This interview with Nick Chapin, Director of Publishing at Frieze, and Jennifer Higgie, Editorial Director of frieze and Frieze Masters, is part of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversation with Dushko Petrovich,” a series of conversations led by Dushko Petrovich about the tensions and processes of art publication, speaking to the parties involved with, and implicated by, Steven Nelson’s two-part Hyperallergic essay of June 2018.
Dushko Petrovich: Hi Jennifer and Nick, thanks so much for talking with me. I want to start out by having you narrate your own editorial involvement, and frieze’s overall involvement with Steven Nelson’s essay on Deana Lawson.
Jennifer Higgie: Sure. At the time, Dan Fox, my coeditor based in New York, forwarded me the piece by Steven Nelson on Deana Lawson, which Steven had approached him with. We were under the impression that he was pitching it to us because the hook was around this Aperture book about to come out, I think in November. At that point, Steven didn’t reveal anything about the provenance of the book. We thought he was approaching us as a first call. Deana Lawson is an artist that we are very much interested in, so Dan forwarded Steven’s piece to me.
Petrovich: I see. So, Dan actually worked on the piece as the sort of commissioner and editor?
Higgie: No, Steven forwarded it to Dan first. Being based in the United States, Dan was always the first point of call for US-based commissions. Dan then forwarded it to me, but I had already worked with Steven on a piece for Frieze Masters in 2016; he wrote an essay on the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Petrovich: Right, I actually remember that piece. So then, we know how Steven’s piece on Deana Lawson was born, but my next question, the sad one, is how did it die?
Higgie: Well, it was quite simple really. At no point during the quite lengthy editing process did Steven mention that it had been through a process before, that he had been approached and had actually been commissioned by Aperture. Rather embarrassingly, we only found that out when we approached Lawson’s gallery, Rhona Hoffman, for images. When I approached Steven to ask him about this, I assumed there had been a mistake and that they had got it wrong, but he said, “Yes, it had been commissioned and rejected by Aperture.” At that point I felt very uncomfortable that the provenance of the piece hadn’t been made clear to us. That’s not how we work.
Petrovich: So you approached Rhona Hoffman in a procedural way to get the image rights, not expecting any other kind of story to emerge, and you were just caught off guard because they said, “hey, is that the piece that was for Aperture?”
Higgie: Yes, exactly. The Aperture book on Deana Lawson was coming out, and at no point had Steven said his piece had been rejected from that book. That’s not comfortable for us.
Petrovich: In fact, hadn’t the original pitch included a tie-in to that book’s release?
Petrovich: I want to talk a little bit about that exclusivity policy that frieze has, because I know other journals don’t have that policy. For example, I edit Paper Monument, and we have taken pieces that were rejected by other publications. Why you have that policy in place, and how long you have had it?
Higgie: We’ve pretty much always had that policy. On very rare occasions, we might discuss something with someone who had approached someone else, and it hadn’t been right for someone else, but that’s a conversation that we have always had right from the start. We pride ourselves on publishing original material that we created.
Nick Chapin: I just want to emphasize that it’s not so much the point that Steven’s piece was previously rejected. In theory, I’m sure we would publish many things that people might pitch to other journals and have rejected. We pride ourselves on publishing things that perhaps other journals wouldn’t publish. It was more that this piece had actually been commissioned and shaped by someone else, and I think that’s a crucial distinction. We work on an start-to-finish basis with our writers to commission a piece. So again, this is not about being embarrassed that this piece was rejected by someone else. It’s about a lack of transparency about the provenance and genesis of the piece that was out of line with the way that we work with our writers.
Higgie: I would also like to add that I feel uncomfortable talking about this, because I do feel that the relationship between an editor and a writer is confidential. I would normally not discuss it publicly, but because of this situation, we have been prompted to be transparent, which I am happy to do. I am also sure that Steven Nelson was not being disingenuous. I would like to hope that he just didn’t realize that these were our processes.
Petrovich: I understand that. You must have felt that you were not embarrassed, but it was an uncomfortable situation to find yourself in when you approached the gallery for images and then suddenly found out the whole back story of the piece. It must have been doubly uncomfortable when Steven Nelson published a whole overview of the process in Hyperallergic. I don’t know if you want to say anything about how you felt when the Hyperallergic piece came out.
