A Review for the Director, Scottish Arts Council, Summer 2002
Andrew Brighton, Senior Curator: Public Events, Tate
... Production and Distribution
... Editorial Policy and Performance
... Conclusion: strengths, weaknesses and potential for
... Appendix I
Remit from Graham Berry, Director,
Scottish Arts Council
... Appendix II
A Statement by Variant on Distribution,
Readership and Income Generation
A Review for the Director, Scottish Arts Council, Summer 2002
Andrew Brighton, Senior Curator: Public Events, Tate Modern
Earlier this year Variant magazine made an unsuccessful appeal against
a funding decision taken by the Scottish Arts Council. However, the Director
of SAC decided that he would like an independent review of Variant for
his own information. It was to inform him of Variant's strengths, weaknesses
and potential for development. The publishers/editors of Variant had given
my name to him and he asked me to undertake this review.
To aid impartiality, the Director suggested that I did not have contact
with any officers of the Arts Council. Consequently, I have not looked
at Variant's applications to SAC, nor at the statistics on print run and
circulation they contain. I have not asked how it relates to the Council's
policies for visual arts publications and how it relates to other magazines
it supports. I have not addressed the history of Variant's relationship
to the Scottish Arts Council, which I take to be outside the remit of
this review, see Appendix I.
I have read all the issues of Variant published in the last three years
and some proceeding issues. I have had a meeting with the two editors
of the magazine and they have supplied me with the information on Variant's
production, distribution and sources of income, see Appendix II.
A) Production and Distribution
Variant has been running in its present format since October 1996. An
earlier version started in Glasgow School of Art had become a for-sale
colour art magazine on glossy paper. Occasioned by a succession of Scottish
Arts Council funding, Variant became entirely black and white, printed
on newsprint and free. It resembles the London or New York Review of Books.
Its visual style is spare and uncluttered.
Black and white on newsprint is an important editorial decision for a
visual arts magazine. It gives priority to text over visual reproduction.
A number of art magazine have started on newsprint, for example, the Arts
Review in London in the 1950s and The New Art Examiner in Chicago the
1970s, but both went glossy as advertising and circulation income grew.
It was Art Monthly, begun in the 1970s and still extant, that pioneered
art magazines as a medium primarily for critical journalism. It took the
'weeklies of opinion' - The New Statements and The Spectator - as its
print model. This re-interpretation of the art magazine came from and
was part of an international movement in art practise and critical and
academic writing now known as 'institutional critique'. This tradition
has continues, for example, as 'art beyond the gallery', 'socially engaged
art' and 'post-institution art'. Variant is part of that tradition.
Variant is free. It is posted to visual arts and other spaces throughout
the United Kingdom and Eire and to some Europe and North America. Some
10,000 copies are printed and distributed; by this means it must be the
largest non-subscription circulation of any visual arts magazine in the
UK. Each issue is published on the web. Approximately 8,500 people are
e-mailed a synopsis with links to the full articles on the web site. Producing
books, magazines and newspapers is relatively easy. Distribution is much
more difficult and it costs. Typically, a distributor takes a third of
the cover price, the retailer takes another third and the publisher gets
the remaining third. By foregoing a publisher's return and distributing
to venues with a commitment to visual culture willing to give shelf space
to a free publication, Variant gets a wide and highly targeted distribution.
'Free' newspapers and magazines are normally sustained financially by
selling advertising; an example of a culturally ambitious free publication
relying on selling advertisements is the Village Voice in New York. For
Variant, advertising has raised a significant part of its income plus
a small grant from Glasgow City Council. Its primary source of support,
however, is the time and labour given by its staff. This is typical in
the visual arts; the unpaid or minimally financially rewarded work of
the majority artists is the major source of support for art practice in
the UK (followed by the art market and then as a fraction of that, the
public sector support).
Measured against the criterion of circulation, Variant's mode of production
and distribution has made it one of the most successful UK art magazines.
B) Editorial Policy and Performance
The two editors of the magazine are artists. The production, editing and
contributions to the magazine are their primary form of art practice.
Artists producing magazines as part their work was and is wide spread
and goes back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century, for
instance, Der Blaue Reiter in Munich or Blast in London. A contemporary
example is Peter Haley's Index Magazine in New York. That the artwork
takes the form of a cultural intervention in a non-traditional art medium
does, however, have precedent, William Furlong's Audio Art for example.
Artist as publisher, editor and journalist has some resemblance to artist
as sociologist as in the case of Stephen Willats or artist as investigative
journalist might characterise Hans Hacke's work for a period. Both are
part of the tradition of institutional critique.
