What was the contribution of The New Art Examiner to art criticism in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s? What was its significance in the broader spectrum of art writing or art criticism? And why was it, as Jane Allen wrote, “light years ahead of other art publications?”
Two years ago The Essential New Art Examiner was published by NIU press, an anthology of NAE articles beginning in Summer 1974 until May 1996. In February 2012 Northern Illinois University hosted a symposium on The New Art Examiner along with an exhibition organized by Barbara Jaffee, associate professor the Art History Division addressing the NAE’s contributions to art criticism.
What surfaced during the exhibition and subsequent symposium at NIU was the significance of The NAE as a beacon of independent thought and dialogue for Chicago and beyond. The event was well attended while congenial exchanges took place between artists, writers, old critics and young students. What was not addressed was the controversy, rejection, opposition and the hard road traveled while publishing, the determining factors of political correctness that have shaped and grow more pernicious as American cultural and therefore, political life empties out.
The seeds of The New Art Examiner were planted on Blackstone Avenue in the Hyde Park apartment where Jane Addams Allen and a group of figurative artists put together the first issue on a mimeograph machine. Chicago New Art Association was a local chapter of the New Art Association, a splinter group formed by the late Edward Fry, an art Historian and at that time recently deposed curator of the Guggenheim Museum for refusing to dismantle an exhibition of Hans Haacke which had embarrassed the trustees. The New Art Association which later devolved into the Women’s Caucus and the Black Caucus for Art.
How interesting to note in the February 1972 page one describes a resolution up for adoption at the recent College Art Association Convention; the resolution for the reaffirmation of the CAA policy of recognizing the MFA as a terminal degree. “Institutions are inducing students to register for programs in order to extend the department, yet, when selecting faculty, they respect art degrees less and less and instead search desperately in the Ph.D. market.”
After a year the Chicago New Art Association gained its 501c3 non-profit status as the New Art Association and began submitting grant applications to the Illinois Art Council as the art writing and coverage was published and written by pioneer unpaid staff, including Jane Allen, Derek Guthrie, Robyn Mann, Devonna Pieszak, Betty McCasland, Bill Coons, Bonnie McCleod, John Himmelfarb, Carole Stodder and Annalee Hultgren.
The first issue came out in October with the cover drawing taken from the U.S. Marines landing at Iowa Jima, “Without Fear or Favor.” This was a signal of defiance, as Jane Addams Allen drew upon her family tradition, well acquainted with Chicago in order to establish a professional career, it was necessary to be self- published thereby avoiding the under-the-table power enforcement that is the norm of the city. Edward Fry’s excellent prose fitted the situation in Chicago as a statement of purpose.
Its purpose, printed in every issue next to the editorial was,
…to examine the definition and transmission of culture in our society; the decision-making processes within museums and schools and the agencies of patronage which determine the manner in which culture shall be transmitted; the value systems which presently influence the making of art as well as its study in exhibitions and books; and, in particular, the interaction of these factors with the visual art milieu.
In Chicago this was not an easy task. The struggle to gather museum support, recognition by the local press and difficulties in changing attitudes within the confines of the art marketing system were difficult hurdles. And the NAE committed a cardinal sin in Chicago by exposing corruption and conflicts of interest within major cultural institutions in or near to the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary and recognizing links of practice and influence which together defined Chicago Art and in so doing stamped out all that was different.
In the 60’s and early 70’s, the Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune included arts coverage in the Arts & Fun sections. Relegating visual art copy to the Arts & Fun section of the Tribune sent a message to its readers that Art was spelled with a small a. And in the city of Big Shoulders, once Hog Butcher to the world, football and sports held center stage.
This void was filled by The New Art Examiner; unique in offering a platform for artists and writers to exchange opinion and develop a critical framework to discuss and examine ideas. And the NAE was open to everyone who took the responsibility of writing words about Art. The NAE was the first of its kind, an Art publication devoted to Midwest artists with articles, reviews and letters written by subscribers, artists and writers. In the midst of the Art publication explosion made possible by the development of the National Endowment for the Arts during the 70’s, the NAE gave artists and writers an opportunity to publish to a national and eventually an international audience.
Founding editor, Jane Addams Allen, the great-grand niece of Jane Addams who founded Hull House in Chicago and publisher Derek Guthrie spearheaded the growth and development of the NAE. Allen believed like Jane Addams who was a friend of John Dewey, that creativity was for everyone. Jane graduated from the University of Chicago influenced by Joshua Taylor, the Art Historian, took an MFA from SAIC, attended the Ecole de la Chamiere in Paris, and began studying for her PHD at the University of Chicago.
