Who’s Responsible for Illinois Magazine?

The other day we uncovered a specialist in a kind of journalism we’d never heard of.

Gretchen Reynolds calls what she does “custom publishing.” That is, she creates magazines to order, laboring in an anonymity even vaster than the usual editor’s. Pick up Illinois, the superslick magazine she just put together for the state’s Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA). Flip to page two, the masthead, and start at the top.

There’s “publisher” James R. Thompson, who’s really just the governor, and “associate publisher” Paul M. O’Connor, who’s actually DCCA’s deputy director for marketing, and “editor” David Hallstrom, O’Connor’s sidekick. Almost at the bottom of the page is a line that says “Gretchen Reynolds, Editor,” which is the truth.

We ran into Reynolds while trying to get hold of O’Connor, who’s a pal, to tell him we liked what he’d done. It turned out we liked what she’d done, she and art director Eric Keller. Illinois, the concept, was O’Connor’s, but then he’d jobbed his brainstorm out.

The whole project took about a year. Reynolds prepped for it by taking a crash reading course in the state, which ranged all the way to The Truly Disadvantaged by sociologist William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago. “Although I grew up in Moline, I wasn’t necessarily familiar with the rest of the state,” she said.

Just as people in the rest of the state aren’t necessarily familiar with Moline, we offered.

“Most of the people familiar with Moline wind up leaving,” said Reynolds, extracting the pith of the story of her 30 years of life.

Reynolds came up with a list of article ideas, asked around for names of the best free-lancers in Chicago, and started calling. By paying up to $1 a word, she generally got the people she wanted. In some cases, she now wishes she hadn’t.

“One problem we have on all our publications is to convince people that we are really interested in serious journalism and to take this seriously,” Reynolds said. “And this is not easy, especially with the best writers.” Who tend to take the attitude, Vanity Fair I’ll work hard for; the state of Illinois–get serious!

“That attitude,” said Reynolds, “was clearly in evidence in a couple of the stories I received.”

She means that some writers took her money and blew her off. She wound up rewriting almost all of the pieces they turned in but their bylines, thus piling anonymity on anonymity.

“The crux of custom publishing is you’re doing the work for someone else,” she observed, “and they’re the ones who aren’t just allowed but are expected to take the credit. And, of course, not any blame there may be. It’s not really different from working for a boss.”

In a sense, Reynolds has no boss. She’s in the employ of the Publications Company, the custom-publishing arm of the Adams Communications Corporation, which also publishes Chicago magazine. Reynolds works out of Chicago’s offices, and her superiors are all in Detroit. This situation lifts certain burdens from her shoulders, such as having to finagle her way out of the office on the afternoons when the Expos play the Cubs.

When we got through to O’Connor, he said that he’d conceived Illinois mainly to attract new industry and commerce to the state, a goal he wanted to pursue a little more creatively than by running the usual ads in the usual magazines. Illinois was paid for by $200,000 of the state’s money and a little over $400,000 of the advertisers’; 250,000 copies of this one-shot magazine are now on their way all over the world, and it probably would have turned a profit if DCCA lawyers hadn’t told O’Connor that legally it couldn’t.

DCCA’s caught some heat over Illinois’s being, well, maybe not gray enough, maybe too consumerish, not pinpointed at the corporate Caesars it was primarily meant for. But O’Connor had calculated that Caesars’ decisions on where to extend their empires boil down to perceptions about quality of life.

Thus the article on how to work your way down Michigan Avenue and drop $10,000 per shop.

That’s there for the Japanese, said O’Connor. “Everyone is aware of how much money they spend, but few people are aware of why they do that. There’s a long, old tradition that when you leave home, your friends and relatives give you some money, and what that evolved into is that when you return, you bring them gifts of slightly more value.”

And nothing says value more clearly than a famous label, O’Connor went on. “So if you don’t have Cartier and Gucci to buy, you won’t come, because you’ll lose face back home.”

Nice, we said. Who worked that one out?

“Me,” said O’Connor.

Mapplethorpe in Chicago: The Lucky Moment

Earlier this year Chicago set an example for the nation of rock-solid behavior in the face of extreme provocation. We trust it’s never too late for praise.

