Reflections on Three Decades at the Helm of ARTnews


“A Legacy of Shame,” published in December 1984, revealed that the Austrian government was storing thousands of artworks looted from Holocaust victims.

One day in 1984, I received a phone call from a friend of mine, the late Albert Elsen, who was one of the world’s most distinguished art historians. He said that he had just heard of a monastery in Mauerbach, near Vienna, that contained thousands of works of art that the Nazis had stolen from victims of the Holocaust and others. He did not know whether the Austrians were to be praised or criticized.

“Why are you here?” Sailer demanded.

“As I mentioned to you on the phone from New York, I have been told about the art in the monastery and would like to go there,” I said.

“You cannot go,” Sailer replied rather emphatically.

“Mr. Sailer,” I said, “When I was a young reporter at the New York Times, a wise old editor told me that when someone gives an answer like that, I should begin to wonder whether they are hiding something.”

Within a few days, I found out that they were.

When I returned to New York, I assigned Andrew Decker to look into the story. In December 1984, following an eight-month investigation, Decker published the first of what would prove to be more than two dozen articles on the subject written by him and other ARTnewswriters in the United States and Europe.

The articles revealed neglect, ineptitude, and questionable legal maneuvers on the part of Austrian government officials since the end of World War II. The world took notice. Members of the World Jewish Congress, including President Edgar M. Bronfman; the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria; and a U.S. Congressional delegation that happened to be in Austria at that time, urged the Austrians to resolve the situation.

Nearly every year for a decade, ARTnewsreported that Austria’s attempts to return the artworks were dragging on unnecessarily and that their efforts were marked by “callous distortions, mock sympathy, and inattention to detail.”

In 1995 the Austrian government unanimously passed a law transferring ownership of the artworks to the Jewish Community of Vienna. The art was auctioned that year by Christie’s to benefit Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust and their families. The auction brought $14.5 million, which was distributed to thousands of people in many countries.

The ARTnewsarticles won several awards—the National Headliner Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, and the Page One Award of the Newspaper Guild of New York, which cited us for “a brilliant job of investigating and reporting” that “brought light and resolve to an ugly episode.”

The prizes were among the 27 awards—they include most of the country’s major journalism prizes given to magazines—that ARTnews has won since I bought the publication from Newsweek in 1972 and became editor and publisher. As we celebrate our centennial, the joy of being 100 for ARTnews is the joy of being one of the world’s most honored magazines. It is the pride of being able to review the last three decades and recognize that ARTnewshas succeeded in altering the course of art journalism.

Someone once said that a long-lived publication is a perpetually self-renewing work in progress, directed by a succession of creative people who, if it is fortunate, materialize at the proper moment.

I could mention my predecessors who honored the vision of James Clarence Hyde, an art historian and art critic for the New York World and Tribune, who founded Hyde’s Weekly Art Newsin 1902: James Bliss Townsend, Samuel W. Frankel, Alfred Frankfurter, and Thomas Hess.

I could mention some of our more celebrated contributors—Bernard Berenson, Harold Rosenberg, Aldous Huxley, Kenneth Clark, Meyer Schapiro, Alfred Barr, André Malraux, Marcel Duchamp, Barnett Newman, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rosenblum, Francine Prose, Arthur Danto, J. Carter Brown, Robert Rauschenberg.

But none of the kudos and the fact that ARTnews is now read in 123 countries by 220,000 people, the largest fine-art magazine in the world in circulation, advertising, and editorial honors, would have come without our entire team—the editors, reporters, art historians, critics, and artists who have appeared on ARTnews’s masthead. To all of them and to the staff members in all our departments — my respect, admiration, and affection.

In 1972 it was evident that the world of art was growing larger and more complicated. The number of working artists was increasing, and a vast new audience was developing all over the world. Museum construction and activity were on the rise, fed by unprecedented government, corporate, and private patronage. Millions of people were lining up to see huge international traveling exhibitions. Issues arose within the art world that involved all thinking people, not just insiders—elitism versus populism, for example, or museum ethics. The new audience needed information, news as well as criticism—in short, a new kind of reporting, a new kind of art magazine. I was convinced that writing about art could be fresh, lively, and readable, without jargon and without what someone once referred to as “the botanical speech impediment”—flowery writing.

