Something Afoul at Artforum

No matter how much we try to create influence, someone will always take it from you, and have it taken from them, in turn. In times of intense conflict, this influence becomes meaningless: all that remains is the fog of war, with no one’s best or worst intentions making a dent in the tragic loss of life.

You may or may not have heard that in November, longtime Editor-In-Chief of Artforum, David Velasco, was terminated – without warning – for the publication of a widely-circulated open letter calling for the cessation of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The letter’s intention appeared to be a humanitarian one: a plea from a group of prominent artists, curators, and arts professionals to end the senseless loss of life to men, women and children in Gaza. The letter would illicit an immediate backlash from another group of powerful art world figures, who sensed that the publication of such a letter indicated an anti-Israeli (and sub-textually, antisemitic) stance. Several artists were pressured to remove their names from the letter by their dealers/collectors, and the publishers of Artforum announced that the letter’s publication was an unsanctioned editorial decision that they “deeply regret.” At day’s end on 19 October, Velasco’s 25-year run at Artforum abruptly ended.

I am concerned and dismayed about Velasco’s dismissal.

First: Artforum is commonly referred to as the “Bible of the art world.” As a magazine, it has hosted groundbreaking and provocative editorials, interviews and essays from the world’s most respected critics, theorists, artists and educators. It is also a fully-realised private enterprise with a corporate hierarchy, subject to managerial and fiscal decision-making. In other words, in a big business, no one gets fired just like that. From the outside, there appears to have been no warnings, no initial disciplinary hearings, and no previous (publicly-known) tensions preexistent between editor and publisher. If this was a mistake, normally, people are allowed second chances to rectify it. In this case, it was a whiplash-worthy jettison.

Second: the publishers, who did not respond for comment from the international press, gave no clear explanation or justification for this decision. They seemed to ignore the fact that Velasco did not even issue a personally-written statement of any kind. He published – but did not, himself, write – the letter, a letter that clearly was not supported by either the publishers or the business investors at Penske Media, who had recently acquired the magazine. But as a corporation, surely there’s a Human Resources department? I find it hard to believe that such a unilateral, ironclad decision was not preceded by some level of discussion amongst both editorial and publishing leadership? If there ever was, all parties seem to have failed one another.

And third: if Velasco had issued a statement that he wrote himself, and was speaking on behalf of the magazine without approval, then I could foresee an insurmountable issue of making political statements without prior consent or dialogue. But this didn’t happen, here. A bloated media conglomerate (who, incidentally, sold a $200 million minority stake to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund) and their representatives not only have muzzled a dedicated journalist who should have had the oversight to express solidarity without fear of repercussion, but also created a chilling effect for other magazines (and their editorial staff) who now stare down a similar fate. The fiasco illustrates the wretched pull of wealthy donors’ and investors’ political interests winning out over free expression, whether in the form of the signatories of the letter being forced to recant their statements (or risk having their artworks returned or sold back for profit), or in the form of an editor/journalist out of a job because of poor managerial protocols and a complete lack of collegiate respect.

In the meantime, I want to take the opportunity to ensure our readers and audience – wherever you are – that FRONTRUNNER will always and continue to support the diverse viewpoints of our writers, no matter whether our leadership team agrees with them, or not. It is, I think, the inherent responsibility of an editor to stand with and for their staff, to uphold their right to free expression, and to secure those rights free from external influences. We are a small, but dogged, group of artists and arts journalists. On behalf of the team at FRONTRUNNER, we offer our support and solidarity with David Velasco and call for his reinstatement, or an amelioration of his current position.

As for myself, I know this mess of the art world is unforgiving and needlessly competitive. But in the mess, I still remember that editors and journalists like Velasco are my colleagues, and I will never compromise my hope for their success and benefit. Aren’t we all after the same thing? And at days’ end, tragically, voices for peace (for all sides) are drowned out by the cacophony of greed, violence, and that meaningless push for influence.

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