"It's a Real Kick in the Gut": Readers and Writers on the Demise of Artnet Magazine

"It's a Real Kick in the Gut": Readers and Writers on the Demise of Artnet Magazine
Artnet Magazine

The art world lost a valued voice yesterday when Artnet announced it was shutting down its magazine after 16 years on the Web. Among the first online-only art publications, Artnet became known for its wry tone, its crisp art-market commentary, and its opinionated writers. Its founding editor, Walter Robinson, gave many now-familiar figures their first jobs. 

News of the magazine's demise comes at a moment of turbulent uncertainty for the company. Yesterday, Artnet also announced that CEO Hans Neuendorf would step down from his post at the Web site he founded — which includes an art market database, gallery listings, and online auctions — and transfer control to his son, Jacob Pabst. But two Russian shareholders are jockeying to wrest control of the company. Meanwhile, in a further effort to downsize, Artnet reported it would shut down its Paris office.

While the future of Artnet remains uncertain for now, the impact of the loss of its well-known publication from the already small circle of art publications has reverberated throughout the art world. ARTINFO has gathered the reactions of a variety of art writers and professionals — some who have written for the magazine, others who were simply devoted readers. Their words about what Artnet Magazine meant to them are digested below. (Stay tuned for more reactions to come.)

Rachel Corbett, news editor at Artnet (in an email to ARTINFO):

There's much to miss about Artnet Magazine, where Walter Robinson hired me just over a year ago with an email that read, "let's do it -- I mean, do you want to come work here?" It was my first taste of Walter's famously succinct, brass-tacks style, and it's among the things I'll miss the most -- particularly the daily emails filled with single-sentence nuggets of wit or wisdom (or just gossip). Except those few times when, after turning in a story, he'd click back with his favorite one-word reply: "ugh."

Nicole Davis, former associate editor at Artnet and producer of Artnet TV (in an email to ARTINFO):

When I started working at Artnet I knew nothing. I was fresh out of college and weighted down with a bunch of theory, but short on lessons from the school of life. Walter was the boss man - my first ever boss and my first real job. I would hand in my articles in the afternoon and he’d weave his Rumpelstiltskin magic into them so they were interesting to read by the next morning. I learned so much from that man. What I loved most about Walter and what became the essence of Artnet Magazine was his lack of pretension. Artnet Magazine had no agenda, no ego, and was kind to both artists and its contributors. They gave people a chance. You didn’t have to be part of some inner circle to be recognized as someone who is worthy of being noticed - as someone who has potential - as simply being human. My experience at Artnet inspired me to launch Red Flag Magazine, a socially conscious website, because that’s what working at Artnet taught me to be.

David Ebony, managing editor of Art in America and former Artnet columnist (in an email to ARTINFO):

Predating Artnet, and years before Art in America’s website was launched, I was invited to write a column for an early online art magazine, now defunct, called Art Icons.  I mentioned the idea to Walter Robinson, my Art in America colleague at the time, who suggested I pick 10 New York art shows a week to comment on briefly, with each entry accompanied by a representative image. Thus, “David Ebony’s Top 10” was born. Robinson was supportive of the site and my work,  so after Art Icons went under and he had launched Artnet magazine, he invited me to bring the column there. The project got more and more exciting as the technology evolved to make it faster to download complex, illustrated pages. 

Some might remember how in the early days the Internet wasn’t conducive to art coverage since it took forever to download any article with images. Robinson quickly boosted the profile of Artnet, and it was soon the source of considerable art-world buzz. He also nurtured a kind of online writers’ colony. From 1996-2001, I published on Artnet hundreds of “Top 10” exhibition reviews, plus a number of features and other stories. Robinson had a light touch as an editor, at least with my writing, and a lighthearted approach to the material, which was inspiring to me and made the effort a whole lot of fun. It was consistently rewarding, too — sometimes in unexpected ways. I still get responses to those Top 10 pieces since they appear in the Artnet archives. I often asked Robinson why Artnet didn’t periodically issue a hardcopy version of the magazine. Now someone needs to do this as a way to the mark the magazine’s unique contribution to the scene.

