared to. Usually they don't know themselves and are beholden to the views of some panel. They seem to know, however, what they don't want and they use their own methods to make you darkly aware of their concerns. When you hear that a similar arts organisation (they consider magazines as arts organisations) has had a phone call from your officer asking what they 'might do with £50,000', you know there's a reason why you never got the call. And of course there are those apparently innocent comments that can be read any number of ways. That's the public sector. It breeds paranoia, back-stabbing, rumour and victimhood. The people to whom editors should owe allegiance are their readers. They express their satisfaction, or otherwise, with their chequebooks, year in, year out; when you meet them they tell you what they like or dislike. Yet the editor of a subsidised magazine often pays more attention to art experts who rarely read the magazine and never volunteer feedback.
Everything I know about publicly subsidised magazines was learned during an exhilerating and confusing time at the helm of Britain's oldest and greatest photography magazine, Creative Camera, latterly DPICT. Founded in 1968, Creative Camera was not only the model for all photography magazines which followed it, but championed the idea of magazines championing photography. The dramatic closure, in June, of DPICT/Creative Camera, leaves two subsidised photography publications - this one, a client of the Arts Councils in Dublin and Belfast, and the biannual Portfolio, funded by the Arts Council of Scotland and the Arts Council of England.
While a good proportion of the magazines which are currently subsidised are privately owned (notably ACE clients Frieze, Artists Newsletter and Art Monthly*), the photography magazines are the true independents: DPICT, like Source, was constituted as non-profitmaking and staff were answerable to a voluntary board, rather than a publisher. As independents these magazines are vulnerable because their incomes are disproportionately inflated by dangerously high volumes of public funds. It was our misfortune that grant aid comprised something under 50 per cent of our turnover. When our grant of £54,000 was cut, after 10 years of stand-still funding (a euphemism for incremental cutting) the results were not too hard to predict. Being an annual client (as most magazines were until recently) we lived 365 days a year with the fear of being told that next year's grant wouldn't materialise. Banks wouldn't loan us money on the basis that a pledge of one year's grant was not reasonable security.
Currently, Source and Portfolio offer a refreshing alternative to the conservatism of art magazines and the predictability of the mass media. This is why they merit public support. But the role and importance of independent photography magazines is not widely appreciated as, increasingly, mainstream magazines are moving into their territory. There are increasing areas of convergence - the style magazine phenomenon is a good example of how young editors have emulated photography magazines. One of the few hints I received that the Arts Council might be reconsidering funding Creative Camera was when an officer suggested that there was a bit too much 'blurring' between ourselves and those art magazines who discovered photography a bit late in the day.
It's true that to some extent all cultural magazines nowadays encompass the margins where photography used to be. Everyone covers big commercial galleries which stage the sort of exhibitions that were once the sole province of the subsidised photography sector (Settings and Players at White Cube2 and I am A Camera at Saatchi, both earlier this year, were old-fashioned survey shows of photographs). But take a look who was included at White Cube2 - Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, Philip de Corcia Lorca, Nan Goldin - and it's a testimony to the incalculable cultural contribution of photography organisations, over decades - museums, galleries, book publishers and especially magazines such as Creative Camera, Aperture, Camera. Such titles advocated these talents when they were unknown. The portfolio pages of photography magazines are, effectively, portable galleries. Because of the mysterious nature of the photographic process, and its historical connections with print, magazine publication seems to efface the distance between a reproduction and the original print. While art magazines take their cue from what's already in the galleries, a photography magazine showcases unseen work so that it can then find its way into a gallery or become a book.
Despite such areas of crossover, no style or art magazine would be interested in supplying the sort of dedicated domestic and foreign news, reviews and listings information we used to offer in our popular Creative Camera monthly supplements (listing European photography galleries, prizes and awards for photographers, festivals and courses, for instance). Style 'zines promote personalities, while art magazines are chiefly interested in the latest gallery fad. They are more mediated, slicker, less 'worthy' than the little photography magazines and not especially keen on nurturing critical debate about photography or examining its relationship with society.
Subsidised photography magazines are crying out for investment and know-how. Subsidised magazines don't reach a broad reader (the El Dorado of small publishers) because they are not competitive. For roughly the same cover price as their nearest commercial rivals they deliver much less in terms of the number of pages, colour, paper quality and number and variety of contributors. They have relatively low shelf profiles on account of having neither cash nor skills to mount the aggressive marketing campaigns needed to attract the new readers and subscribers, their life-blood. They probably don't circulate in foreign countries (outside a few libraries) because the invoice from the printer arrives, for printing run-ons, before they receive income from foreign distributors (if it comes at all). For this reason they rarely carry foreign advertising. Domestic advertising revenue is low because the UK sector, never rich enough to support one magazine - let alone two or three - is shrinking (in the past few years Zone, Cambridge Darkroom, Camerawork and Focal Point, have all closed). While it's true that more art galleries are showing photography, these spaces prefer to advertise with the art press - and (much to my disppointment) so do the newly re-invented photography spaces. As for the big equipment producers (Olympus and Fuji being exceptions), they'll always stick with the mass market.
To continue to qualify for grant aid we, at DPICT, needed to be able to demonstrate (annually, on paper) that we would raise additional money to clear deficits and drive marketing campaigns that would help us meet over-ambitious targets for adverts and sales. In the event it proved to be a fantasy that we all had to believe in to keep going. I am not that angry about what happened with DPICT because, like everyone else, I conspired to be blind to the outcome of dealing with a funding system which supports worthy alternatives, while demanding that those providing them should be able to compete in a hostile marketplace.
We in Britain are fortunate to have a very exciting climate for photographic practice. This is surely partly because there has been a support structure for photography which has included magazines (not forgetting Camerawork and Ten.8). Of course, the very ubiquity of photography in galleries and museums might imply that the need for magazines to champion this set of practices has passed.
Is there still a case for continuing to fund a photography magazine? I think so - but editors must be on their guard. I was priviledged to edit one of the best known photography magazines in the world and its demise is a terrible loss. Unlike most of the better paid 'professional' journalists, I really felt that what I did made a difference. I was given huge freedom to innovate and experiment (where profit is not an issue editors are obliged to take risks!). The transformation of the art photography magazine, Creative Camera into the broadly cultural one DPICT, was, in my view, a positive contribution to the debate about where (if anywhere) to place a 'serious' photography magazine in today's dynamic dog-eat-dog market. If that is to be its lasting legacy I won't be unhappy.
Editing a subsidised photography magazine is rewarding, but also frustrating because of the perceptions of arts funders. I wish more people - readers, galleries, wealthy equipment makers and especially funders - would appreciate the small photography magazines and support them as they deserve.
* Details about the exact number of magazines and which titles the ACE will support in 2002 are not available.
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