Hardly anyone was covering the art scene the way the New York Times covers the world or the Washington Post covers Washington, D.C. I decided to apply some common-sense journalism to the field of art. I wanted to humanize this fascinating, wonderful, mysterious world. ARTnews began to do investigative reporting; in-depth profiles; interviews with both leading artists and newcomers; stories about prominent art historians, museum directors, collectors, and dealers. It covered the latest news and exhibitions, as well as reporting on the trends and events shaping art internationally. New York was and is the art capital of the world, but the major story was what’s happening all over. That is why I not only increased our New York staff, but also developed a large network of correspondents—reporters, critics, and art historians—in 22 countries, to make ARTnewsa truly international magazine.

My plan was to make ARTnews reflect what William Stapp, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Portrait of the Art World: A Century of ARTnewsPhotographs,” calls “the complex global nature of the present-day art world, our expanding acceptance of what constitutes art, and the belief that ethical issues, as well as esthetics, are relevant to coverage of the arts.” The exhibition is now at the New-York Historical Society and is sponsored by the AXA Art Insurance Corporation.

We began to make ARTnewsvisually more appealing and exciting. We began to use more photographs and more and better color reproductions. We began to expand our coverage of photography and architecture, design, performance art, digital art, video art, and the art market.

We began to cover things that art magazines seldom, if ever, wrote about. Titles of some articles: “Mona’s Smile: Does She Need a Face-Lift?” (Some experts say clean, others say hands off); “How to Bargain Elegantly” (An important don’t: don’t ask the dealer to reframe your painting at his expense; it’s tacky); “Underrated/Overrated” (Who are the great artists you never heard of? Who’s hot, Who’s not); “Who are the Exper
ts?” (a list based on consensus, if not absolute agreement); “Masterpieces and the Mob” (crime and corruption among the guardians of Italy’s patrimony).

As well as “Artists to Watch” (Some, like Louise Bourgeois, have risen to prominence, some have not); and “John McEnroe: From Center Court to SoHo” (His knowledge of the art market is as good as his backhand used to be).

We introduced new departments: Looking at Art, in which critics and historians tell us why they like a particular work; Artful Traveler, in which we spotlight places off the beaten path that even the most experienced traveler might miss; Living with Art, profiles of collectors who collect for the right reasons—they want to live with art, they are not investing in art. We launched the ARTnews 200, our annual list of the top 200 collectors. We started ARTnewsletterin 1975, the biweekly international report on the art market. We published art books and sponsored conferences on the art market. And we started a Web site in 1998.

What has it been like for me personally? It’s been a marvelous 30-year ride. I have had the chance to meet the great and the good. I have sat with gifted artists, collectors, scholars, curators, and dealers all over the world. I have also met forgers and frauds. As Noí«l Coward once said, work is more fun than fun.

It took me ten years, but I finally persuaded the late Meyer Schapiro, the legendary art historian, to let us profile him in 1982, which was done in two parts by Helen Epstein. It was the first time that Schapiro consented to be interviewed at length. The profile won a Clarion Award from Women in Communications. A photo of Schapiro was on our cover, with a wonderful quote from a scholar: “Our mothers taught us to walk and talk, and Meyer Schapiro taught us to see.”

It was Schapiro who said: “To perceive the aims of the art of one’s own time and to judge them rightly is so unusual as to constitute an act of genius.”

ARTnews has not always perceived the art of its own time rightly. Back in 1911, our critic was upset over the “diabolical influence” of the so-called Cubists and hoped that American artists would “not become affected by this germ that makes for decay in the beauty of line, form and thought.” A few years later, the germ affected one of our critics, who was absolutely certain that Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircasewas the work of a “carpenter.”

I once asked Henry Moore how he defined art. We were sitting under a tree outside his 16th-century farmhouse in Much Hadham, England, a sleepy country town where sheep still roam the streets. “Art,” he said, “is a way of making people get a fuller enjoyment out of life than they would otherwise.” I’ve never heard anyone say it better. One day I visited Robert Rauschenberg at his studio on the island of Captiva, off the west coast of Florida. With him was his assistant, Darryl Pottorf. Rauschenberg had recently sold some of his paintings to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for many millions of dollars. At lunch, he reminisced about his early days in New York, when he and Jasper Johns didn’t have enough money to pay the rent.

