Some Notes on Alternative Arts Publications: The Alternatives’ Dance for Money or Walking on a Tightrope

This feature was originally reprinted in ART PAPERS July/August 1991, Vol. 15, issue 4.

When I initially began writing this essay, I was surprised and dismayed at how difficult a task it really was. Not because I had nothing to say about alternative arts publishing, but rather I had too much to say, particularly about the sheer amount of work it takes to produce a publication deemed “alternative” (the definition of which I will return to shortly). It seemed too easy, not to mention too depressing, to simply talk about financial headaches and lack of various kinds of support. Yet to really begin a discussion on the nature of alternative arts publishing, one has to begin with money and its sources. 

What follows is an attempt to present an overview of the political and economic framework within which alternative arts publications function, as well as an examination of the various definitions of the term alternative. While there are many definitions to explore, what I want to focus on here is alternative culture as both negation of mainstream culture and alternative publishing as synonymous with regionalism. Drawing upon my own experiences in the field, I will present historical references for how alternative publications have situated themselves within these frameworks. Finally, given the current decline in financial support and the conservative milieu that surrounds the arts, it is necessary to question what the future holds for alternative arts publications and how we can insure their survival. 

Funding for Alternative Arts Publications: Public vs. Private 


Most alternative arts publications are not- for-profit, supported by federal, state, and city funding and a board of directors whose role is to keep the magazine solvent. Many of the publications I am involved with function almost as a cooperative, and are produced in-house or site-based by a limited paid staff and often volunteers who are involved because of commitment. Revenues trickle in from advertising, sales, and paid subscriptions, but only provide a quarter of the necessary budget to keep the publication functioning. Consequently, fiscal support rests in the hands of the government, although funding from the NEA may be regular or sporadic. As state and local support continues to be slashed, these publications, like all the arts, are forced to seek funding from foundations and corporations, whose support in recent years has also been greatly reduced. 

For instance, according to reports from the Illinois Arts Alliance, the proposed 1992 budget for the Illinois Arts Council calls for a 10 percent cut in the state’s general revenue funds. Such cuts would be devastating as the arts in Illinois are already seriously underfunded; however the state’s financial problems are not unique. Ohio’s Art Council has also been reduced by 10 percent and is being threatened with an additional 50 percent. I can only speak of the regions in which I am most directly involved, but I know similar horrors exist elsewhere. Alternative arts publications must rely even more heavily on the revenues they receive from advertising, subscriptions, and sales. What gets compromised here, however, is the publication’s “alternativeness,” as it is forced to compete with its commercial counterparts for that from which it already stands apart. The irony of the situation is that the only way to be “alternative” is to be fed by the public trough and not by the dictates of our capitalist market system. 

Alternative Culture as “the Other”

1. The Negation of Mainstream Culture 


The term alternative suggests something of choice-an option, product, or, in this case, publication that one chooses over another. When one speaks of alternative culture, what often comes to mind. are the romanticized activities of bohemian culture, of the early days of modernism when a small group of artists and writers rallied. around political anarchy and sought to free art (and society) from tradition. What emerged in the period of approximately 1910-25 was the questioning of art’s definition, its function and forms, and a critique of art’s autonomy status in bourgeois society. According to Peter Bürger, “[t]he avant-garde turn[ed] against both…the distribution apparatus on which the work of art depends, and the status of art in bourgeois. society as defined by the concept of autonomy.”1 While many of today’s theorists question the existence of an avant-garde, it is at least the myth that surrounds the avant-garde that frames our definition of alternative culture. 

In today’s postmodern culture, the term alternative still carries some of this nostalgic resonance, but is defined more specifically in relationship to economics and to mainstream culture. Tied to profit and commodity culture, mainstream culture is often associated with economic prosperity. During the Reagan years, the art world saw record prices for such paintings as van Gogh’s Irises (which sold for a record. $53.9 million), increased activity at the auction houses, and a healthy market for contemporary artists such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Barbara Kruger. Business became the new collector and entrepreneur, capitalizing on culture while controlling the market and funding institutions. “Art-for-investment” was the decade’s motto. 

Alternative culture, on the other hand, remained on the fringes of the art market, and found refuge in the not-for-profit world, where experimental ideas could flourish without the threat of economic failure or with the possibility of immediate economic success. One saw a return to the ideas of conceptual- ism which, before they were co-opted by mainstream culture, resisted the notion of objecthood and commodification. How- ever, the experimental nature of alternative culture met with political intervention when censorship became an even higher priority on the agenda of the conservative right. Alternative culture became an easy target as fiscal support was taken from public money. Couched in the question of why the public should support art that was either blasphemous or obscene-the defi- nition of which was determined by a small elite alternative art was then held to the politics of the situation and not just the economics. Funding, already scarce in the alternative art world, was then tied to issues of an artist’s right to freedom of expression. 

