Printeresting, September 6, 2011
INTERVIEW: SHELLY BANCROFT AND PETER NESBETT
By Jason Urban
Many Printeresting readers know Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett first and foremost as the former publishers of artonpaper. Until December 2009 when it ceased publication, the magazine was the primary source for critical discourse about prints and drawings on the newsstand and it remains the bar against which other print writing efforts are judged. That said, Bancroft’s and Nesbett’s ongoing project, Triple Candie, has been generating innovative and controversial exhibitions for the last ten years. They’ve recently relocated to Philadelphia and knowing that moving gives pause for reflection, we thought we’d check in to get some thoughts on the past and the future. Let’s start with the past.
JU: Can you talk a bit about how you came to be involved with artonpaper and what the art and media climate was like when you took the helm of the magazine?
Shelly: Peter answered a job posting and was hired as the editor. Eight months later, he arrived at the office early one morning to find an eviction notice on the front door. The company, it turned out, was horribly in debt. When the publisher decided to try to sell the title, she found interest but every suitor wanted assurances that they wouldn’t be liable for the debt and all wanted to change the magazine’s focus away from art on paper. In the end she offered it to Peter. He had limited magazine experience, but he liked the editorial focus and was willing to take on the financial risk. I was running Triple Candie at the time, and very consumed by that, but Peter consulted me on every major decision, and within months I was working side by side with him there.
Peter: You must remember that in 2004, when we took on the magazine, the contemporary art market was raging. That made it possible to take a publication that had been losing hundreds of thousands of dollars and put it back on track. I had no money of my own. I wrote up a business plan and the magazine’s former managing editor put me in touch with her father, who very graciously lent us enough money to kick-start our new venture.
Shelly: Getting it back on track financially was, believe it or not, the easier part. What was harder was winning back the loyalty of writers who hadn’t been paid. A few came back. Over time, we built a new team of writers who were great. By 2006, we had plans to grow the brand. Then, we got hit by a number of unexpected challenges. First, the dollar tanked; then the subprime mortgage crisis hit. The former drove up our printing costs and the latter devastated the most vulnerable sectors of the art market – namely our clients: print workshops, publishers, small galleries. Within a year, advertising dropped 65%. We tried many measures to keep the magazine a float, we even almost sold the title to a hedge fund guy with an interest in the arts, but even he couldn’t figure out how to make the business model work in the current economy. So, we pulled the plug.
JU: Looking back on your production run, what are you most proud of? Are there particular issues, articles, or general accomplishments that stand out?
Peter: One of our goals was to stay ahead of our readers—to lead them, not to feed them what they already knew. We didn’t want put too much emphasis on printmaking-qua-printmaking. We took an expansive approach: we covered graphic novels, artist-designed posters, chapbooks, and sculptural multiples, photography, record-covers, and other subjects. One of my favorite feature articles was on William Copley’s idiosyncratic periodical “Shit Must Stop”—a fantastic publication-in-a-box from the late 1960s that remains too little known. It is exciting to pair a good subject with a good writer.
Shelly: I think the exposés we ran on Harvey Shipley Miller and the Judith Rothschild Foundation were important. They were risky because a number of our advertisers were beneficiaries of Miller’s off-mission multi-million dollar contemporary drawings buying spree. Artnet and then the New York Times picked up on our coverage and last I heard Harvey was hiding out in a farmhouse just north of Philadelphia, not far from where we are now.
JU: As a blogger, I recognize the ephemeral nature of what I do. By contrast, when I look at a physical print publication, I sense a kind of permanence. Do you have any thoughts on the relationship of analog to digital publishing? Do you feel that artonpaper has a legacy though it’s no longer in print?
Peter: Though we produced it using digital means, the magazine was an analog product. We distributed in print form. When we ceased publication we pulled down the website to emphasize this. Today, the magazine’s content cannot be found on the web. We never licensed the content for digital reproduction. To read artonpaper, you have to go to the library.
Shelly: This interest in the magazine as a physical object became most pronounced during the final year of publication. We used different papers, ran black and white sections within a sea of color, and changed the format to a smaller, more bookish size. The move was partly economic, partly a response to other magazines – like Modern Painters, Frieze, and Art + Auction – getting larger and more lavish. People either loved or hated the change.
JU: Do you miss working on artonpaper?
Shelly: That’s hard to answer. What we learned during those six years continues to inform what we do now. For example, it completely transformed the way we think about curating.
JU: Do you read any particular magazines now- art or otherwise? Care to share any thoughts on the current state of art writing and art publishing in print and/or online?
Peter: I don’t read art magazines that much. I read novels instead. The art and cultural magazines I do read are Mousse, Manifesta, The Exhibitionist, and occasionally Frieze. I have looked at Art in Print, the new online journal for printmaking that Susan Tallman started. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to work with her at artonpaper – she wrote a few pieces for us — but the first issue is a bore; it looks like it was conceived of and edited by the board of The International Fine Print Dealers Association because it fetishizes old-school printmaking. Artistically, there is great work being done in print, mostly in Europe around places like CNEAI in Paris and the Centre d’edition contemporaine in Geneva. I hope that Susan can expand the editorial purview and bring to it a fresher perspective.
Shelly: There remains a great need for a publication that is independent in spirit, critical, and that takes concrete positions.
JU: I’ve written about Triple Candie on Printeresting in the past and yet it remains a very mysterious entity to me. In your own words, Triple Candie has featured “Exhibitions about art that are devoid of artwork.”
Shelly: In purpose, Triple Candie is the opposite of what artonpaper was. Whereas the magazine was a commercial business, Triple Candie is a non-profit, run only by the two of us. And it exists on the deep, dark fringes of the art world. We have our fans but we also have our enemies who—interestingly—have a hard time explaining why they dislike what we do so much.