Before moving to the United States Guthrie enjoyed recognition in the UK with three sell-out exhibitions in Portal Gallery in London and also a one person show in Arnolfini gallery in Bristol with informal representation through Marlborough Gallery. Guthrie moved to the U.S. in 1969 after completing a Commonwealth Scholarship to India. In Chicago he taught painting at Northwestern University in Chicago and Evanston. Allen and Guthrie met while teaching art courses at Chicago State University in the deep Southside of Chicago.
Derek Guthrie who worked tirelessly as publisher for over 20 years was the idea person, he worked to expand the NAE beyond the borders of Chicago into the Midwest and later both coasts of the U.S. as well as the UK.
Each issue of the Examiner contained at least five feature articles on topics of major interest, approximately 40 reviews of exhibitions, (the price range of Art in galleries was listed at the bottom of each review), much to the chagrin of many galleries, coverage of metropolitan and regional areas in the Midwest and East Coast and informative and amusing Art world newsbriefs.
On the back page of early issues artist Larry Kowalski designed Arthur Truebrush, a parody of Superman who pledged to uphold the cause of aesthetic integrity. His adventures included meeting and confronting greedy landlords and fighting for the rights of the artist and effecting the dreams of Art Students.
How was the Examiner able to survive for so many years on such a tight budget? First of all, Allen & Guthrie made it a standing policy that everyone on staff was to be paid the same rate. Yearly budgets were prepared with an eye to development, expansion and balance. Several of the staff, Michael Bonesteel, Ann Morgan and myself shared the same apartment at different times with Jane and Derek which also cut down on costs and provided an opportunity to grow as writers and artists as we sat down for meals and engaged in extended discussion.
The NAE was also a key factor, State Arts Councils funded a portion of the NAE, the budget was sectioned out to be approximately 1/3 income from advertising, 1/3 from subscription and 1/3 from grants all allowing a free flow and not limiting the funding source for the NAE to one or two areas. One important fact in the NAE’s early survival was the renewal rate was consistently high.
To gain financial independence and to expand profile, the NAE sponsored the annual Art awards initially held in the spacious, members room of the Art Institute and which was later telecast on channel 13. Richard Hunt, Chicago sculptor, created a bronze sculpture “Emmy” with a semi-circular base so the icon could be pointed in different directions indicating the brevity of fame. This event provided great enthusiasm and camaraderie within the Chicago artworld as artists competed and helped expand audience. The event was given a destructive review by Alan Artner, who replaced Allen and Guthrie as Art critics for the Chicago Tribune. Artner referred to Allen and Guthrie as “Ten Penny Messiahs” and the “Ossie and Harriet of the art world.”
Public lectures from artworld luminaries as Susan Sontag, Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes, the annual Art world pool tournament where artists played to win $100 at Benzinger’s pool hall on Chicago’s Northside where collectors, critics, gallery owners met on the green baize provided education, funds and exposure for the NAE. The annual Valentine’s benefit held in Washington, D.C. which highlighted a silent auction of artist made valentines, along with food and music became a much loved and dynamic social event which helped D.C. and supported increasing costs of expansion and the change from newsprint into a magazine format. Artists and writers began the slow, steady climb to independent international publishing, a phenomena that shook the very foundations of the New York Art establishment and lasted almost three decades. The timing was perfect.
Jane Allen did the lion’s share for at least five years of editing, she wrote major articles and revised submitted pieces for many years until the newspaper grew to 6 or 8 pages and beyond when the NAE could afford to hire, actually it was more like volunteer work, for the Herculean task. Ann Morgan, an Art Historian traveled from the University of Illinois in Urbana to help with editing and writing. Allen never cut or revised reviews without meeting with the writers’ approval, Jane’s style was to meet with writers and rewrite copy until a crisp, clear and poetic expression was found.
In keeping with the NAE’s mission, museum accountability was researched and written by Tom Mullaney in the Harding Museum Scandal and Files on Parade by Nicols Fox Coleman in D.C., with great expertise unraveled the political realities around the National Endowment for the Arts. Fraser Baron took up the thread which kept readers informed about the workings of government in Federal funding, NEA and the NEH, accountability and tax shelters for artists and collectors.
In the early days of the NAE Jane and Derek drove to the provinces in Illinois and Indiana; Peoria, Rockford, Bloomington, Columbus, DeKalb to see what was going on in areas outside of Chicago. If there was interest and committed editors willing to cover their territory, each office would write its own grants in consultation with Jane and later with editors Alice Thorsen, Allison Gamble and Michael Bonesteel. Art writing soon became a reality in regional communities.
