New Art Examiner Struggles with Relaunch After Internal Rift
World-renowned Zhou Brothers show support, then pull funding for longtime Chicago arts criticism mag
Things look different in the former offices of The New Art Examiner, an arts criticism magazine which local artist and writer Annie Markovich helped run throughout much of its almost 30-year existence. Now a design firm, the typesetting machines have been replaced by a fleet of sleek Macs. A small closet-like space that used to be the Examiner’s editorial department has been reborn as a kitchen. Markovich, with red hair and redder glasses, points out the window towards a brown brick building at 237 E. Ontario St., the Museum of Contemporary Art’s home in the mid-90s.
“There were galleries here too, several galleries right here in this building. It’s changed so much,” she says, sighing.
It was 1973 when The New Art Examiner first debuted with the editorial Without Fear or Favor – a line borrowed from New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs. The lack of both favor and fear implied the publication’s dedication to significant arts criticism, something it claimed Chicago sorely lacked. The magazine was originally an effort from then Northwestern art lecturer Derek Guthrie and Jane Addams Allen, the great-grandniece of Chicago social reformer Jane Addams. Both started as Chicago Tribune art critics, but were let go after a very short period in favor of Alan Artner, who would go on to openly criticize The New Art Examiner’s efforts. The magazine folded in 2002.
The Examiner’s rise and fall in many ways parallels the history of Chicago arts funding. As a nonprofit, the publication made its living via subscriptions, ads, and a healthy dose of grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council – money that progressively dried up, even as demand for the Examiner grew. During the publication’s heyday in the 1980s and '90s, the National Endowment for the Arts received upwards of $175 million in annual funding from Congress. In 1996, six years before the Examiner would fold, that figure was cut almost in half. In 2002, Chicago received some $16 million in public arts funding – by 2012, that number had dropped to just over $7 million.
In 2002, Addams Allen, who was living in Cornwall, England, died following complications from cancer. After her death, Guthrie – by this time her husband – stayed on in England. But over the past few years, after the publication of an Examiner retrospective from Northern Illinois University Press and a separate book project, Guthrie said he felt a need to resurrect the arts mag.
Enter the prolific Zhou Brothers. In 2014, the Chinese brothers ShanZuo and DaHuang – widely recognized for their painting and performance art – expressed interest in aiding the New Art Examiner’s relaunch. The brothers, who opened a Bridgeport gallery in 2004, helped publish the Examiner’s first issue and also lent the group an office space, according to Michael Zhou, ShanZuo’s son and the gallery’s executive director.
“We thought it was the right thing to do because Chicago lacks a voice for the arts. At the time, they were aligned with our vision,” Michael Zhou said.
But soon after the Zhou Brothers’ support came through, problems arose. Guthrie, who was still living in Cornwall, said he was cut out of the publishing process on the first issue and he disagreed with the vision of the Examiner’s new associate publisher, Chicago-based artist Laura Frazier, who had created a Facebook page for The New Art Examiner and had begun posting articles which Guthrie disapproved of.
The two split and the Zhou Brothers’ funding was pulled.
THE 'NEW' NEW ART EXAMINER – OR – WILL CHICAGOANS CARE ABOUT CORNWALL?
After the split with Frazier – who said she's uncertain as to whether she'll continue her version of the Examiner – Guthrie went on to publish his own issue of the revamped New Art Examiner in September – a 40-page mag with fairly low-quality printing and articles mainly focused on the art scene in Cornwall and London.
Exactly 100 copies of the new New Art Examiner were handed out at Expo Chicago in September, with another 100 printed for distribution in Cornwall. The Examiner’s model will still rely on grant money, according to Guthrie, who said he believes Chicagoans will embrace both print and the trans-Atlantic goings-on in England’s art scene. Guthrie said his operation plans to publish the mag, which retails for $6 a pop, about six times a year.
One of the main reasons for the split with Frazier had to do with her intention to run the New Art Examiner as a for-profit publication, according to Guthrie.
“As the art world has become incredibly commercial and global in recent years, [advertising] is the only way many of these publications exist. And then that’s a matter of doing favors for the advertisers. And that’s why there’s no art criticism anymore,” he said.
New Art Examiner staff both past and present seem split on the state of things. “It’s got sort of a cheap opera thing going on in the background,” said former New Examiner managing editor Jim Yood, currently an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s a lot of fighting over very, very little and not much has been produced in the meantime. It’s had its day and I’m not sure it’ll have another day."
But for Annie Markovich, the Examiner’s current managing editor, the magazine’s social importance trumps its current internal disputes.
“The examiner is starting up again because we feel that people do not have a voice. They are afraid to say what they feel or they don’t trust their intuition anymore about what they see,” she said. “A lot of what I read today is puffery, everything’s nice, oh, this is good art. And not really getting to the heart of the political surroundings.”
The New Art Examiner of the '80s and '90s took risks via interviews with artists like David Nelson, whose portrait of former Mayor Harold Washington dressed in a bra and nylons was briefly confiscated by several African-American Chicago aldermen in 1988. Early on, the Examiner also pushed for feminist film and photography criticism and openly mocked the inaccessible academic language other critics used to talk about art.
It’s that kind of boundary-pushing which Guthrie says he wants to bring back to Chicago.
“This is the spirit of Jane Addams,” he said. “This idea of integrity is at the core of the New Art Examiner and it’s very attractive and you cannot quantify it in money terms. I know it works and we’re working on it and it will rise again on that basis.”