Bancroft and Peter Nesbett of
An interview by Mike Booth
"We understood the risk, and just put our heads down, did the work, believed in what we were doing..."
The magazine, Art on Paper, published under that title in New York since 1998 (originally The Print Collectors Newsletter, founded in 1970), has always seemed to us an excellent idea: an inviting, place to visit, like your favorite museum coffee shop. Developed from a newsletter, into a journal, and then into a magazine over a period of more than 10 years by the Venetian curator and entrepreneur, Gabriella Fanning, the magazine was purchased in the summer of 2004 by its then editor, Peter Nesbett, and his business partner and wife, Shelly Bancroft. Nesbett and Bancroft have now had almost two years at the helm of the magazine, and have kindly offered to talk to World Printmakers about their experience thus far and their plans for the future of the magazine.
Question: Was it your goal in life to own an art magazine, or did it just happen by serendipity? Could you tell us how it came about?
Peter: No, we never thought that we would be magazine publishers. But it wasn't serendipitous either. When the opportunity presented itself, we were ready for it. Our life together was leading us down this path. But we didn't realize it until the deal was done and we started looking back.
Shelly: Yes, it all makes sense. When I was in graduate school, I produced a radio show called "Art in Your Ear" about the visual arts. Putting it together was a lot like publishing a magazine. When I started it I had no prior experience. And yet, I was in charge of everything. I had to find my talent, write the questions for the interviews, tape the segments, and then edit each one by hand with a razor-blade-the old fashion way. I quickly learned that sometimes an artist's stories and experiences can be as interesting as the art itself.
P: Editing has always been in my blood. My father was a writer and editor for years, publishing a travel newsletter out of the basement of the house where I grew up. He had this uncanny ability to make boring, industry news immensely readable. I was never that interested in what he wrote about but I always loved the way he wrote it. So when I responded to the advertisement for an editor's position at an unspecified art magazine, it seemed quite natural.
That was three years ago. I had no experience with magazine publishing whatsoever, but I was the first one to respond to the ad, and the former publisher, Gabriella Fanning, hired me on the spot. Nine months later, I came into work one morning and found an eviction notice taped to our door. I knew the company was having financial problems but I didn't know it was that bad. 'Well, it was a good run,' I thought. Several days later, Gabriella told me that she was going to try to sell the title and asked me to put in a bid. She'd poured her heart and soul into it for eight years, and though she loved it, she was tired. And the magazine was eating money like a lawnmower.
P: Shelly and I spent a week doing due diligence, and realized that we could make a few simple changes that would put the magazine on more solid financial footing. We put in a bid. There were other interested parties who were aggressively pursuing the purchase. But in the end, to my surprise Gabriella sold it to us.
"It helped not having children, a house, or anything else..."
Q: Presumably, a couple of young people buying a magazine must deal with an element of risk. What prompted you both to decide to take that risk? What made you think you could bring it off?
P: As Dylan said: "When you got nothing, you've got nothing to lose." It helped not having children, a house, or anything else of real value. And it has helped even more to have each other.
Q: Could you give us a one-sentence mission statement for Art on Paper?
P: To expand people's awareness of the unlimited creative potential in a piece of paper.
"We are slowly reaching out to the rest of the world..."
Q: One thing we've noted since we first subscribed to the magazine in the year 2000 has been the, perhaps inevitable, "New York centricity" of the content. Now we understand that Art on Paper is "going international" to a certain extent. What have you done so far in that respect and what are your plans for the future?
S: The only real reason that it is New York-centric is out of necessity. There is so much, perhaps too much, happening in New York at any one moment. And it is where we are based. But we are slowly reaching out to the rest of the world. For example, we've been participating in Art Basel for the past two years, and that has introduced us to a lot of curators and artists in Europe. And because of that, and a new website, our international subscriber base is on the rise.
P: But we have a long way to go.
Q: As early as the May/June 2004 issue, when you were the editor, Peter, but not yet a publisher, the range of content of the magazine was already expanding into new "multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary" subjects. What subjects are these? And what additional changes have you made in the magazine since then. What other changes are you planning for the future?
P: There are a lot of younger artists who are using printmaking techniques in more conceptual ways. I think that is exciting in general, but especially so for the printmaking community. In this context, printmaking moves from being a derivative, peripheral, or secondary practice to being a primary medium. Also, with more and more artists using digital technologies, the distinction between photography, printmaking, and other mediums is continuing to dissolve. So, while we will continue to include conventional "printmaking," I also hope that we'll be able to present it in an expanded context. Some are calling this broader field of activity "poly-graphics."
"We are excellent martyrs..."
S: We met this old guy who owned a huge cluster of buildings in Harlem, was a Sunday painter, and just had quadruple bypass surgery and he told us he was willing to rent us an old warehouse in his complex if we wanted it but we had to give him an answer in 24 hours. At that point we were not even planning on starting a gallery, and all we could do was look at each other and laugh, it was so absurd.
P: Yes but we did have many incentives. We were bored with the other non-profit spaces in New York, which we felt were no longer distinguishable from contemporary galleries, and wanted to somehow participate in changing that. We also live in Harlem, which is the largest neighbourhood in Manhattan by far, and there are no alternative spaces here. And we were looking for something to do. Working with artists in a low-income area like Harlem pushes them to think about the social context in which they are working, and this has, on occasion, changed the way that some of them think about their art.
"... if we're not doing something out of the ordinary, then what is the point?"
S: We also felt that many of the other non-profits were lacking an historical consciousness. We approach everything we do as trained art historians. Also, we are excellent martyrs, we love to do things for little or no money. Money has never been a driving force for what we do either in our personal or professional lives. For instance, we do not produce shows that are defined by the mandates of granting institutions. Funders hate the fact that we often show the work of one artist in our expansive 5,000 square foot space. (Funders want to see large numbers.) It makes it harder for us to get funding, but if we are not doing something out of the ordinary then what is the point?
"I had no experience with magazine publishing
This is co-publisher, Shelly
Peter scours press releases, books and
Shelly and Peter debating the relative merits of
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