Frederick Janka, associate director of SculptureCenter (in an email to ARTINFO):

My first reaction was just utter shock, like are you for real!? Artnet was an institution with an unmatched depth and breadth of artworld coverage. I had come to value not only the editorial hand, but also their awesome twitter feed. The art world greatly needs more critical platforms and voices not less.

Laura K. Jones, Artnet's U.K. correspondent (in an email to ARTINFO):

The very encouraging and unique editor Walter Robinson was always accommodating of my style, prone as it is to tangenital rants, for example. He once verbally patted me on the back by describing me as gnomic, but then in the same breath called me "a bit emo." Swings and roundabouts.

Reverend Jen Miller, former Artnet columnist (in an email to ARTINFO):

I had no idea they were folding! That is a tragedy. Well, all I can say about them is that Walter was willing to take a chance and give me a column when no one else was. I think because they had a sense of humor, something that is often lacking in both the literary and the art scene. I'd been working at nerve as a sex columnist for 2 years beforehand and when I lost that job, I looked for writing work that didn't involve taking my clothes off. I'd met Walter Robinson while working at various art galleries throughout the years and remembered that he'd bought a drawing of mine once. (I also spent a lot of time working in galleries trolling Artnet.) I asked him if he'd be interested in a column that came from the perspective of an artist, not a critic and he went for it. Really sad about this because they gave me a great opportunity to write, which is the one thing I wanna do when I wake up in the morning. I'm currently working on a book based around some of the crazier columns I wrote for them. They will be missed.

Lindsay Pollock, editor-in-chief of Art in America (in an email to ARTINFO):

Artnet magazine was a pioneer of on-line arts coverage and I am sorry to see it go. Beyond all that website contributed to the art world conversation, Walter Robinson played a key role supporting and cultivating many new writers. He gave me one of my earliest assignments and for that I’m personally grateful.

William Powhida, artist and former Artnet contributor (in an email to ARTINFO):

While I've had a colorful relationship with Artnet over the years hearing the news of the sudden, unceremonious closure of the online magazine (never call it a blog) was a little like hearing that a difficult uncle had passed away without warning. In this case, two cranky uncles who were not afraid to offer an opinion on anything. Despite receiving a death threat from Walter and a resoundingly negative review from Charlie (you got "Finched!") I enjoyed being able to disagree with their distinctive voices. Walter also gave me one of my first opportunities to publish criticism and provided a platform for many other critics including Ben Davis.

It's a bitter irony that a magazine so concerned with the price of art would be shuttered by failing to meet a bottom line. Without the human voices of critics, Artnet will finally realize its namesake, a website to figure out how much you can net on art. Fuck that. I'm sure Walter and Charlie will land somewhere, but, well, watch out below. I'm sure I'll see them on the low roads.

Magda Sawon, co-founder and co-director of Postmasters (in an email to ARTINFO):

Damn. It is terribly hard to remove this well worn bookmark from my browser. I must have read 99 percent of all content of the magazine over the 16 years. (I'm old, you see) Sadly, we have arrived at a moment when almost every shred of so called cultural production is monetized,  hijacked by investors and business models. Hats off  to Artnet Magazine — you will be missed AND you will be remembered. Walter has brought in the the substance and the idiosyncrasy,  a mix of brilliant, informative, and downright crazy stuff.  Personally, I am grateful that he had the nerve to give Steve Mumford "press accreditation" to enter Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan to document the wars. He published  "Baghdad Journal" entries — the illustrated dispatches from the front; raw, powerful narrative that was roundly, and — shall I say — rather simplistically  rejected by the artworld's  anti-war party line. Here is to hope that all good people that delivered this magazine — Walter, Emily, Rachel — will resurface soon. I am waiting for my new bookmark.

