Goodbye, Chicago Art Magazine (final editorial)

I always like to end at the beginning, so at the bottom of this is Martin Jon’s interview from 2009 when I was starting at the Chicago Tribune-owned blog network, doing a blog we named Art Talk Chicago. The interview lays out the core, but haphazard ideas I started with, and I’m still amazed at how big the whole thing got.  I remember meeting Stephanie Burke at the coffee shop where we would have our meetings and saying, “I got the URL ‘Chicagoartmagazine.com’ – it was available. I grabbed it for $12, and maybe that’s what we should call this thing.”  We got a $49/year hosting plan from Go Daddy and a WordPress template, and our site was built.

Three years later, we close the magazine with some sadness, but no bitterness. I feel like we changed the art dialogue in Chicago by broadening the scope of what we felt was worthy of inclusion in an art magazine. As a result, we showcased a massive pool of unrecognized and unappreciated local artists, who had received little or no press. We proved a point – that a large local audience can only be earned by offering diversity, variety and multiple perspectives.

(Chicago Art Magazine Staff, from left to right, Jen Nalbantyan, MK Meador, Stephanie Burke, Jerian Hildwine, Robin Dluzen and Kathryn Born (badly Photoshopped in)

Robin once wisely said that we did the best we could with the resources we had. And within that caveat, I’ll say I’m incredibly proud of the stories we did, and am still amazed how far we trudged with one hand tied behind our back. We cut the budget 80% in 2011 and still almost tripled our traffic the same year.  I say this to illustrate that even if my spine hadn’t crumbled, Chicago Art Magazine would have changed; it was already changing and was adaptable by design. I’ve always viewed the Chicago art scene as a member of the artist community, not a critic looking down from above, but my artist sensibility doesn’t allow me to build the same thing over and over. I create, finish, and go onto the next piece.

If we wouldn’t have had this interruption, I would have been dabbling with BuddyPress, doing more with the Chicago Artist Database, and new software systems. I would have tried working with technology investors and creating new algorithms for art discovery that are completely different than the ones currently used on art sites today.

Chicago Art Magazine was an exercise in infrastructure, publishing, mentoring, and testing the boundaries of our local art industry. The goal was to figure out how to make a sustainable, functioning online magazine with a staff of paid writers and editors. In that respect, I don’t know how many answers I have for the next person who wants to  make a fiscally solvent magazine. Chicago’s art industry is in a tough spot and it creates a difficult ecosystem for any art-related business. So I will continue publishing (hopefully with Robin!) when I recover in 2013, but probably not here in the arts –instead grow TINC Magazine, which is positioned in the middle of the financially vibrant tech sector.

But I digress, I didn’t write this to complain. The point is, Chicago Art Magazine was never meant to go on forever, our goal was “10/10/2010” (see the “Transparency Pages“).  And during that time, we went on a wild adventure: we had good fights, made tons of friememies, got scoops and gossip, flashed business cards, got in free, and dove head first into controversy. The writers became friends and did projects together outside of the magazine. We had a red carpet debacle, turned the magazine into a school, and did 20 articles celebrating artists over 40 as a way for me to cope with my mid-life crisis. We defriended people on Facebook, bought a “Twitter machine”, almost got sued, and helped Rachel Hewitt burn bridges to many future employment opportunities with her investigative journalism assignments. We had adventures, I often got us lost, the site would crash, and we had wacky editorial meetings in a rent-by-the-hour conference room (people thought we had an office; never realizing the tiny conference room was the sum total of our physical presence). And I remember once hobbling into a meeting and couldn’t bend over to plug in my laptop — and MK Meador quietly took the cord and plugged it into the floor outlet for me.

Unequivocally, the most awesome part was watching the writers grow, like the day Robin and I had a “cord-cutting” ceremony when we disconnected the editor’s inbox so it no longer forwarded the emails to me, and she was flying on her own — a tremendous mentor in her own right.

For three years, we felt like a tiny army, forging through a recession in a publishing post-apocalypse.

I am left with amazing memories, and I know these stories will have a way of appearing in the next novel. Chicago artists will keep making art, new publications will come, and all of us will move on to the next “thing”. All the while, the articles will stay on this site, as a testament to what we did.

We were here for a good time, not a long time.


Kathryn Born


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