The loft space that houses the New Art Examiner on South Wabash is pin-drop silent. It is not at all the scene one would expect at a magazine on deadline. In fact, the NAE has got two: the one for its 20th-anniversary October issue, which is several weeks past, and the one for its November issue, which is a couple days away. The three women who edit the magazine–Ann Wiens, Deborah Wilk, and Kathryn Hixson–agree, the situation is a mess, but it’s a mess they’re happy to be in. A couple years ago the finances of the journal were so shaky that getting even one issue out required begging readers and friends for last minute donations. Today, however, the NAE is on sounder footing than ever, with foundation and corporate support, a real budget, and real cash flow. That money helps the editors stay off the phones and buckle down to the hard work of wading through manuscripts and editing them.

The change in fortunes of the NAE is something of a puzzle to the magazine’s workers and supporters. When the art world boomed in the 1980s, other art journals thrived. Art News and Art in America grew fat on a rich diet of gallery and auction-house ads–and on the commercial art world’s contributions to their editorial pages. When those magazines print four-color reproductions in an article, it’s usually the artist, or his gallery, that pays for the printing. The mainline journals appeal to collectors, and when collecting slows, as it has in the last few years, they trim down.

The NAE, however, has long distanced itself from collectors, stubbornly sticking to the kind of coverage that appeals to academics, intellectuals, and artists. So when the bottom fell out of the art market, the core of the NAE’s readership remained stable, a sign to foundation funders that the magazine had enduring worth. “Our audience is probably smaller than that of the art we review,” says Wiens. “That’s because we’re looking for writing that delves deeper into art’s discourse, that draws from the smaller group of artists and writers who are working on the progression of art to its next stage. Our mission has never been to concentrate on established and well-known artists. Our writers will just as soon critique a studio show of an artist who can’t find gallery representation as they will cover a high-profile museum show. The main thing is finding what out there has merit.”

Though it’s short on color pictures, the NAE does offer a portrait of the intellectual world surrounding art. As in the art world, viewpoints in the magazine range from reactionary to avante-garde. The prose styles run another gamut, that between comprehensible and impenetrable. Critics like contributing editor Eleanor Heartney–who started at NAE and now also writes for Art News and Art in America–are clear and bright. Others, however, are academic muddlers. The lead for a feature in NAE’s September issue, for example, reads like obscure verse:

“Intimacy, self-defining and anti-rhetorical powers, materials often fluid and quotidian, and qualities more beguiling than bombastic are characteristics we would perhaps have thought to be on craft’s side and not on art’s in the days of the Cold War aesthetic dialectic.”

The magazine’s lapses are in some measure its strengths. For many of the art world’s notable onlookers it’s a kind of home away from home, a forum for ideas that wouldn’t suit more commercial art journals. Among its contributors are New York Times arts editor Paul Goldberger, Northwestern University art historian James Yood, and the prolific critic Richard Kostelanetz.

In its early years, the NAE was often accused of punching its way into the national art debate with self-consciously provocative criticism. Wiens says the magazine has gotten more sedate. Nevertheless, it can still provoke. When Donald Kuspit wrote last May that Marcel Duchamp was a “pseudo-creative artist” who “emptied art of meaning,” the magazine received a torrent of letters, mostly from Duchamp defenders who worship him as the progenitor of postmodernism. Six months later the debate continues in the letters section. One feud–between Franz Schulze, a noted Chicago critic, and Roger Brown, one of the most famous of the Chicago Imagists–has been playing out in the magazine for the last ten years.

Once the NAE was considered too Chicago-focused, and it branched out nationally. Now it’s swinging back. “We are the only national art magazine in Chicago,” Wiens says, “so we have a special mission to promote art in our region, and to raise the level of discussion here.” Part of that effort is drawing in younger writers and readers: for the first time, NAE is offering student subscription rates.

Just like other long-surviving cultural institutions, the magazine now has the luxury of holding an annual–nonemergency–fund-raiser. Wiens says she’s glad that finally the NAE can have “a plain old dance party.” Its gala benefit Dance Party and Optional Masquerade takes place Saturday, October 23, beginning at 8 PM at the Wooden Gallery, 1007 N. Wolcott. Chicago artist John “Butch” Phillips will spin 45s from the 50s and 60s, and live music will be offered by art-funk rockers Adamjack. Copies of the magazine from the past 20 years will be on view. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For tickets and information call 786-0200.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.