The tradition of institutional critique has much of its origins in the
idea of cultural hegemony. The idea that in the first instance it is through
cultural institutions, schools, the law, universities, museums and so
on that a dominant class and its interests are perpetuated. In such a
view any form of dependence on cultural institutions, be it on commercial
or public sector, will come to determine cultural practise, it will structure
perception. In these circumstances, critique, in the sense of questioning
the conditions of cultural production, including one's own, becomes complicit,
inhibited or impossible. Alternatively, existing at the interstices of
institutions, holds at bay settled conditions of practice. A different
critical space is opened up in an otherwise homogenising culture. While
not attributing to Variant these specific origins or views, Variant has
constituted itself at the interstices of institutions; the practise is
sustained between the social security system, advertising income, a municipal
grant and arts institutional support (if only in the form of free shelf
space in arts venues).
In describing Variant's editorial performance, it follows that the primary
questions are: Does it offer a particular critical space compared to other
publicly or commercially supported visual arts magazines? Is the style
and scope of the magazine significantly different from those magazines
and if so, how well does it perform in the space it has established for
itself? However, these questions should be inflected by Variant's own
stated intentions. These can be extracted concisely from the editorial
for the second edition in its present format in 1997.
What you have in your hands is an independently produced 'art' magazine,
which is distributed free in the UK and abroad. We take art to mean culture
and how culture is formed, Variant makes a contribution to this through
the work of its writers. "The writing in the magazine is 'critical';
we see this as meaning that it should function as a forum for writers
to document, report, explore, analyse and express their ideas and arguments."
Variant is neither an academic journal nor an art magazine. It offers
a kind of feral scholarship. The length of the articles and the inclusion
of citations and bibliographies do give it some resemblance to conventional
academic journals. However, its characteristic style is serious, if at
times vituperative journalism. So for instance, while sharing with the
New York published October a debt to the tradition of institutional critique,
it does not publish work using the vocabulary of academic theory. To an
extent rare in academic or art magazines, there is an editorial commitment
to plain language. Variant differs from art magazines even those with
similar production values such as Art Monthly, in the spread and range
of writing, in the length of its articles, in the emphasis on book rather
than exhibition reviews. Its cultural articles include writing on jazz,
rock, film, comics and fanzines, stand-up-comedy, art education, conference
reports, contemporary literature, art and technology.
In each edition there will be between nine and thirteen articles of varying
lengths between 500 to the 10,000 words. Below, I characterise the content
strands within the magazine since 2000 and give examples of articles within
strands. Where the title of the essay did not convey the content, I have
composed a descriptive phrase.
Accounts or exposés of some aspect of cultural policy or institutional
SAC and its policies; Artist run spaces and Asian artist; Artist initiatives
in Moscow; Community art; Film and video in Scotland.
Interviews with writers and/or artists:
Paul McCarthy (American artist); Mark Thomas (English (?) comic); James
Kelman (Scottish writer); David Chandler (Canadian critic of NATO policy
in Yugoslavia); Bob Holman (Scottish social activist).
Tales of The Great Unwashed
Articles on international politics or economics:
Asylum; A Critique of the Dayton Agreement; The assumptions of current
economic policy; The politics of drugs; Kurds in Turkey; Workers rights
in Mexico; The New Terrorism Act; The Arms Trade; Social Inclusion; Space
and psychiatric institutions; Muslims in the West after September 11.
Arguments and Ideas:
Copenhagen Free University; Against the use of science borrowed analogies
such as 'chaos theory'; Collective Cultural Action.
Essays on some aspect of the history avant-garde practice:
Catherine Drier and the Sociètè Anonyme; The Artist Placement
Group; the Sixties and Counter Culture; Raymond Roussel; Robert Fraser
I have described the magazine as un-academic but this spread of subjects
is reminiscent of at least one academic context; that eclectic tradition
of 'general studies' that used to flourish in art schools.
The characteristic style of writing in Variant is, as I have indicated,
plain un-jargonised and un-literary English. It is content-driven writing,
presenting evidenced argument. It is a serious rather than an easy read.
Some of the articles are authoritative, others less so. In the absence
of biographical notes on contributors, judging by their content, I take
some of the less authoritative pieces to be by younger art professionals.
They have been required to construct their arguments within the limits
of their knowledge, but those limits are not hard to see. Variant would
seem to be a context in which younger writers can find a platform. The
range of subjects covered and the names of contributors also suggest contributors
of diverse geographic and cultural origin. This is not a parochial magazine.
