How Did Art Media Get Here? An Essay in Nine Headlines

Julia Halperin

Relief Depicting Scribes, taken from the Tomb of Horemheb in Saqqara, Egypt, ca. 1350 BC. Courtesy National Archeological Museum, Florence.

Cover Image for How Did Art Media Get Here? An Essay in Nine Headlines

In the new Peacock series Poker Face, Natasha Lyonne plays a casino cocktail waitress with an innate ability to tell when people are lying. I have similar psychic insight, but restricted to a very narrow niche.

I know what you actually read.

I have seen you with your phone pressed up against your nose, reading that juicy item about an artist couple’s divorce as your stack of New Yorkers sits unread on the coffee table. Well, I wasn’t watching you, exactly—I was watching Chartbeat, a website that gives publishers a snapshot of exactly how many people are reading each article on a platform at any given moment.

As executive editor of Artnet News from 2017 to 2022, news editor of the now-defunct Artinfo from 2011 to 2013, and in other art media jobs, I looked to Chartbeat to observe the true reading habits of the growing audience for our work. Above a constantly shuffling list of top stories is something that looks like the dreaded New York Times election needle, which tracks the site’s number of visitors in real time. When there’s a big hit, the needle goes all the way to the right and, sometimes, literally off the charts. The dopamine hit is undeniable.

Over the past decade, the public’s interest in art has bloomed as the subject increasingly intersected with pop culture, high finance, and tech. At the same time, avenues to publish journalism about art have dwindled. Major newspapers cut full-time art critic positions. Smaller outlets like Even and Elephant shuttered. The world’s longest-running English-language art magazine, ARTnews, now publishes only one print issue per year, and Art in America has reduced its run from eight issues to five.

This situation has left art coverage in a fairly unique spot within the journalistic landscape. More people want to read about art than ever—Chartbeat tells me that—but the moments when the niche and broad audiences intersect are rare and sometimes hard to predict. That’s why many of the trends that have shaped the broader journalism sector in recent years, like the ascent of single-voice Substacks and the broad adoption of paywalls, have failed to take hold in art journalism.

New readers come for a Maurizio Cattelan banana explainer, and maybe they return for the latest on climate activists throwing soup at a Van Gogh. But art remains niche enough that it’s hard to get a critical mass to commit to subscribe to a new outlet or newsletter. The stories you see in art media today often represent an attempt to retain the devoted niche while luring the masses.

Without consistent philanthropic support and with limited ad-supported revenue, new ventures have been supported by art businesses with a vested interest in fostering meaningful conversation. (Traditional art-media advertising is fueled not only by auction houses and galleries, but other businesses targeting wealthy people: private jets, premium liquor, luxury fashion.) Last fall, David Zwirner became the lead funder of the small downtown literary magazine The Drift. Art advisor Allan Schwartzman and journalist Charlotte Burns produce incisive podcasts about power in the art world. I was commissioned to write this very article for a journal funded by a communications firm.

To truly understand how we got here—and to offer you a decoder ring for art journalism—I compiled nine imaginary headlines you are likely to encounter in a range of publications, from a monthly art magazine to the New York Times. Here’s what they tell us about publications’ lofty goals, advertisers’ shifting demands—and, most enigmatically, what readers want.

On Constructivism

Forty years ago—when critics had the power to make or break careers and write art history almost in real time—this kind of headline might have introduced a piece of writing that sent shockwaves through the art world. Fast forward a few decades, and the cerebral treatises of Arthur Danto or Clement Greenberg have all but vanished. Without any enticing keywords, or even a verb in the headline, this particular story would sink like a stone online. Unless it’s by someone Jerry Saltz-level famous or successfully coins a new term (Zombie Formalism, anyone?), the critical art essay is a hard sell with today’s larger, increasingly fragmented, international audience. If these sorts of stories are published now, it’s almost always for a publication with a dedicated subscriber base that doesn’t rely on pageviews. It’s vegan art journalism—it’s good for you, and you feel good after consuming it. But it’s never going to have broad appeal.

Christie’s Sells $80 Million Monet From Disgraced Countess’s Collection

As collectors around the world poured money into paintings in the 1990s, a new form of art journalism developed: market coverage. Staggering auction prices justified headlines like this one in weekly columns such as the New York Times’s “Inside Art” and monthly magazines like Art + Auction. In the olden days, a publicist would approach one of these outlets months in advance about doing an exclusive story on a big-ticket consignment. Then, the journalist would tap a few sources—art dealers, executives from competing auction houses—for the inside scoop. Who is the anonymous consignor? Why are they selling now? Is the work in worse condition than the auction house implied?

Today, auction-house announcements are less bespoke architecture and more prefab construction. The reason for this is threefold. First of all, many outlets that used to serve them up—including “Inside Art” and Art + Auction—are defunct. Second, the surviving publications operate at a pace that makes a deep dive untenable. Instead, it’s grist for a quick turnaround that can still generate a decent number of pageviews if there is a big dollar amount in the title. Finally, on the auction house side, press releases are increasingly used as sweeteners in the race to secure consignments (which now happen on a much tighter schedule), making their press departments far less discriminating and strategic about what they promote.