Chapin: The only thing we have said about that is that it was a shame for that to be published naming several members of our editorial staff without them having been approached for comment. We really appreciate you reaching out about this because, we would expect that you, like any good journalist, would want to see all sides of the story. The greatest surprise to us about the Hyperallergic piece was that neither Hyperallergic nor Steven approached us for comment, and yet both Dan and Jennifer were referenced by name. I think that’s unfortunate. With regard to Rhona Hoffman, it’s important to stress that the only reason we went to the gallery was to get the clearance on the image rights, so that was less a dialogue or a relationship than, as you say, a procedural kind of matter. It was more surprising than embarrassing in relation to the gallery, because it’s unusual to have that kind of disruption to the usual writer-editor relationship.
Petrovich: Right—that makes sense. This may be a difficult pivot, but let’s try it: to Steven Nelson’s overall point, what do you think about the argument that pressure from artists and galleries can undermine or curtail a robust, critical response to artworks? Have you at frieze had any trouble getting image rights for pieces you wanted to run, or anything along those lines?
Higgie: That’s not something that we normally have a problem with, and we make very clear to galleries when approach them for images that they never have approval of the copy before they release the images. That is a blanket rule. We don’t ever compromise that rule. When galleries, or others, choose not to release the images, and that’s a very rare occurrence, we usually find ways to work around that. For example, as I’m sure you know, it’s part of Tino Sehgal’s conceptual practice that he does not release any images of his performances or his artwork. Because we wanted to illustrate the piece that we ran on his work, we employed a courtroom sketch artist to take a few sketches of the performance. So we sort of enjoy the challenge of finding ways of getting around this. To give another example, we ran a piece on Adrian Piper a couple issues ago. I’m a great admirer of Adrian Piper, and she has her own very good reasons for controlling her images, but it was a long discussion to get the images that we ultimately published. In other cases, if an artist chooses not to release their images, that’s their prerogative, but it won’t stop us from reporting on their work.
Chapin: I think the point that Steven is raising on some levels is really important: just how robust is our critical discourse? It’s something that we think about and talk about a lot here. We would like to think that we are one of the journals that has never compromised in terms of publishing pieces that might be controversial, but it’s really quite important to stress that, in this incident, that really never factored into the conversation.
Chapin: Looking from a bird’s-eye view, you can understand why Steven feels like there may have been some of those currents at work here. It is very difficult for us to comment on that because our relationship with the article and the writer was, again, purely procedural. I wouldn’t highlight this as an example of an instance in which artists or gallery disapprobation came into play, but we certainly recognize that that’s out there, and we certainly wouldn’t discount the possibility that it, at some point, was brought into play. It’s just hard to for us comment on that primary issue. For us, it was never part of the conversation.
Petrovich: Right. That makes sense. The reason I’m doing these interviews is to try to disentangle a complex web of interactions, so that’s a helpful comment. That’s the last question I have; is there anything else you would like to add that you feel like I didn’t address?
Higgie: Quite simply, I admire Steven as a writer, and I would hope that this doesn’t damage either his reputation or relationship with us. We are really happy to see questions being asked about the robustness of critical discourse and the ecosystem of critical thinking in the art world. Those are conversations that we welcome, and we would love to publish pieces on as well. So we are pleased to see that being scrutinized and we will look forward to the piece!
Chapin: One more thing: we live in world where discourse is freer, but also less regulated and less controlled than ever. You see so many people talking about Facebook and other platforms as routes to publishing that don’t take a lot of editorial responsibility for what gets posted on them, and that probably goes for other contemporary publications. For us, having policies about how we commission, how we edit, how we work with writers—really putting that rigor into what we put out on our channels—is hugely important.
Higgie: That’s a question of responsibility more so than censorship. If you don’t know everything about what you are publishing from start to finish, for all the different contributors and interested parties, then I think you’re not living up to the standard of good journalism. Maybe we are old-fashioned in that regard, but I think that that rigor has become more important than ever.
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Nick Chapin is Director of Publishing at Frieze. Jennifer Higgie is Editorial Director of frieze magazine and Frieze Masters.
A founding editor of Paper Monument, Dushko Petrovich is Chair of the New Arts Journalism Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.