While Minimalism was in style during the 60’s, Figuration and New Abstraction, Neo-Geo, Pattern Painting along with Installation and Performance Art took the lead in the 70’s and 80’s. The NAE responded to these art forms through letters, reviews, in-depth articles and Speakeasy, a column devoted to artworld luminaries and not so recognized where they could share their views. I am now quite sure Speakeasys would be of great historical interest!
In an editorial published in 1985 Chicago editor Alice Thorson, now Art critic for the Kansas City Star, succinctly sums up what the editors and writers, who from start to finish tried to do,
We continue to work for the day when an intellectual disagreement or a difference in opinion is not followed by the inevitable political repercussions which have stunted this city’s [Chicago] artistic and intellectual growth for the past decade and more.
Repercussions for voicing disagreement did abound for many years. The editorial position of the NAE was informed discussion and even uninformed discussion was essential for a cultured society. The Museum of Contemporary Art was not an outlet for the NAE in its bookstore, a few Chicago galleries refused to support the NAE by not advertising, and Allen and Guthrie were often excluded from Chicago artworld events. In Washington, D.C. this did not happen as Jane Allen was honored by Carter Brown of the National Gallery of Art and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Art criticism. Washington, D.C. knew how to dance better than Chicago.
It was a policy that all letters to the editor were published. The philosophy of the NAE as Howard Risatti, art historian and NAE editor from Richmond, Virginia put it in the March 1994- 20 year Anniversary issue was:
Go quickly to the heart of the story, tell it as truthfully as possible without worrying about whose toes you’re stepping on, be accurate and clear in your writing, avoiding above all, art-world jargon!
How was each issue planned? Lunches, coffees, drinks, meetings in the office and outside the office provided space for discussion and strategy. The first official NAE office was on Huron, the second was at 230 E. Ohio, located in an architectural landmark building, exactly opposite of the Museum of Contemporary Art and next to Harry & Cindy Weese’s architectural firm which later helped in sustaining the new office on Hubbard Street. So convenient for the NAE fans who worked at the MCA to steal away and give Derek a heads’s up on the latest museum gossip and exhibition schedules.
Jane would be glued to her desk sitting in the editor’s chair, a large brown, worn, interestingly shaped leather chair with wheels. Derek would be out scouting for the latest Art world scandal, stories and gossip around the corner at the Greek restaurant where ouzo was served to the patrons who waited outside in freezing weather. Or lengthy meetings were held at the Cambridge House, the staff and owners allowed NAE staff to hold lengthy meetings with one cup of coffee. Refills of course.
The NAE without question kept advertising and editorial separate. Selling advertising was not easy, it could be difficult, especially trying to collect payment from a few dealers but it was a small price to pay to be in that environment amongst such intelligent, principled, creative people. I had to make at least 25 phone calls a day. When the NAE was 24 pages, the ratio was 5 pages of advertising to 24 pages of copy. The rates were very low. Jane Skytta was the first designer, she had an excellent eye for composition and she liked to work the night shift before publication.
When I sold advertising some Chicago galleries would ask me to review a show or say something like, “tell the editor to send a reviewer here.” Fortunately I had to say, “I am not involved in the decision making process of what shows are to be reviewed and it has nothing to do with whether you place an ad or not.” When I went to New York in the late 70’s to early 80’s, and made cold calls, I would be laughed out of some galleries as they knew the NAE didn’t succumb to commercial pressures.
The ad and design office was adjacent to the editorial office. Separate but equal, salaries were based on the same wage scale, we had health insurance, benefits like sick pay and holidays and Jane and Derek worked steadily to build an increase each year with the cost of living. As the budget increased, so did the salaries. Once in awhile we left without paychecks. We always paid our bills, especially the printer. There was no debt in the years 1973-1986. From 86 to 2002 when the Examiner printed its last issue, there was essentially a debt over 6 figures.
After about 8 years of publishing in Chicago, it became apparent that the NAE had saturated the art market and it was time to expand, instead of moving to New York, Guthrie and Allen planned to open an office in Washington, D.C. to get a ringside seat on the National Endowment which was prophetic as the culture wars broke out and in so doing reshaped patronage and the very nature of American Contemporary Art. Incidentally the NAE provided extensive coverage not available in The Essential New Art Examiner as NIU press insisted that all content be Chicago based.
In the October 1980 edition Jane Allen wrote,
“The New Art Examiner’s mission for the eighties will be to cover the development of this national/regional scene in all its aspects, good and bad, to build a critical network capable of giving it definition; and to report on the policies and activities of the government patronage agencies which have played a major role in fostering emerging regional scenes. We hope that you, our readers, will keep on giving us feedback, both favorable and unfavorable in the form of letters and suggestions for stories.”