Given artists may fade and even the market itself may rise or fall with the state of the economy. But the art-marketing system is secure. It is anchored in the center, and not on the margins of society. 2

The above statement appears myopic as both mainstream and alternative culture have felt the effects of our current economic recession, and a drastic waning in the prosperity of the previous decade. Yet it still remains the burden of alternative culture, that which does not exist in the center but on the margins, to infuse the world with new ideas and to speak for artists outside the commercial mainstream.

2. Alternative Culture and Regionalism: 

Issues and Examples 


Most often associated with the term alternative is that of regionalism, a methodology of sorts that situates the context of cultural ideas in the region from which they are born. Regionalism has always been considered the artworld’s “Other,” a counterpart to New York, that which is defined by what it is not. I usually give the publication New Art Examiner credit for coining the term. Regionalism at least gave the magazine its original impetus, as it was one of the first examples of a critical forum for art that existed outside New York, spotlighting art in Chicago (the city where it originated in 1973 and where its head editorial office still re- mains) and eventually most of the Midwest. The Examiner gave a voice to writers in art centers outside New York, and provided an outlet for critical ideas that weren’t being discussed elsewhere. 

The magazine pioneered the Mid-Atlantic region in 1980, and I was first introduced to the Examiner in 1983. It was still in its original tabloid format, resisting slick pictures and fancy graphics for the power of the printed word. The office sat to the side of the living room in the home of its publisher, Derek Guthrie; a telephone and an electric typewriter reflected the height of its technology. Besides writing reviews of local exhibitions, I worked for the magazine on an occasional basis, aiding their full-time staff of two and helping out where and when I could selling advertising, editing copy, and sometimes acting as managing editor for that office. I was there to see the Examiner give birth to the format it is known by today. Unveiled in October 1984, the issue appropriately touted the headline “Art and Money.” 

Washington, DC seemed an appropriate city to situate such a venture, as it is the country’s center of politics and the home of some of the world’s most prestigious museums. This was at least my initial attraction to the city and what spawned my interest in art criticism. The Examiner became an important voice for area artists, not only in the city itself, but eventually for artists in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and the Virginias. The magazine now has editorial offices in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the Washington office has just closed, another example of the financial fragility of alternative arts publications particularly in these difficult times. I moved to Chicago in late 1985. Today I still write for this publication and others, and am the Chicago editor of Dialogue and the Managing Editor of White Walls. These publications provide the framework in which I work and span the sense of alternative I addressed early on. 

What attracted me to Chicago was the city’s awareness of its own cultural history, a history that was just being called into question by the rumblings of a new kind of “ism.” Already in place was Chicago’s school of imagism, a quirky brand of figurative art that has its roots in surrealism. A true example of alternative culture, imagism combined outsider and folk art forms with the political commentary of New York pop art, creating a movement that gave the city its deserved cultural recognition in the mid-1960s. Chicago rested comfortably with its newfound position, until about two decades later when a new group of artists interested in conceptualism emerged. Spearheaded by such well-known figures as Jeanne Dunning, Tony Tasset, and Hirsch Perlman, these artists challenged the hierarchy of brightly-colored painting and assemblage sculpture that the city was best known for with their “cool” and detached objects filled with textual references. 

It was this rumbling that prompted me to organize about two years ago a panel discussion entitled “New Voices in Chicago Criticism.” It seemed apparent to me that not only had the nature of art making in Chicago changed, but so had the critical activity surrounding it. Critics were no longer simply PR agents, soliciting attention to a city’s art scene that might not be noticed otherwise. Nor were they of the same intellectual school of the generation of critics before them, who were simply interested in championing imagism and formalist aesthetics. Instead, a younger group of critics were using a variety of methodologies and interpretations—Marxism, philosophy, semiotics, and linguistics—to discuss the nature of art in Chicago within a larger social and cultural context. Not only does their writing appear in local outlets such as Dialogue and the Examiner, many have regular slots in the glossy commercial publications Art in America, Arts, and Artforum

While I am excited that Chicago receives coverage in these publications, I am also troubled by the fact that those Chicago artists receiving coverage do not exactly reflect the whole of the art community here, but rather reflect (for the majority) Chicago artists whose work echoes current art world trends, particularly the “blue-chip” minimalism of New York and Western Europe. This I know is true of other areas, where reviews not only showcase successful artists but also exhibitions of non-local artists who are given slots under these regional headings. A certain homogeneity emerges then, where regional and aesthetic autonomy collapses in favor of commercial sameness.3 It is here, within this gap between provincial and homogeneous aesthetics, that alternative art publications find their role. It is certainly the place where the Examiner has found its success, and the place where publications such as Dialogue have found their home. (I am, of course, citing examples of publications that cover art in the Chicago and Illinois region, and not the entirety of alternative arts publications. Art Papers certainly attests to the success and need of such a publication in the Southeast, as does Artpaper in Minnesota and the more recent Art issues in California. I recently discovered Art New England that speaks for artists in the Boston and Northeast region, and Artweek which reviews art from Seattle to Los Angeles.) 