Phyllis Tuchman, Artnet contributor (in an email to ARTINFO):

I loved writing for Walter Robinson’s artnet. There were no restrictions. No word count, no content issues, no deadlines. There was minimal editing, too. Sometimes I felt like a tightrope walker without a net. It was glorious. I don’t know any other art magazine that would have given me so much free rein to delve into a variety of Impressionist topics. I will always be grateful for that opportunity. Walter was also great about images. He’d post any painting or sculpture you wanted to use in the name of public domain access. And, several on-site photographs I took — Hans Christian Andersen by Thorvaldsen, a sundial by Stirling Calder, a few others — have popped up on other websites because you could treat subjects ignored by mainstream outlets. I’m delighted at least one of my features became a classic: the guide to Sol LeWitt murals in NYC. Thank you, Walter, it was swell.

Linda Yablonsky, journalist (in an email to ARTINFO):

When Artnet first came online, I went to the site first thing every morning. It delivered hard information in a breezy, slightly cynical yet impassioned way and up-to-the-minute reviews. It had the ever-valuable database of auction sales, an invaluable research tool. What's more it had a horoscope. Most of all it had Walter Robinson, who has been on the scene since the 70s as both writer and artist. His weekly roundup reviews told it like it was in local galleries, admiring the admirable and hooting at the rest without mincing words.  Walter has been a supportive friend for a long time, but we never worked together till just last year. It was as great a pleasure to write reviews for him as it was to read him. He gave me great freedom — and a great title for my column, Close Encounters — and pushed me to take a harder look at art, and its institutions and fairs. Altogether, he gave Artnet an inimitable personality — his — that no other online art magazine could touch. It's been such a constant in my life that I can't quite believe it's gone. That it's a real kick in the gut, and it hurts — all of us.

Charlie Finch, Artnet columnist (from his final column):

Nothing lasts forever, but it is a shame that, at the point at which Artnet Magazine's content is more comprehensive and lucid than ever, that it will disappear. I've worked with Walter Robinson for 15 years. Everything you read about him is true, he's a gentleman, the art world loves him, he's a brilliant painter, he's the best editor of his generation, and he will land on his feet.

Joy Garnett, artist and Artnet contributor (from her blog):

It was Walter who showed me how to write with seeming ease about art, how to be accessible without dumbing-down, how to be lively without being trashy (no, really), and how to be serious without being deadly dull.

Glenn O’Brien, journalist (on Twitter):

Artnet’s dismissal of their magazine kind of makes it official. It’s all about the money now. What if the WSJ was only numbers?

Paddy Johnson, critic (from her blog post on Art Fag City):

According to a press release sent out earlier today, Artnet’s archives will be preserved. That’s important, because the magazine published a lot of clear, direct writing over the years. They were an early model for online journalism and blogging and managed large personalities with mixed success. Charlie Finch, Thomas Hoving, and Tony Fitzpatrick continually made waves in the blogosphere, for better and for worse.

Walter Robinson, Artnet editor (from an email to the Observer):

One thing I could add is that Hans Neuendorf gave me a great opportunity 16 years ago when he hired me to help launch the magazine. He pretty much gave me a free hand to develop our special vision of art writing — smart, funny and informative texts on art that had a grounding in social reality, i.e. including pictures of people, and reports on prices, this last something Hans was especially keen on. I always liked to say that you could read an art review in the NYTimes or Art in America — where I worked for 20 years before Artnet — and not even know the damn things were for sale. We liked to mix all that up in Artnet Magazine — art criticism without too much blah blah blah.

Jerry Saltz, critic (from his Vulture post):

My heart skipped a beat when I heard the news. Everything I've written since 1998 has been republished on Artnet — often with pithier titles (supplied by Robinson), always with much better and way more pictures (many taken by Robinson). For years, I wasn't paid at all by Artnet. Even though I was as almost-broke then as I almost am now, it felt fine. Once I got paid, it topped out in the low three figures. I loved every second of it.

Ed Winkleman, founder of Winkleman Gallery (from his blog):

Artnet has been, among the online art publications, the best at reflecting what the New York scene feels like from the inside looking out....My morning surfing of the arts publications won't be quite the same now.