Kehinde Wiley’s New San Francisco Survey Shows an Artist on the Brink of a Breakthrough

Reviews are the genre that everyone says they want—but nobody actually reads. The outlets still committed to them are subscriber-funded print magazines like Artforum and newspapers with a dedicated local audience, like the Los Angeles Times. There, they serve a similar purpose to a restaurant review: letting people know what is worth their time and money. But there simply isn’t a large enough audience to make most reviews worth the investment. When one is published, it’s because someone at the publication believed the artist or show justified the attention, even without a clear payoff.

Anish Kapoor’s New Bean Sculpture Looks Like a Giant Shiny Dog Turd

Here’s the other side of the review coin. While it’s true that few people actually read art criticism, there is one exception that proves the rule: the pan. But vanishing chutzpah among writers and cozy relationships between critic and subject aren’t the only factors marginalizing the negative review. Art criticism is now published so rarely, and in so few outlets, that editors and critics alike often want to seize the rare opportunity to celebrate something worthy rather than trash something disappointing. (I have definitely made that choice as an editor.) Compassion and enthusiasm are wonderful motivators, but alas, they don’t pay in clicks.

How an Antiquities Trafficking Case Rocked France

Investigations are expensive. Let me lay out what the above might cost in terms of both labor and money. Few arts publications have the resources to dedicate staff time to investigations. So these articles are often written by freelancers who do a significant amount of unpaid legwork—maybe three to five hour-long interviews—to get enough of a handle on the story to even craft a pitch. If the pitch is accepted, they might get $1,000 or so for the article, which then takes maybe eight to ten more hours of interviews and research, five hours of writing, and four hours of processing edits. (For those keeping track at home, that comes out to about $40/hour for the writer.) The publication will also likely spend an additional $1,000 on pre-publication legal review and dedicate five or more staff hours to editing and fact checking.

Sometimes, the effort pays off, and these stories draw considerable eyeballs—and, more importantly, put the publication at the center of the cultural conversation. But the sad truth is that a news item about a solid gold cube coming to Central Park will almost always get more clicks than an in-depth investigation. If you’re wondering why you don’t see more of the latter, that’s why.

In Conversation With Karen Finley

One slice of the art-media pie that has persisted against the odds is the nonprofit publication. These include Bomb magazine; Glasstire, which focuses on Texas; and Burnaway, which chronicles the art of the American South. Many publish interviews like this one, which offer early, in-depth glimpses into the practices of artists who haven’t yet gotten major shows in New York or Los Angeles, or who don’t have the support of a large gallery. At least in the U.S., publications focused on a particular region are more likely to draw philanthropic dollars than other kinds of arts journalism outlets because they can align with a foundation’s mission to support a specific geographic area. (In other words, getting money to support writers and artists in the Pacific Northwest is a hard sell, but it’s even harder to get money to support, say, a journal of international performance art.)

A High School Student on a Field Trip Uncovers a Necklace That May Have Belonged to Catherine of Aragon

You might think, is this really an art story? And the answer is, not really. But archaeology has become the lifeblood of many art publications today because it’s quick to produce (real archaeologists have done all the work!) and extremely popular. One archaeology story, which might take two hours from assignment to publication, can deliver 10 times as much traffic as a nuanced review of a gallery show that takes shape over two weeks.

Inside Lucas Zwirner’s Scorched-Earth Breakup, Meet the Hottest New Downtown Art Star, and More in this Week’s Column

This particular header is clearly a riff on my alma mater Artnet News’s wildly popular art-world gossip column Wet Paint. The series—first penned by gadfly Nate Freeman and now by the sharp and plucky Annie Armostrong—has an unlikely origin story. In the early stages of conceptualizing Artnet’s premium paywall product, Artnet News Pro, several of our team members had “market research” calls with collectors, art advisors, and auction-house executives to find out what kind of art market content they’d actually be willing to pay for. We expected they’d want in-depth dossiers on blue-chip artists or deep dives into niche regional markets. No. By and large, they really just wanted gossip. In our social industry, that’s more valuable currency than a list of top galleries in Saint Moritz.

And quick tip: a story with a headline that starts with “Inside” will either be a rehash of everything that has been reported elsewhere (because any revelation worth its salt would be in the headline) or a detailed, engaging account bursting with new information (because there are so many goods, it is impossible to pick just one for the headline). It’s basically never anything in between.

A Minimalist Pioneer, Recovered

Looking through these headlines and audiences’ typical responses to them, you might develop a somewhat dim view of the media landscape. But here’s a bright spot: people love reading about artists! Always have, probably always will. (And if there is a rags-to-riches narrative that involves a painter-waiter convincing one of his regulars to visit his studio, or a 19-year-old getting discovered on TikTok? Chef’s kiss.) Few things are more engaging to the general public and the industry alike than learning how an artist honed their style, emerged from obscurity, and lived a creative life.

Art is a prism through which to view so many forces that shape our world: money, power, political unrest, social change, creative expression. Art writing is important because it articulates those connections. But it won’t look the same in five years as it does today. The headlines above will evolve considerably.

What will the future of art journalism look like? I think we’ll see more gallery-produced glossy magazines. More corporate-sponsored art writing like Hyundai Artlab, which recently launched a $10,000 fellowship for art writers. More hyperlocal, nonprofit art publications that cater to a defined, invested audience with the help of foundation support. In other words, more writing funded in ways that are distinct from the rest of the journalism sector. But perhaps this distinction has always been the case. The art world has always considered itself unique and exceptional. For better and for worse, so has art journalism.