Thursday, August 15, 2013

Toward Sustainable Arts Criticism

Hardly a week goes by these days when we don't see some article about the layoff of arts writers. This kind of news should be shocking, but it's become so commonplace in the past few years that we have a hard time generating the required outrage that such an announcement should merit. As each major city without a full time paid arts writer gets ticked off the list, we have become wearily resigned to the premise that arts criticism is a dying breed, that arts writing doesn't pay, and that we as a society don't value a well crafted gallery review as much as we do other kinds of journalism and criticism. As a contrarian thinker on these topics, I find myself on the outside looking in, often in head-scratching bewilderment. How can this be?

For me, thoughtful arts criticism is the foundation of the dialogue that pulses through the arts community. It introduces work to those who hadn't been exposed to it, and offers a reasoned explanation and analysis of its merits to those who are already in the know. With the best of intentions, it attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff, all while injecting genuine enthusiasm and knowledge into the discussion. By taking a stand, a critic offers an opportunity for debate, for both agreement and disagreement, and for further exploration of the work at hand. At least for me, reading a great review offers a new way into the work (whether I've seen it or not), and challenges me to think differently about what I've seen. I may not ultimately agree, but I am forced to come to a more complex and nuanced understanding of what's on view.

If there is any overly simple lesson that can be learned from the disruptive effect the Internet has had on newspapers and magazines, it's that the old advertising model has been forever destroyed. Paying for content with advertising alone will no longer provide any kind of reliable economic balance, and if we want high quality arts writing, we must find alternate ways to fund it, as it doesn't come for free. Entire industries of smart people have broken their picks on this problem, and after many years of innovative experimentation, we've still not discovered any magic bullet that makes the ledgers even out. So, we are left with a state of disarray: writers must be paid at least a living wage to produce superlative content, but advertising revenue won't match the outlays necessary to fund that content (or the other costs of producing the publication for that matter). And thus, the bleeding of arts writers continues.

As we all stand in a circle and look at each other for answers, our gaze inevitably turns back around to our readers; unfortunately, they're aren't a lot of other places to look. If we want the kind of thoughtful dialogue we draw from our best writers, perhaps the readers (or other supporters) can step into the breach and fill the funding gap. This idea starts from a deficit, as one of the early premises that underpinned the last decade of revolution was that content wanted to be free; even though we continue to pay subscription and newsstand prices for paper content, we were initially trained that its digital equivalent came at no charge. Along with this free mindset came the erroneous idea that professional arts writers would be happy to trade real dollars in payment for broad "exposure". This myth has been proven false again and again; great writing of all kinds costs money to produce (even if it is ultimately given away for free) and dwindling payment for writers will ultimately lead to very little writing, except the kind that people are willing to do altruistically or as a hobby (like this blog).

In the past few years, asking for the support of readers has become increasingly widespread. In for profit models, content is increasingly being locked up behind paywalls and subscription services; perhaps in the future, these systems will get even more granular, allowing the annual signup to migrate toward micropayments for individual articles. In not for profit models, memberships, charitable donations, and other fund raising methods are tapping readers for dollars. Whether the payment system is imposed or voluntary, we are now entering a phase where the users of arts content are being asked to help fund its creation - the community is being asked to support its own interests.

For roughly the past five years, DLK COLLECTION has been an attempt to support and engage the photography community by writing about facets of the art and its market that were being overlooked by other publications. Given the slow decline in plausible photography coverage coming from the traditional New York outlets, the current situation is certainly no better than when we started; for those of us that are passionate about photography (and collecting), the pickings are still pretty slim.

Perhaps delusionally, we remain undaunted. Now, more than ever, we have confidence in the need for great writing about photography, and are willing to put our money where our mouth is by investing in our delivery platform. Several months ago, we embarked on a major overhaul of the site, including an entirely new WordPress/Responsive infrastructure (finally moving off of Blogger) and an entirely new graphic design. When the new site launches in September, it will have a new name (and domain), a new logo, and completely different look and feel. Not unlike an online newspaper, it will have a front page and a series of edited sections, covering galleries, museums, photobooks, art fairs, auctions and the like. Every single one of the existing 1600+ posts (as well as all the individual images posted on Twitter) will be ported to the new site, and there will be plenty of tools and navigation helpers to make finding an artist or gallery in the archive much easier (with more than 1100 artists/photographers and nearly 700 galleries worldwide to be found in the system, these tools start to matter). If we get it right (and we're working feverishly to ensure that we do), we will in one fell swoop transform the site from an amateur undertaking to a crisply professional photography platform, equally ready for your desktop, tablet, or mobile phone.

