The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing
It’s a spring-like Friday night in February in San Francisco, and through the windows of the sleek new offices of Chronicle Books you can see a stylish crowd of young hipsters working furiously around a long line of tables. There’s a keg in the corner and a row of pizzas along a back wall. Someone has just put the Beach Boys record Surfin’ USA on a borrowed turntable.

Boxes stacked chest high are getting stamped, stuffed, and taped shut in what can only be described as a festive assembly line. The crowd works fast, their cups of beer sitting practically untouched beside them. At the end of the line, volunteers heave cardboard shipping crates onto their shoulders and load them into a rented moving truck parked outside.

Welcome to The Thing, a fine-art quarterly subscription service—kind of like a fruit-of-the-month club for art lovers—that’s the brainchild of San Francisco artists Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan. For an annual membership fee of $120 (plus shipping), subscribers get four pieces of fine art delivered right to their front door. After only six months in business, the service has 1,000 subscribers worldwide, is already operating in the black, and boasts a roster of big-name artists.

Herschend, 40, and Rogan, 32, who met as graduate interdisciplinary art students in UC Berkeley’s MFA program, conceived of The Thing as a periodical publication, and refer to themselves as editors. Miranda July, Anne Walsh, and Kota Ezawa created the first three works, and Trisha Donnelly, Lucy Pullen, and Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are signed on to produce future issues. The only requirement is that each piece be a utilitarian, everyday object that somehow incorporates words or text. Otherwise, anything goes.

Issue 1, designed by July, was a standard pull-down window shade with a choice of two slogans printed. One read, “If this shade is down, I’m begging your forgiveness on bended knee,” and the other, “If this shade is down, I’m not who you think I am.” Issue 2, by Walsh, has been delayed and is still in production (issues are kept secret until they’re shipped).

But issue 3 has just been completed, wrapped, and sent to subscribers, who will soon be finding among their bills andjunk mail a plain brown box rubber-stamped with Cyrillic letters.Inside is a photocopied letter in blocky Mandarin Chinese typeface,with a single line of English that reads:“” And underneath the letter, wrapped in asimple sheet of brown tissue paper, sits a white baseball cap withblack Arabic script embroidered across the front.

“I was really intrigued by the assignment from Jonn and Will,” said the German-born Ezawa, who designed the multilingual issue. “I listened to the Rolling Stones before I knew what ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ meant, just for the quality of the sound. It’s the same experience when you look at Chinese text and Arabic script. Art has a surface that can be looked at by itself without interpretation.”

The Thing began with initial support from an artist residency at San Francisco’s Southern Exposure, a 33-year-old arts exhibition and education nonprofit that is an institution in the city’s contemporary art scene. When the artist-run organization was forced to temporarily relocate to a small storefront on a busy commercial street, the staff had to get creative about how to continue their mission without a gallery space.

But the project, which has no official relationship with Southern Exposure, has gone far beyond the expectations of everyone involved. Institutional subscribers include the SF MOMA, the San Francisco Art Institute, Toronto’s Art Metropole, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and the Northwest Film Center. And The Thing has been invited to hold their wrapping party for issue 6 during the 2008 Editions/Artists Book Fair in New York.

Artists earn a percentage of the overall subscription rate, but the goal of The Thing isn’t necessarily about turning passion into livelihood. Herschend and Rogan are primarily committed to making art as accessible and democratic as possible.

“There’s a lot of integrity in the spirit of this project,” said Susan O’Malley, assistant curator at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. O’Malley is a Thing subscriber and one of the volunteers busily stuffing hats into boxes and taping them shut. “It’s not expensive, and it allows people to engage with the art in a different way than they would in museums or galleries.”

Subscription costs are kept low by involving artists, friends, and subscribers in events like the wrapping party at Chronicle Books.

“Anyone that we’ve talked to who’s in publishing is like,‘What? You’re nuts!’” said Rogan. “It’s going to be a different sizeevery time, you don’t know how much it’s going to weigh, you don’t knowhow much it’s going to cost to produce? That’s ridiculous.”

"But it's supporting itself," says Herschend. "That's the bottom line. It's still a mystery to us."