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The future of Arts Atlantic in doubt

by Pan Wendt

This March I received an email from Mimi Fautley, then Acting Editor of Arts Atlantic, informing me that the long-running magazine was postponing production. There would be no spring/summer issue. For the second time in the last five years, the journal was to be restructured. For the visual arts community of the Atlantic region, this is a devastating loss, even if it is only a temporary one. While Arts Atlantic will never be able to please everyone, it has consistently provided a critical forum around the visual arts, as well as other artistic disciplines, and has been the only dependable journal of record in this field since its first issue, published in 1977. Apart from the obvious long-term effects such a delay might have on relationships with subscribers and advertisers, Arts Atlantic’s temporary disappearance means that there is very little, if any, serious coverage of the visual arts at the moment in Atlantic Canada.

According to Shauna McCabe, a member of the board of Arts Atlantic, and curator at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, funding is the main problem. Public funding sources have been drying up over the past decade, and the magazine simply could not continue functioning in a constant state of emergency. McCabe described a situation in which a skeleton staff spent nearly as much time dealing with fundraising issues as they did putting out a top-notch publication. The long-term solution to these problems needed creativity and a lot of thought and research.

Arts Atlantic is now in a state of limbo, and all staff have been laid off. No decision has yet been made about the future of the magazine, but McCabe is actually quite optimistic. She feels that the magazine is still quite viable, despite its recent problems, and is absolutely a necessity besides. “There has to be a space for critical writing on the arts in the region,” she states. From her point of view, support from foundations or institutions such as public galleries in the region might provide a stronger financial basis for a revitalized magazine, as they have done in the past. Although she warns that institutions can be confining, stating that “art isn’t necessarily institution-bound,” she stresses the importance of maintaining links with artists, galleries and artist-run centres, rather than looking to advertisers and a wide popular audience as primary supports.

I spoke with Joe Sherman, editor of Arts Atlantic from 1979 to 2000, and now a regular Buzz contributor, about the future of Arts Atlantic. I asked him to speculate about how such a publication might find a firmer footing in a region that has had trouble keeping many of its cultural institutions alive over the past twenty years and more. Sherman provided many interesting and wide-ranging comments, only some of which I’m able to reproduce here. Like McCabe, he felt that a magazine devoted to maintaining a critical voice could never survive if it was too dependent on the whims of advertisers and the fluctuating number of subscribers, though these two groups had to be carefully cultivated. Sherman pointed out that long delays of the sort occuring now, and following the restructuring of 2000, when the magazine was moved to Nova Scotia, have potentially devastating effects on client relationships. Sherman was less than convinced of the wisdom in the direction taken by the magazine when it moved its headquarters from Charlottetown to Halifax in 2000. While pointing out that certain aspects of the journal were unquestionably improved by fresh blood and the renewed energy of

contributors, especially from the Halifax scene, Sherman felt the magazine jeopardized its chance of long-term survival in the region by sacrificing the eclecticism that had characterized its first two decades. “Much of the support for the arts comes from people who don’t actually produce art,” Sherman stated. “The first question has to be, who is your sustaining audience?” Describing his tenure as editor as always a “balancing act,” Sherman worried that, in the absence of assured and stable institutional funding of consequence, or a philanthropist or patient investor willing to bankroll a pure “high art” magazine, Arts Atlantic might need to bring back some of its previous devotion to covering the performing and literary arts and cultural issues, as well as a broader sense of accessibility. “And it would still mean consistently hard work and the rejuvenating imaginations of an able staff,”adds Sherman.

I’m an art geek myself who actually read every issue of Arts Atlantic cover to cover, and I’ve written for, and enjoyed both pre- and post- 2000 versions of the magazine. As such, I was equally partial to the second version of the journal, but I found myself agreeing with much of Sherman’s analysis. In a certain sense, the Halifax version of the magazine has been too much of a good thing, too centred around the bigger art centres in the region, especially Halifax itself. While a location near many of the regions top art institutions and a long-running and lively art scene was no doubt crucial in bringing some of the strongest voices in the Atlantic Provinces to the publication, it has also led to a narrowness, even a myopia when it came to the actual characteristics of the Atlantic region’s most exciting cultural production. It sometimes felt as if Arts Atlantic was to be another C Magazine, or Canadian Art, rather than the distinctive voice of a very distinctive place. This region will perhaps best be reflected by a publication that acknowledges its isolation, an isolation that produces a widespread confusion and mixing, for better and worse, between “critical” and “popular” culture, and a healthy eclecticism born of the need to work across boundaries of medium and taste.

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