“Would you like to hear a funny story?” Pottorf asked. “Sure,” I said.

“About six months ago, Bob was at his secretary’s desk when she was out to lunch. He normally doesn’t open his mail, but he noticed two letters addressed to him. He opened one. It contained what looked to him like a check for $1,600. Since it’s really not that big an amount, he put it in a drawer next to her desk. Three months later, she accidentally opened the drawer. It was a check for $1,600,000.”

Rauschenberg smiled. “I have trouble with zeroes,” he said.

Of all the collectors, one of the more interesting was Nelson Rockefeller. Many years ago, he gave a tour of his Fifth Avenue apartment to Basia Johnson, then the wife of J. Seward Johnson, of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune.

Mrs. Johnson was impressed as Rockefeller showed her works by Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, the Impressionists. She was dazzled by a Modigliani nude.

“Mr. Rockefeller, I love that painting and I’d like to buy it,” she said.

Rockefeller smiled. “I love the painting, too,” he said. “I’m sorry, but it’s not for sale.”

Mrs. Johnson placed a hand on Rockefeller’s shoulder, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Mr. Rockefeller, everything in the world is for sale.” Rockefeller smiled again and continued the tour. By now he was thinking, “How much did I pay for the painting? Perhaps $75,000 to $90,000. How much is it now worth? Maybe $300,000 or $350,000.”

Since he had a gift for the dramatic, he paused and said, “Mrs. Johnson, I see how much you love that painting. I’ve decided to sell it to you.” He paused again. “For $2 million.”

Two million dollars for a painting was unheard of at that time. Without batting an eye, Mrs. Johnson said, “Mr. Rockefeller, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you just said. My chauffeur will be here in the morning with a check, and would you be good enough to give him the painting.”

The next morning the chauffeur came with the check. Rockefeller gave him the painting. When Rockefeller later told the story, he said: “I looked at the blank wall and said to myself, ’Why the hell did I sell her the painting? I’ve got as much money as she does.’”

Two questions that readers ask fairly often are: How do you know if something is original? How do you determine authenticity?

These are difficult questions. Just to give you an idea how difficult: Some years ago, I interviewed a forger named David Haddad. He had been arrested for faking hundreds, maybe thousands, of drawings, paintings, and watercolors by Chagall, Picasso, Cézanne, Degas, Miró, and many others. I interviewed Haddad while he was out on bail. He told me of the time he had worked in Paris when he was a young man. He knew Jean Cocteau fairly well. One day, he was in Cocteau’s studio, and he noticed on the easel a pencil drawing that Cocteau had just completed. Cocteau had done it purely as an exercise. It looked like a Picasso. The next day, who should show up at the studio but Cocteau’s good friend, Pablo Picasso. The drawing was still on the easel. With some trepidation, Cocteau said, “Pablo, how do you like it?”

Pablo was so enthusiastic that he rushed over and signed it.

Our first exclusive investigative piece was “The Rothko Donnybrook,” which was published in 1972. It was about the scandal involving the handling of the estate of Mark Rothko.

In 1978 ARTnewsreceived an award for investigative reporting from the Society of the Silurians, the organization of veteran editors and reporters. It was the first time such an honor had been bestowed on an art magazine. Among the articles cited were “The Art Bills: Pluses and Minuses” by Albert Elsen. He wrote that the flurry of recent proposed legislation included three enlightened bills—on moral rights, arts financing, and estate taxation—and a resale-royalties bill that was “suicidal.” Also cited was “The Care and Feeding of Donors,” part of a two-part article by Lee Rosenbaum that raised questions about museum officials giving donors all sorts of special favors.

In 1981 ARTnewsbecame the first recipient of a George Polk Award for cultural reporting. The Polk awards are reserved for courageous and resourceful journalism. Clearly, we had given art coverage a new dimension. The Polk is one of the most prestigious honors in American publishing.