As the corresponding editor, Chicago, for Dialogue, a not- for-profit art bimonthly based in Columbus, Ohio, I am constantly faced with this dilemma, with providing a balance between emerging and established artists and with providing coverage of artists whose work either reflects a regional aesthetic or transcends such categorization. I act as contact and figurehead for the Chicago region, although in the past year I have had an enormous response from other cities in Illinois, who are seeking coverage of art in their area. While the amount of coverage has grown somewhat, it is a difficult task to keep an eye over the entire state, not to mention find and foster writers in those areas who can not only write art criticism, but also speak to its ideas and issues. In covering the Chicago/Illinois region, I seek to strike a balance in the kinds of exhibitions reviewed. Each issue usually features one review of a not-for-profit space, one review from a commercial gallery, and something that escapes either one of these two categories such as a performance or video review, or a review of a museum or other educational institution. I attempt to maintain a balance between group and one-person exhibitions, between coverage of shows by women and minority artists, and finally, between artists who will probably receive coverage elsewhere and those who probably will not. This is not an attempt to wear my ideology on my sleeve, but rather an attempt to fill the gap that exists in coverage by most commercial or mainstream publications. 

Dialogue was founded in 1978 by photographer John Coplans and artist Don Harvey to create a dialogue between the various regions of the state of Ohio. Like the Examiner, Dialogue started out in a single city and eventually grew to include Kentucky, Indiana, and Chicago. According to Coplans, the founders felt that there was “plenty of material in Ohio outside the pure notion of ‘high art’ to bring to different audiences and to raise different issues in the institutions.”4 The greater dilemma, however, was how to interest audiences outside Ohio. According to Harvey, “Aside from some very real financial crises that happened along the way…the big crisis was just about the idea of what constituted regionalism. Because we’d been very careful…to point out all along the way that if you’re going to write about things that were going on in Ohio, there had to be some reason for people who were outside of Ohio to want to read about them.”5

This is, perhaps, the difficulty of all alternative arts publications and, at the same time, their success. What one often finds in such publications is occasional coverage of traveling exhibitions and reviews of more art historical artists; writing by well-known artists, critics, and historians on subjects or topics they are unable to publish elsewhere; as well as features and reviews about artists whose work might be deemed too controversial for mainstream publications. Alternative publications have always relied on good, animated writing, which is usually political in nature or charged with issues of art’s relationship to the larger world. Although limited in quantity, these publications often publish significant and sometimes controversial images of art, even at the risk of being censored by their own printers. For example, I know that the Examiner’s printer refused to publish a photograph by Joe Ziolkowski of two male nudes embracing, as well as Robert Mapplethorpe’s Honey and, more recently, an image by Gran Fury containing an erect penis. In the November 1990 issue of Artpaper, editors had to place black bands of tape on the penises, breasts, and vaginal areas in images that accompanied an article entitled “Liberating the Image of Safer Sex” before employees of the printing house would print the issue. Most often alternative publications are at the mercy of such local printers, who may or may not be sympathetic to the art community, and are often too pressed for time and money to go elsewhere. Likewise, alternative publications often don’t have the economic leverage to barter with the owners and power- houses that control the publishing industries. This is only one example of the constraints or context within which alternative arts publishing goes on. 

The issue of an alternative arts publication’s format is an important one and is usually determined by economics. Usually printed in black-and-white, an alternative publication has to stand apart from its commercial competitors and, at the same time, attract the attention of the same reader of a New York glossy but without the same kind of money. Both the Examiner and Dialogue evolved from a newspaper format to 8 1/2 x 11 semi-glossies. The latter returned to newsprint in September 1989, adopting a large format (11 x 14) similar to Art Papers. Alternative arts publications are always caught between a rock and a hard place concerning format. A slick cover and sexy packaging at least give the publication the “legitimacy” of looking like a real art publication. However, after production expenses there is no money left over to put anything of real substance inside the magazine, which ultimately defeats the purpose of why the publication exists in the first place. The most recent and perhaps the single most liberating player in the determination of a publication’s format has been the Macintosh computer. Not only can the Macintosh save a publication almost half its production costs, but it can also provide unlimited possibilities for creating interesting design without color and without fancy paper. (I was surprised to discover in a recent tour of the offices of Art In America that design and production were still done “by hand.”) 

