An Open Letter, an Editor’s Ouster, and the Ongoing Fight for the Future of Artforum

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Artforum editor in chief David Velasco was in Paris last month when an email landed in his inbox. It was an open letter, already signed by thousands in the arts community. “We support Palestinian liberation and call for an end to the killing and harming of all civilians, an immediate ceasefire, the passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and the end of the complicity of our governing bodies in grave human rights violations and war crimes,” it stated. It was a little over a week after Hamas militants had ambushed civilians in an assault on southern Israel, killing 1,400 people and taking another 200 hostage. Israel’s ensuing shelling of the Gaza Strip was underway. “We are witnessing the unfolding of a genocide,” the letter read. It contained no reference to the October 7 attacks.

As the missive found Velasco, Artforum’s editors had been mulling how the magazine, which he took over in 2017, should enter into the impassioned discourse that has surrounded the conflict. An essay would reflect just a single voice, but this open letter had already been endorsed by so many in the Artforum universe. There were artists who have appeared on the cover, cultural icons from different worlds—producer and musician Brian Eno, designer Martin Margiela, poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten, and musician Jarvis Cocker—and many, many writers for Artforum, both freelance and staffers. Velasco signed it as well.

After a few days of deliberation with some staffers, including the online editors who would be responsible for posting the story, it went up on Artforum’s website on October 19 at 5:29 p.m. ET, with the headline, “An Open Letter from the Art Community to Cultural Organizations.” The lead image was a 2021 work by the Palestinian artist Emily Jacir that consisted of a refugee tent with the names of villages overrun by Israeli troops in the 1948 war.

Then the floodgates opened. The days that followed saw the publication of an opposing open letter signed by a number of art world heavyweights; reactions from a number of nervous, off put, or offended advertisers; defections from the original letter by famous artists and curators; the sacking of Velasco for an alleged breach of protocol; an uproar from staffers who quit in protest; and a hundreds-deep list of writers who have vowed not to write for Artforum again. There are undoubtedly much more serious ramifications of the Israel-Hamas war than the fate of a 70-something-year-old critical journal. But as the conflict continues to unfold, America’s most respected art publication has also now become an emblem of the cultural arguments raging around it. Whether Artforum will make it out, stature intact, is currently an open question.

Velasco became the editor in chief during another crisis. In 2017, former publisher Knight Landesman, a ubiquitous presence on the art circuit for both his neon-shock suits and his Champagne-soaked brunches at his lower Broadway loft, was accused of sexual harassment by a number of women and sued by a former staffer alleging similar complaints. (Landesman did not publicly comment on the allegations at the time they were reported. A judge dismissed the staffer’s suit in 2019. She later settled with the magazine after appealing the earlier ruling.) The allegations against Landesman prompted editor in chief Michelle Kuo to step down. Velasco, who had been running, took over.

The art world came to appreciate the Velasco era of the magazine, which expanded its purview while still maintaining prestige and, crucially, a sales team that could secure ads from the world’s most important galleries. Over time The Artforum Ad has become something of a product itself, sometimes personally designed by the artist of the show it advertised. Many subscribers read the magazine specifically for the ads, to know when shows are opening, and get excited for a spree of vernissage.

At times under Velasco, Artforum found itself at the center of the cultural conversation, rare in an era of ADHD-addled attention spans and a splintering monoculture. These moments often came via the magazine’s willingness to insert itself into the discourse. In 2018, the magazine published an essay by Nan Goldin, accompanied by a series of photos, about her addiction to painkillers. The package spurred a full-on movement against the makers of OxyContin that would eventually scrape the Sackler name off museums worldwide. The next year, Artforum ran “The Tear Gas Biennial,” jointly written by Tobi Haslett, Ciarán Finlayson, and Hannah Black. The piece argued that artists in the 2019 Whitney Biennial should resign in protest of the museum’s vice board chair, Warren Kanders, whose portfolio included Defense Technology, a company that produces law enforcement tools, including tear gas. Eight artists pulled out. Kanders resigned from the board a week later.

Five years into Velasco’s tenure as editor in chief came a surprise announcement. Artforum, which had been chiefly owned by publisher Anthony Korner for decades, would be sold to Penske Media Company, the stable of brand-name magazines run by the auto-services heir turned media mogul Jay Penske. It was an intriguing move, as Penske already owned a bunch of other art titles, including Art in America and ARTnews. But this was his style. After buying the Hollywood news site Deadline, he went on to build a mini monopoly by buying entertainment trades The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

The Artforum team was optimistic about the sale. The deal closed in December 2022, and at holiday parties that month, Velasco made the rounds radiating positivity, citing encouraging chats with the PMC brass that showed faith in their independent vision. In many ways, ARTnews was thriving under Penske, who bought the magazine four years earlier and allowed it to run mostly under its previous leadership. (I worked at ARTnews from 2015 to 2017, when it was owned by the collector Peter Brant.)

It seemed like Artforum could thrive as well. Veteran staffer Danielle McConnell would stay on as the sole publisher following Korner’s divestment. (He remained on the masthead as publisher emeritus.) Kate Koza, who started as a marketing director at sister publication Bookforum in 2014 before switching to Artforum in 2017, would be associate publisher. There was a public outcry when PMC shuttered Bookforum upon completion of the acquisition, but at the flagship, it seemed like everything was working out swimmingly. A few months after the purchase, I attended an Artforum dinner in Chicago, during that city’s contemporary art fair. Among magazine staffers from the New York office were representatives from the biggest local museums, galleries, and private collections in town— not to mention the director of Expo Chicago, Tony Karman, the Energizer Bunny-esque forever-champion of the Chicago art scene. The mood was ecstatic. The Artforum Brand, I realized, was a big draw, especially in places like The Second City. It was a wonderful night of great food and plentiful wine at Publican Quality Meats in the West Loop. And there was no indication that there was anything but mutual admiration between the people hosting the dinner: the publisher, McConnell, and the editor, Velasco.

After receiving the open letter last month, Velasco deliberated with several other editors, a source said, without identifying the editors by name. Another source, who is close to the situation at Artforum, explained that the primary points of contact in the debate had been the senior editors for the website, Zack Hatfield and Chloe Wyma. (Neither Hatfield nor Wyma responded to my requests for comment.) The magazine’s print-web divide is fairly firmly delineated and the top brass under Velasco—the managing editor and two executive editors—aren’t usually consulted before an article is published on the website.

“This is on the web, so this is for the web editors, and that’s how we always do it,” the latter Artforum source explained. “The senior editors for print are never consulted for the web. That’s just not how it works.”

After the letter was published, things got heated quickly. In addition to omitting mention of the October 7 attacks, the piece uses several terms—including “genocide” and “Palestinian liberation”—that have become flashpoints in public debate. The Artforum account on X posted a link, which was taken down soon after—even though the letter still appeared on the website. Then people started taking their names off the letter. Among those to withdraw their support were artists Peter Doig, Joan Jonas, Tomás Saraceno, and Katharina Grosse.

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