Seldom Scene

Is the country’s only art magazine finished?

From 1997 through 2002, Umělec (Artist) filled a widening gap between the local art scene and the rest of the world. The bimonthly magazine was unique for bringing generally ignored Central and Eastern European art and artists into the spotlight. And its sharp, irreverent approach to art and some of the more bizarre trends in popular culture made it the best art publication around, period. The arrival of each issue, in both Czech and English editions, was a major event for local scenesters—and the fact that no new Umělec has appeared for a year a cause for alarm.

Rumors abound that Umělec is shutting down, due to financial problems, creative differences among editors or some other difficulty. The first new issue since spring 2002 had just been finished at Pill press time, and is due to hit the stands by the end of the month, but the magazine’s future remains in doubt.

The situation is a bit more complicated than the apocalyptic whispers in the local art scene would have it, but no more certain, according to J. August Buehler, Umělec’s English-langauge editor. Asked point blank whether the magazine will continue to publish, he sighs, “I wish I could give you a definite answer. But we don’t know yet.”

As with any publishing venture, the future of Umělec is contingent on funding. The magazine is one of many projects run under the auspices of Studio Divus, a Žižkov outfit that provides “full art services.” In addition to publishing Umělec and its predecessor, Divus, the studio designs and publishes books and catalogues, organizes exhibitions and offers services in photography, reproduction, web design, animation, editing, and digital and classic printing and operates a video studio. The magazine thus relies on the success of the entire Studio Divus enterprise—and business has been slow for the last year, forcing Umělec to abandon bimonthly publication for an irregular schedule.

This stasis prompted Editor-in-Chief Vladan Šír to call it quits and accept an editorial position at Mladá fronta Dnes. As if things weren’t bad enough, the one-year hiatus makes it unlikely Umělec will be awarded its annual grant from the Ministry of Culture, leaving the magazine’s future even more up in the air.

Another problem that has plagued Umělec from the beginning is advertising. “‘Outsiders’—people not in the art scene—view us as anarchists, so that limits us,” Buehler says. “For a while we had museums who would buy advertising, but then if we wrote a negative review of one of their shows, they’d pull out.” And the smaller galleries in the region, which Umělec often champions, usually don’t have the money to buy advertising space.

While the dearth of advertising can be detrimental to the business side of things, it is yet another quality that makes Umělec stand out from other art magazines. Flipping through an issue of Artforum, for example, it is often difficult to find any actual writing, dispersed as it is between dozens upon dozens of pages of advertising for international exhibits. The relative lack of advertising in Umělec allows the editors to fill the magazine with pure content.

Umělec is also unique for its playfulness. In addition to news and reviews, in any given issue the reader may come across comics, artist projects, critical theory and essays on random subjects (such as Tomáš Pospiszyl’s recent exposé on Czech UFO cult the Universe People). While the quality of the writing and translations can be hit-or-miss, the magazine never slips into boring academic artspeak. Umělec’s trademark schizophrenic layout and idiosyncratic approach to its subjects always makes for an intriguing read.
In spite of the ominous signs, Studio Divus has no plans of ceasing to operate in the near future. Current plans include a new edition of Divus magazine, and it will continue to publish books and catalogues. (Buehler’s first book, a collaboration with artist Martin Zet, will be released later this month.) As for Umělec, publisher Ivan Mečl has put out an open call for a new editor-in-chief. A lot rides on finding an adequate successor to the adventurous Vladan Šír. In the meantime, local artists and critics are left with the vague hope that another forum will pop up, somewhere.

Travis Jeppesen is hoping for the best at travis@pil.cz

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