One alternative publication I am involved with, White Walls, rejects all of these formats. Created in 1978 by Buzz Spector and by Reagan and Roberta Upshaw, the former an artist, the latter poets, the publication emerged as an alternative forum for artists in Chicago who were interested in presenting their own words about the art of their time. Challenging the written text of the critic, White Walls gave cultural authority back to the artist. Essentially virgin territory at that time, not only in Chicago but also in the New York art publishing world, the magazine embraced the early ideas of postmodernism that sought to challenge the voice of modernism’s master author. White Walls was, and still is, unique, particularly since it rejected the aesthetic norm of its own region in favor of artwork and projects by artists interested in language and art. Today the publication is still dedicated to its original mission, but has widened its scope to include more performance and video documentation. Publications such as Bomb, Thing, and Real Life serve similar audiences. Parkett is the slick European counterpart, but it still mainly produces projects by well-known international artists.

What Next? Alternative Arts Publications and Implications for the Future 

I have since graduated from the living room of Derek Guthrie to my own living room, and have a Macintosh as well as an electric typewriter. While the nature of alternative arts publishing has not changed radically since its emergence in the 1970s, the atmosphere sur- rounding it has changed. Many of the financial woes facing these publications are directly tied to our economic recession, but are even more closely linked to our current political climate. The conservatism of the past decade has severely hampered the growth of alternative publications and has made their survival more tenuous, as has diminished public support and government funding. Given this climate, many alternative publications are asked to evaluate their futures but, hopefully, without having to severely compromise their position. 

This sort of questioning spawned the recent meeting of the National Association of Artists Organizations on alternative arts publications and a meeting at the Center for Arts Criticism in Minneapolis. Although I was un- able to attend the NAAO meeting (limited resources), from what I understand it provided a forum for editors and publishers to air their concerns, problems, and, hopefully, solutions to many of the issues discussed here. The next step, however, has to be the dissemination of the information presented at the meeting and the creation of a network for such publications to share resources. In the age of the Macintosh, the fax, the telephone, and television, the creation of a technologically connected network is not outside our reach. Teleconferencing has been quite successful in the world of education, for example. Teachers, legislators, parents, researchers, and educators can collectively participate in significant meetings, conferences, etc. without even having to be in the same city and can keep the dialogue going after the conference through computer conferences on electronic bulletin boards. While such a system will take some planning, it may be a more active solution to the problems facing alternative arts publications that goes beyond the kind of touchy-feely hand holding which is so common in the arts. 

I was recently involved in this year’s Chicago International Art Expo, where I spoke to editors, publishers, writers, and volunteers of many alternative arts publications. I spoke to one representative from the Australia Council for the Arts, who publishes several art and cultural publications. He spoke of the need to feel connected to what was happening in other areas of the world; the phrase “sharing resources” resounded everywhere. Many of these publications were aware of the NAAO conference, but like myself were unable to attend either because of limited resources or simply because the publication could not afford to lose staff for even five days. 

At the Expo, both not-for-profit and commercial publica- tions were placed in the same (but, unfortunately, extremely out-of-the way) corridor. However, the politics of their place- ment deserves a note. The slick New York glossies were given visual prominence, while the alternative and even regional publications published in Chicago were placed in dark corners or behind massive poles. Upon entering the publication area one was immediately confronted with a nude poster of actress Susan Sarandon looming over the booth of Interview magazine. I was immediately humbled, despite the fact that I felt confident about the issue of White Walls we were advertising. Titled “Rants and Regrets” the issue featured projects by artists speaking out against such issues as abortion, television, and society’s labeling of sexual identity. Such an arrangement attests to the main- stream art world’s view of alternative culture, a position it may or may not ever transcend. 

The important point here is that the alternative arts publi- cations have come to a difficult and important crossroad. Although both alternative and commercial publications are being affected by our current economic slump (the folding of two international publications, Artscribe and Contemporanea, and Arts’ change in format two years ago will attest to this), alternative arts publications are being even further pressured by conservative politics. Perhaps, this period of questioning and challenges is actually a blessing in disguise, as it causes alternative arts publications to re-examine what it means to be alternative and to redefine just what our role is in the larger cultural arena. Technology is just one way to mobilize this questioning and an important tool in helping alternative arts publications share in the solution.

Susan Snodgrass is a writer and critic, and was the Chicago editor of Dialogue, and managing editor of White Walls


1 Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984), p. 22
2 Douglas Davis, “The Billion Dollar Picture?” Art in America, July 1988, p.22
3 Susan Snodgrass, “The Tale of Two Art Fairs: Madrid’s ARCO & Chicago’s Art EXPO,” Dialogue, May/June 1990, p. 17.
4 “A Conversation with John Coplans and Don Harvey: Toward a New Decade,” Dialogue, September/October 1988, p. 12.
5 Ibid, p.16