While we don't want to steal the thunder of its ultimate caterpillar-to-butterfly-like transformation, there are a couple of changes in our overall approach that we want to pass along now:

1.) Given the investment in the underlying platform, the site will now be much more able to handle multiple bylines, and like our monetary commitment to the platform, we're also ready to start selectively funding more superlative content from great writers. We expect to pay better than competitive rates to a small group of freelance writers, and will hopefully end up with a spectrum of regular contributors and intermittent guest writers. What we're looking for is consistently thoughtful and well reasoned analysis of fine art photography, especially when it's written by active collectors. We're into opinionated, knowledgeable criticism, not news or aggregated links; if you've got an idea for a piece that will fit into one of our areas of interest (galleries, museums, photobooks, art fairs, auctions, and the photographers and art that underlies all of them), shoot an email to info@dlkcollection.com to start the discussion. Want to write a dumbed down listicle of the top 10 shows to see, aping the press releases that just arrived in your inbox? We're not a match.

2.) On the new site, all advertising will be priced on a click through basis. Part of this change is purely technical, in that we will now have the ability to track the number of click throughs for an individual banner with much more reliability. But more importantly, we've come to the philosophical position that plain vanilla banner advertising doesn't align the interests of the advertisers, the site, and the readers particularly well. What everyone wants is a robust community, where advertising/sponsorship is relevant and unobtrusive, but generates follow through from targeted readers who are actually interested. The branding value of a banner that people see but don't interact with is amorphous at best, and we've decided to discount it to zero. Advertisers will be charged entirely based on how many click throughs occur; at its limit, if there are no click throughs during the entire run of a banner, it would be free. While there are a few other details to the plan, the goal is to end up with verifiable, quantifiable metrics for how well the advertising is working, with readers ringing the cash register for the site when they express their genuine interest. Want to hear more (there are now many more options/locations than the old chiclet banner)? Connect with us at info@dlkcollection.com to be ready for the surge of Fall activity.

3.) With the utmost in modesty and humility, we will offer readers the opportunity to support the site. We'll leave the mechanics of the program for the launch, but the plan is to deliver a content product that has enough consistent value to be worth supporting with hard earned dollars. With most of the major infrastructure costs now sunk, aside from a few ongoing back office and operational costs, most of our variable costs will come in the form of payments to writers. The going forward plan is to run the business on a shoestring, so that all the available money is directed to great writers. This isn't a charity and we're not looking for your sympathy, but what we do want is for readers to be passionate about what they're reading, so much so that they make the plunge and offer some support that can be redirected to the next great essay or review. If we get the balance right, inflows from readers and advertisers will match outflows to writers and operational costs in a kind of unheard of equilibrium. We're looking for the mythical unicorn that no one has found yet in this world of arts criticism, the dream of stand alone sustainability, and the only way we get there is if we deliver content people are ultimately willing to pay for. The onus is on us to challenge our readers with great photography writing each and every day, and only then will we have a chance at making the math work.

With those ideas as a teaser of what's to come, we're going on summer hiatus until the launch of the new site in September; there will be no new reviews or other posts until we make the switch over. Rest assured, we're not taking a break in the slightest, just frantically working behind the scenes to ensure we're ready for our big debut.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello, first comment casual reader here. Casual since I don't live in the US and thus can not see the shows covered, reader anyway since the writing is really good. Wishing you the best of luck in your up coming endeavour. I am dying to read more deep think on photography by the likes of Francis Hodgson and Jörg Colberg. Please try to enlist them and others of similar quality, not counting your own capabilities of course. All the best/Mattias, Stockholm Sweden

Lauren Henkin said...

Very much looking forward to the relaunch and expanded perspectives on photography.

Anonymous said...

COOL!

Joshua Simpson said...

Very well said as usual. I am looking forward to the new site. This blog has been my favorite blog since discovery a couple years back. Thank you for all the excellent writing over the years and I will gladly contribute.

Photographer said...

There are a variety of reasons as to why one must think utilizing online photo prints. Online photo prints have become a trend at the present time.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to the rebirth of this wonderful project! Both as a philosophy student and a photography aficionado, I am considering to try to write a review worth reading. When the time is right, I might send it to you for your honest judgement.