Peter: In a nutshell, nothing that we show is art and we don’t work with artists. Nonetheless, our principal activity is curating exhibitions.
Shelly: Our shows are comprised of art-surrogates, such as posters, photographs, facsimiles, wall-texts, props, models, recreations, etc. You might think this would be constraining but working without art or the involvement of artists or their dealers is enormously freeing. We can curate on just about any artist or subject we want. And we can take a more playful, even critical, approach.
JU: Can we expect a new incarnation of Triple Candie in Philadelphia? Are you looking for spaces and/or planning projects?
Peter: We left Harlem only eight months ago and are still getting to know this amazing city, and what it would mean for Triple Candie to put down roots here. Our no-art philosophy was developed partly in response to our being in Harlem, a place that has traditionally had limited access to the visual arts but was only five miles from what is arguably the financial center of the art world. Our shows were meant to provide access, to educate, to make the whole art experience less precious and more meaningful. I imagine it is going to take a while before we fully understand the unique problematics of our new city.
Shelly: It is important to me that we eventually have a space. This may seem odd, given our throwaway attitude. Despite the fact that ideas drove our shows, each one put forth a set of questions that had to be worked out physically. Many evolved out of a back and forth between making and thinking. When we didn’t have an idea, we would just go to the space, like an artist would go to her studio in the old days, and start playing with materials that were lying around—scraps of wood, fabric, foam, whatever—and a curatorial idea emerged, though not every time, of course. The exhibitions were ephemeral because their contents were literally thrown out or recycled when de-installed, yet our curatorial practice has been very much grounded in materials.
JU: Aside from plentiful cheesesteaks and lower cost of living, why move to Philly?
Shelly: We had spent some time in Philly over the last several years, and from the very beginning we felt at home here. Yes, the cost of living is lower, meaning we can rent a small house with a garden in the heart of downtown, but there are also many other benefits. Philly has a lot of strange and wonderful organizations. The city is quiet, we walk everywhere. It feels like a small town. And our neighborhood has a good ethnic mix of people.
Peter: There is a practical reason as well, which Shelly isn’t saying. I got a job at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
Shelly: Yes, and that.
Peter: There really isn’t anything like the Pew Center anywhere else in the United States. The initiative I work for, the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, has invested some $12M in exhibitions in the Philly area in little more than a decade. We also publish. I’m working on a book with the Center’s director, Paula Marincola, and the Hayward’s Ralph Rugoff on innovative exhibition-making.
JU: Did you see the Philagrafika festival last year and was that at all a factor in your move? Any thoughts about the festival?
Shelly: Yes, we saw it but it wasn’t a factor at all in our move. It did, however, introduce us to the collegial spirit that defines the city.
Peter: I thought its scale was impressive. Theresa [Jaynes, the festival’s founder,] knew that for people outside of Philly to pay attention, the festival had to be big, citywide. I’m sure that made the task of pulling it off much riskier, but I thought it was a smart risk to take.
Shelly: As a curator, I had some issues with some of the artwork selection and the way some of the core shows were put together. I thought it was a little conservative. Jose Roca, the artistic director, worked with a team of local curators but the overall festival very much reflected his interests and taste. It will be interesting to see how the next curator approaches it.
JU: What are you working on now?
Peter: We’ve starting participating in other people’s projects. We’ve never done this before. Way back in the early 2000s, we were founding members of NADA but withdrew our membership during the first year when we realized that we’d get little benefit from it. For the rest of the decade, we deliberately isolated ourselves, we maintained our distance from both galleries and other nonprofit spaces. We never exhibited in an art fair. We declined to participate in No Soul for Sale. Now, that we don’t have a space, are in a new city, and are in a state of transition and reflection, we like the idea of testing our philosophy in new contexts. I’m quite happy that we’re getting invitations to do projects elsewhere.
Shelly: Actually, we did one project off-site before we closed the gallery. We were invited to install our “Maurizio Cattelan is Dead” exhibition at the Deste Foundation in Athens. The show wasn’t conceived for the space but it looked great there. And the context made sense because Dakis Joannou is one of Cattelan’s patrons.
Peter: Currently, we have a project on view in a group show at the Musée de L’Objet in Blois, France, and at the ICA in Portland, Maine.
Shelly: And we are in the process of curating a sizeable show for Artissima in Turin, Italy, that will open in early November. They are setting aside a portion of the space for what will be a temporary, provision museum programmed by artists, curators, and collectives. We’re curating a thematic group show on arte povera, or rather, its non-existence. Turin played a central role in the development of the so-called movement, as many of the artists hailed from there. Our show will be on view at the same time as a five-city celebration of arte povera in Italy.
Peter: Outside of that, we’ve spent a lot of time getting to know Philadelphia. The city boasts the most important collection of Duchamp’s work in the world. It is also home to the Mutter Museum of medical oddities and the under-known Mercer Museum, a fantastic concrete fortress of pre-industrial tools, many of which are installed hanging from its vaulted ceilings. I have an unproven theory that Duchamp’s ready-mades were inspired by a visit to the museum or Henry Mercer’s collection sometime between 1913 and 1916, when the museum opened. If you’ve never been, it is worth the trip.
Shelly: So, you can see, it makes sense that we are here. We have a tendency to end up in cities or neighborhoods at pivotal moments in their development. We met in Seattle in 1991, when the grunge scene was taking off and before Starbucks had started its rapid expansion. It was a tough but very beautiful city then – much more working class, D.I.Y. When we arrived in Harlem in 2000, it was at a similar point. Now it is 2011 and we are here, in Philadelphia, and we love it. The city is still a well-kept secret. It is steeped in history but there is room to breathe. It is a place of creative possibility.