We’re speaking of the visit of the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective to the Museum of Contemporary Art. You may have read about what happened later on, when the same show tried to slip into Washington, D.C. Senator Jesse Helms raised a hue and cry in the U.S. Senate, the Corcoran Gallery of Art got cold feet and bailed out, and now the whole concept of public funding of the arts is under review. (The National Endowment for the Arts laid out $30,000 to the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art to put together the Mapplethorpe show.) As the Chicago Tribune snorted, in its last word so far on the war being waged against the NEA:

“The political reaction is understandable and perfectly appropriate. Taxpayers finance these programs, and they have a right to object when the funds are used for works that are gratuitously bizarre and deliberately offensive.”

Last February, “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” came to the Museum of Contemporary Art and stayed five weeks. The Tribune hinted that sights bizarre and offensive were hanging on the MCA’s walls. In a long article in the Friday section heralding the show, Abigail Foerstner spoke of the photographer’s “polished yet unreserved treatment of controversial sexual themes” and remarked, “Certainly his controversial view of the black leather subculture of homosexuality challenged taboos concerning appropriate topics for art in the 1970s.”

Foerstner also mentioned that Mapplethorpe had AIDS. (He died in March.)

After the show opened, Alan Artner wrote a long, skeptical review. “His earliest mature pictures,” Artner noted, “are of sadomasochistic rituals, and most viewers looking at them draw back in horror.”

The Tribune left it at that. The paper did not consider it its duty to urge the general public, not even the public composed of homophobic taxpayers, to rise in protest. And the public didn’t. “The Perfect Moment” turned out to be the best-attended show in the history of the MCA. Taxpayers paraded out who admired Mapplethorpe, or possibly liked some photographs and not others, or had now at least satisfied their curiosity about him.

Millions of other taxpayers might have been outraged by what there was to see on the walls, but it didn’t occur to them to go and see it. It didn’t occur to them to write their congressmen, either.

We think that’s how art is supposed to fare in a healthy society served by grown-up media, and we’re not bothered by the idea of government kicking in a few bucks to help it happen. We called Bruce Guenther, chief curator at the MCA, and asked why he thought everything went so smoothly.

“The Chicago audience is sophisticated for art, and the Washington audience is not,” Guenther said.

Unfortunately, the truth is not quite that lovely. We reminded Guenther that at the same time his patrons were serenely making up their minds about the photo of Mapplethorpe’s rear end and a bullwhip handle, a few blocks to the south veterans were adding to Chicago’s international luster by laying siege to the Art Institute to rescue a flag on the floor.

Chicago was distracted, we suggested.

That too, Guenther agreed.

Senator Walter Dudycz can’t be everywhere at once, we said. And neither can Jesse Helms.

Mapplethorpe’s bad luck in Washington, said Guenther, was to be “caught on the petard of an ultraright cultural agenda, a provincial, backwards attitude about art in general, and life.”

But he didn’t put the flag on the floor, we said, so here he went scot-free.

“Actually, there was a flag!” Guenther remembered. “And it was one of those inspiring shots, a sun behind the flag and it was tattered and it had this translucent glow. It was a picture of the flag Mapplethorpe took in 1977 when he was doing these homoerotic photographs. And it was gorgeous.”

Given the current atmosphere, we said, if the Mapplethorpe show had been booked into the MCA for next month instead of last winter, would you go ahead and hold it?

Guenther was on the spot. “I wouldn’t presuppose if we would bring it in this climate,” he said cautiously, then added in a firmer voice, “We would bring it.” In his next breath, he wasn’t so sure. “Look what they did to the Art Institute over the work of some student that no one in the art world takes seriously except for the issues it raises of First Amendment rights!”

What the General Assembly did to the Art Institute was to teach it a lesson by slashing funding to one dollar.

If the Tribune as an institution (as distinct from individual columnists like Clarence Page, who made a lot of sense on the subject last Sunday) manages to look beyond the obvious, it will see that the urgent question today isn’t whether the public should have a voice in the arts funded by its tax dollars. It’s whether that voice should be dominated by the likes of Walter Dudycz and Jesse Helms.

We hope not; we don’t pay taxes so the government can underwrite wallpaper.

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