We capped the year by winning another important prize, the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. In making the award, the American Society of Magazine Editors cited ARTnews for communicating to both expert and lay readers “the excitement of the art world.”
This was, again, the fir
t time an art magazine had earned the award.

ASME mentioned a special section, “Women Artists ’80” by Grace Glueck, Kay Larson, and Avis Berman. The section reported on how the previous decade had succeeded in giving women artists a stirring new sense of themselves and their potential and how, for the first time, women were leading, not following. Other articles: “The Spectacular Fall and Rise of Hans Hofmann” by Gwen Kinkead, which dealt with the decline of Hofmann’s reputation after his death in 1966 and its revival 15 years later; “The Two Lives of Anthony Blunt” by Patricia Failing, which explored disclosures that the scholar had spied for the Soviet Union.

Not only has ARTnews educated generations of readers, as the writer Richard F. Shepard once observed, it has also spawned a new generation of writers who have brought new perspectives to bear on what they saw. Just as ARTnewshas encouraged young artists, it has published and given a boost to young writers, reporters, and scholars of art.

Among them are contributing editors Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov, former Moscow correspondents, who wrote exclusive articles that caused sensations throughout the world.

Akinsha and Kozlov, with Andrew Decker, revealed in 1991 that hundreds of thousands of art objects removed from Germany after World War II were hidden in the vaults of Soviet museums. A prominent Soviet museum director called us “imperialist tools,” even though her basement was filled with stolen treasures. The George Polk Award in 1992 cited the article as a “remarkable East-West journalistic achievement.” The article also received a citation of excellence from the Overseas Press Club.

The Silurians have honored us six times. Among the prizes: “Change the Board and Get Rid of the Director” by Robin Cembalest, who is now our executive editor. Cembalest reported that back in 1993 critics were charging the Hispanic Society of America, a little-known treasure trove of Spanish art and books on New York’s Upper West Side, with inertia and elitism. The article also won a National Headliner Award and led to changes at the society.

The mysterious benefactors of New York’s Dahesh Museum were revealed in another Silurians prizewinner in 1996 by Ferdinand Protzman.

That year Akinsha, Kozlov, and Sylvia Hochfield, our editor-at-large, were honored with a National Headliner Award for “The Betrayal of the Russian Avant-Garde.” Their investigation revealed that thousands of fraudulent Russian artworks had entered galleries, museums, and private collections throughout the West, distorting the achievement of great artists, falsifying history, and contaminating the market.

Another memorable article was “The Extraordinary Treasures of the Vatican Museums” by Alan Levy, the first time the curators of all the Vatican museums had given behind-the-scenes stories of their holdings. A sidelight: After the special section was published in 1981, the late Walter Persegati, then administrator of the museums, called to say thanks for how well the articles had turned out.

“Walter,” I asked, “has anyone else commented?”

Persegati, who was sitting in his Vatican office while I answered the phone at my desk in New York City, suddenly lowered his voice considerably. He almost whispered, “I want you to know that it has been greeted with enthusiasm at the highest levels of the Vatican.”

Two years ago, another Clarion Award went to Timothy W. Ryback for his article “An Even Bigger Scandal,” which revealed that more than a thousand paintings looted from Holocaust victims were hanging in German museums and government offices.

What of the future? What will art become? I don’t know. What our pages will contain depends on what is happening in the world we cover—and on the larger forces that shape the world.

I have no hesitation, however, in predicting that ARTnewswill be there, reporting and analyzing what is going on, with a receptiveness to new ideas and to the values embodied by James Clarence Hyde.

He wrote: “The endeavor will be to make the news interesting, up to date, and absolutely reliable. Appreciating that the value of this paper will be its bona fide news of art matters, the publisher will print only that which he believes to be trustworthy.”

As we begin the magazine’s second century, we are determined to deliver, in the words of our first National Magazine Award, the same “first-class reporting, analysis, and criticism” and “affectionate objectivity” that have distinguished the magazine in the past. As Hyde would have said: Interesting. Up to date. Absolutely reliable. Trustworthy. And with affectionate objectivity.

Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

Copyright 2019, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

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