The Chicago artworld has changed dramatically from 1970 to what it is now. Many of these changes cannot be addressed in this article. There was first a growing consensus that Chicago artists had something valuable to say as did the entire MW even without New York’s stamp of approval. Writers from New York and the West Coast came to Chicago, Suzy Gablik, Leon Golub, Judd Tully, Carol Squiers to name a few, and then to D.C. when an office opened at 2718 Ontario Rd. NW in the not yet gentrified Adams Morgan area of D.C. The NAE grew because of a number of dedicated intelligent, creative individuals who believed they could make a difference in how Art was perceived inside and outside the provinces and they succeeded.
The last issue of The New Art Examiner, a visual arts publication originally based in Chicago was printed in June 2002, 29 years standing. Many speculations and stories abound as to its demise. Rumor has it that an influx of a large six figure sum of money from board member Lou Manilow who figures as a primary patron of Chicago Art & Culture had something to do with it. The change in format and content led to the NAE diverging from its initial philosophy and mission and readership soon declined. The magazine I found on the newsstand in New York looked like Art Forum in its slickness with cover pages designed for shock value and insider jargon, it cost was a whopping $8 in the U.S and $11 in Canada. A far cry from the modest, initial .50 cost of the first few issues.
For the first 10 years the NAE ran essentially on its own steam, and once Guthrie had a dream to sell shares in the NAE in an effort to be worker-owned. Once the founders were removed to the patronising title of honorary editor and publisher; they were not allowed to contribute article the NAE took on another purpose.
Jane Addams Allen died in 2002 after several operations, remissions and eventual death from cancer. After Jane Allen’s death in 2002 Janet Koplos wrote a eulogy to Jane in Art in America which described her life and writing career beautifully, the article however, neglected to reveal how much resistance Allen had experienced. Allen’s great intelligence was recognized but the courage she possessed was not shared in the Obituary.
This essay is based on memory of many years association with the NAE and is a tribute that needs filling out and researched with scholarship by Art Historians. It is and will be an untold story that Chicago does not want to her. It will also answer the important question asked by James Elkins, “Whatever Happened to Art Criticism”.
My experience with the NAE began while I was a student at Northwestern University, taking an evening painting class with Derek Guthrie. After critiquing our paintings he would talk about the plans for the beginning issue of the NAE. And when Guthrie shared the dream and the plans his students missed the lively writing that the Chicago Tribune published when Guthrie and Allen were in place, I raised my hand and did whatever needed to be done; labeling subscriptions, scouting for outlets in the Chicagoland area, answering phones, cleaning, moving into a new office, organizing papers, hauling the bulk mail across the street to the Post Office where Walter the friendly postal employee would ever so slowly, fill out the necessary forms and after we sorted all the subs by zip code, the NAE was on its way.
After graduating from SIU I returned to Chicago and wandered into Phyllis Kind Gallery on Ontario Street where the Imagists were having an exhibition. Later while working for the NAE I learned about this tradition of funky, imagist art that was a mark of Chicago Art; a kind of style that enjoyed a monopoly on what was considered “Chicago style” painting.
Today 40 years after the first issue of the NAE, Art criticism is in a state of crisis, can it be revived, re-examined and renewed? The Examiner moved through the trenches of artworld politics with the dedication of literally thousands of committed, talented individuals and provided a forum for dialogue. There will never be enough time to thank everyone involved while seeds are being planted for a New Art Examiner now. I hear that Cornwall, England, Guthrie’s place of residence, a beautiful region and historical home to artists will support green shoots of a revised NAE.
In conclusion, I would like to commend Kathryn Born who approached NIU Press to publish the anthology, The Essential New Art Examiner, which reminds that history is not obsolete.
About Annie Markovich
My parents were first generation Americans from Lithuania and Croatia. My mother spoke Lithuanian, Polish, Croatian and English, raised five children, owned a beauty shop and in my eyes, was an artist. My father whose parents were from Croatia, was also an artist and photographer. To support his family he worked shift-work as an electrician for U.S. Steel South Works. I grew up on the far southeast side of Chicago, So. Chicago was mentioned in the NYT as one of the closest knit immigrant communities in the country. Today the neighborhood no longer exists as a tightly knit community following the closing of the U.S. Steel Mills, abandoned businesses and the concomitant environmental pollution that poisoned the area.
After working in Washington D.C. for the NAE, in 1986 I moved to New York. Six years ago I moved back to Chicago to take care of my mother before she died.
Right now I teach English to immigrants, paint when I can, draw from the figure and write.