C) Conclusion: strengths, weaknesses and potential for development
Variant is not dependent on any single outside source for its survival.
The magazine will continue for as long as the editors are willing to make
it happen. Being free emerges as a very business like choice and is backed
by a business-like pursuit of advertising. Its very particular economy
gives it a wide circulation and an editorial independence, which it pursues
A fundamental point is that the editors are artists; the magazine is their
practice and is within a continuing tradition of contemporary art. That
the magazine is an art practice is acknowledged tacitly by art venues'
willingness to give the magazine free shelf space. It is within that context
that the editorial choices should be seen. The magazine is about art,
institutions, culture and what of significance and interest socially and
politically to art and artists in the view of the two artist editors.
I have tried to give some indications of the precedence for this mode
of practice in both the tradition of institutional critique and in art
What Variant offers is a unique publication. While the quality and character
of the articles vary, there is at core a wide-ranging commitment to serious,
clearly-written, critical argument. A commitment that gives circulation
to essays of a kind and/or length that would sometimes not get space in
mainstream art, academic or news and politics magazines. Some of these
are very good and important.
Variant is a major asset within visual arts culture in the UK. I knew
of Variant before writing this review and I have asked other arts professionals
in London about the magazine after been commissioned to write this report.
The number of people who know the magazine has surprised me. I know of
no other publication from Scotland in the visual arts that is as well
known and respected as Variant.
'Strengths, weaknesses and potential for development' are, of course,
terms of management. In particular, 'potential for development' clearly
implies a raft of inappropriate assumptions when applied to an art practice
as opposed to a business. (What could be the answer, for example, if the
Spanish Government had asked Picasso in 1937 what was the 'potential for
development' of his painting for the Spanish Pavilion?) There is coherence
about Variant, its mode of production, distribution and editorial character
that means that any change would not be a development, it would be a transformation.
For good or ill, it would be the loss of what Variant is now.
It would suggest failure if an art practice in the tradition of institutional
critique did not give institutions problems. It would suggest failure
if such a practice did not have a clear view of its own political economy.
The editors make their own recommendations at the end of Appendix II.
Both literally and metaphorically anybody who wants to support Variant,
should support it to be Variant.
Remit from Graham Berry, Director, Scottish Arts Council
Earlier this year Variant magazine requested an appeal against a funding
decision taken by the Scottish Arts Council but was unsuccessful. As a
result I have decided that I would like an independent review of Variant
for my own information, which will enlighten me as to its strengths, weaknesses
and potential for development. The purpose of writing is to ask if you
would be interested in undertaking this.
It is proposed that issues of the magazine published over the last 3 years
be reviewed; in the region of nine issues. I understand that they are
all posted on their website. The review should cover the following:
an objective appraisal of editorial policy
quality of writing
spread/range of writing
development of new writing/writers,
arts content balanced against broader cultural and social content
ability to stimulate critical debate and to support diverse voices
In addition Variant would like the reviewer to consider the operational
viability/capacity of the organisation and would welcome the opportunity
to be interviewed by the reviewer.
A Statement by Variant on Distribution, Readership and Income Generation
Variant is published three times a year.
We currently distribute 10,000 copies of each issue to over 300 venues
throughout the UK & Ireland, and have recently struck a deal with
AK Press distribution in the US and Marginal distribution in Canada --
these are both very limited though.
A list of distribution venues with full contact details can be found on
the web site at: www.variant.org.uk
The list constantly needs updating -- new venues added, changes of addresses,
closed venues removing. This is ongoing.
Variant undertakes the distribution itself -- contacting venues, parceling,
stamping, posting, etc.
We do not have the finances to use a distribution agency and have found
that they've a limited circulation any way. Variant can cover a broad
range of venues that a single distribution agency just couldn't -- book
shops, libraries, cinemas, universities, galleries, theatres, pubs, community
centres, conferences, one-off events, etc. This has to be updated with
each issue. This also means we can have a direct relationship with individuals
at each venue.
A SAC supported survey of distribution venues was carried out. There was
a large response and replies were overwhelmingly positive -- SAC has this
Each issue is also published on the web and approx. 8,500 people are e-mailed
a synopsis with links to the full articles on the web site. We undertake
the web design, pdf creation and increasing/promoting/maintaining the
e-mail-out ourselves. The e-mail list is international. There is also
the kernel of an on-line forum.
