In summer 1991, ART PAPERS published a special issue on the Alternative Arts Press.

In summer 1991, ART PAPERS published a special issue on the Alternative Arts Press.

One of the many benefits of working for an organization with such a deep and rich archive is that any subject we could wish to engage with probably has some precedent of engagement within the archive. We are able, within the 47 volumes of ART PAPERS, to find historical precedent for virtually any concern that has occupied arts discourse. This resource serves as a tonic to our current tendencies toward cultural amnesia, but it can also underscore how little has changed in half a century.

In summer 1991, ART PAPERS published a special issue on the Alternative Arts Press. In anticipation of Art Papers’ 15th anniversary, editor Glenn Harper observed, at the time, that “very little history or analysis [had] been written about the alternative arts press as a whole.”

As we embark—in the lead-up to our 50th anniversary—on a multiplatform series of inquiries into the current state of art writing, publishing, and visual art nonprofits, we have returned to ART PAPERS’ past investigations. What we found there was stirring, if perhaps not surprising. Many of the structural challenges we face in art publishing today can be traced back to problems observed in this 1991 survey of the field. We stand upon the distant horizon that many of these texts pointed toward, and we are living realities that were presciently named as the likely outcome of conditions described, and decried, in this special issue.

In his editor’s letter for the issue, Harper wrote, “The alternative art magazines are at a point of crisis in 1991 due to problems of funding, distribution, the recession and resultant loss of advertising revenue, and legal assaults like a recent Supreme Court decision, which seems to say that the government may restrict the speech of anyone who receives government funding.” As ART PAPERS’ current editor, I could replace “the recession” with “the pandemic” and pass this sentence off as freshly penned in 2024. Of course, challenges to the content a magazine can publish without risking loss of funding persist, albeit in new incarnations and across new structures of oversight. But their roots can be traced back to the court decision that Glenn references—Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991)—a ruling often evoked during conversations about how the culture war of the late 20th century was, in fact, lost.

And so, here we stand, in the “post”-Covid moment that I, personally, believe will come to mark the true start of the 21st century, with plans to sunset Art Papers in its 50th year. We hope that by spotlighting the tenacity of structural challenges facing art publications, and by revisiting these writers’ and editors’ reports from the field in 1991, we can better understand what is needed for free, independent, challenging, and thoughtful cultural production to persist in the new century. We hope that readers do not feel discouraged by the persistence of the field’s infirmity but, instead, feel bolstered by the wealth of diagnostics and proposed treatments for the ailments we still struggle with to this day.

             – Sarah Higgins