From the onset we decided against a cover price. Arts magazines are out
of the reach of the majority of people (including artists), both financially
and where they are to be found -- if at all. There simply aren't the sales
points in Scotland or the majority of the UK. We undertook a survey which
confirmed this which the SAC also have.
With our limited resources it was (and still is) uneconomical to charge
for the magazine and attempt to recoup the costs ourselves.
Distribution breaks down approx. as:
England - 5,000 copies per issue
Scotland - 3,300 copies per issue
Wales - 300 copies per issue
Ireland - 700 copies per issue
N. Ireland - 400 copies per issue
Canada, USA, Netherlands - 50 copies each per issue
We are currently looking into developing contacts, print run and distribution
in Northern Ireland.
With the first few issues we distributed abroad, but postage prices became
too high to maintain. We have contacted the British Council here (previously
in Glasgow now housed in Edinburgh), while supporting the magazine (verbally)
they were unwilling to contribute to or aid its distribution.
We are in the process of producing a CD ROM archive of all back issues.
It will also include artists' digital works.
A problem encountered with the SAC was not just 'proving' a readership
but 'proving' Variant also attracted new readers as new audiences for
galleries. This brings into question the nature or purpose of Critical
Writing sought in Scotland. It also raises serious questions about editorial
SAC has stated that true value can only be attributed to Variant through
purchases of the magazine. Obviously Variant is free. So there's an issue
of adhering to a prescriptive market framework, and of a convenient way
of avoiding analyse of the content of the magazine.
We have no hard information on Variant's readership in terms of age groups,
gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, spending power, education etc.
I asked SAC for information on those who attended their venues (as this
is where we distribute a large number of copies) but they could tell me
very little. I believe A&B recently published a break down.
On applying to the Lottery, funding was suggested for an 'audience' (readership)
survey but not for what we had applied for. With our resources, it was/is
unproductive to conduct a costly readership survey over and above producing
the magazine, and which we would have had to contribute towards the cost
We have carried out an audience survey within the magazine which produced
The majority of readership feed-back is from: distributors in the form
of people asking for the magazine and them wanting to stock more; people
wishing to contribute; invitations to attend/participate in events; subscriptions;
new distribution venues contacting us unprompted; peer exchange; etc.
Variant also acts as a contact point and liaison.
Variant deliberately produces and delivers a magazine which is different
from other arts/culture magazines -- in diversity of content, space given
to writers to explore issues, capacity to reach large cross-sections of
people, geographic diversity of distribution, and the organisational structure
which is artist-run.
Since re-launching in October 1996 Variant has generated the greater percentage
of revenue itself, covering: printing, distribution, equipment, web development,
external projects, overheads...
The majority of income is raised through advertising, with subscriptions
being a much lesser part.
Variant is run on a voluntary basis, while we endeavour to remunerate
the designer and fund-raiser.
One person works on generating income from advertising, and the editors
have made applications to the SAC, ACE, Lottery, Glasgow City Council,
Foundations & Trusts.
Advertising averages at under £3,000 per issue. Recently there has
been a UK-wide down-turn in advertising revenue (see A&B), Variant
Advertisers are predominantly galleries.
As the magazine is free and with such a large circulation, numerically
and geographically, subscriptions are minimal. Variant runs the subscriptions
On application, the SAC has provided: contribution towards contributors
fees; limited travel funding; limited development funding. All monies
were ring fenced, and in our experience the application and justification
process highly disproportionate.
Variant has applied for and received SAC project funding on a year-by-year
basis (the only support for Critical Writing the SAC has/had out with
Revenue Status) and some specific funds. Funding was sought from SAC Literature
and Visual Arts Departments. SAC money for contributors was approx. £2,000
Glasgow City Council and private trusts have contributed towards production
costs of Variant.
It currently costs £1,500 to print 10,000 copies of the magazine
and an equivalent amount in distribution. £10,000 per annum covers
these basic costs.
A problem is that SAC claim to no longer act primarily as a 'funding body'
but as a 'development agency' -- abandoning extending their role as a
core revenue provider. (Variant was previously core funded, I believe
at £20,000 per annum until 1994.) We've asked to be considered for
renewed revenue support on several occasions. What we would like is basic
support for what we do and what we can realistically achieve here and
If the SAC were to provide a form of stability in meeting these core costs
(and in a reasonable way), Variant could then use the revenue it generates
to develop. It is my opinion that it is the role of the SAC to provide
this security. Loading 'development' criteria on top of the difficulties
of self-generating core-revenue is unworkable.