The Decisive Moment

A new editor deals with the aftermath of Artforum’s #MeToo scandal

Graphic by Darrel Frost.

In late October 2017, three of the four publishers of Artforum called David Velasco, the magazine’s Web editor, into a private meeting and offered him the job of editor in chief. Velasco, who is 40, had been working at the magazine for 12 years, his entire career in the art world. The situation might have been ideal—the kind of reward for loyalty that rarely happens in media anymore—had it not come at a moment of crisis. The magazine’s fourth publisher, Knight Landesman, who had for decades served as its glamorous public face, was resigning in the midst of a sexual harassment lawsuit from Amanda Schmitt, a former employee. Michelle Kuo, the editor in chief, was also resigning, as were two other prominent staffers: longtime senior editor Prudence Peiffer and advertising department manager Elizabeth Grosser. Galleries were pulling ads from Artforum to protest Landesman’s actions, and rumors floated that it—the art world’s most prominent magazine, a half-century-old bastion of modern criticism—might shutter entirely.

For the three remaining publishers, Charles Guarino, Anthony Korner, and Danielle McConnell, each of whom has a separate area of responsibility and a slice of equity in the magazine (as does Landesman), promoting Velasco was a safe bet. He was an office veteran who could offer internal stability, and he could present a new, post-Landesman face of the institution without the trouble of complete turnover. “David has a natural inclination to challenge existing hierarchies and champion emerging voices, all while upholding our exacting editorial standards,” McConnell wrote to me in an email. 

For Velasco, however, the promotion presented a dilemma. Accepting meant taking responsibility for an ongoing PR disaster as well as placing himself in a different camp from the staffers who had left. “I was terrified at the prospect,” he said. He had suspected that there was interest in eventually making him editor of the magazine—the previous year, the publishers had moved his office next to Kuo’s, and she had increasingly been involving him in decisions, like choosing covers. “But it wasn’t in any way certain to me, and it wasn’t something I knew if I wanted,” he told me. (Kuo declined to comment for this article, though she did participate in fact-checking.)

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Velasco told the publishers that he needed time to think about it. He walked down the street outside the office and called a few art-world friends; all advised him to take the job without hesitation. “And I’m very happy I did,” he told me when I met him in his new Artforum office, which occupies a corner of the 19th floor of a building in Manhattan’s flower district. He had filled the small room with lush, tall plants acquired from the neighborhood outside. Velasco is now more than a year and a half into his tenure, and the magazine has gradually restaffed and reemerged. (“I love the new Artforum,” New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz declared last year, praising its focus on “real-world subjects rather than insular or technical matters that might’ve preoccupied the magazine in earlier eras.”) In his first weeks, though, Velasco recalls, “I didn’t have time to even think about logistical concerns. My first instincts were, How do I reassure everyone that if they want to have a job here, they have a job here?” 

Stability was more important to the editor in the short term; overhauling the magazine could happen over time. The moment, he concluded, presented an opportunity—not only for himself but for the magazine, which had long been dogged by a reputation, only partially deserved, for being impenetrable, alienating, elitist. This image of self-serving pretentiousness had only sharpened when Landesman was accused of using the magazine’s authority to promise career advancement to young women who tolerated his advances.

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Over hours of interviews with Velasco, along with interviews of former and current staffers and conversations with more than a dozen editors and writers both within and outside of Artforum, it became clear that Velasco’s story is not the familiar fairy tale of an iconoclastic, charismatic young editor in chief making his mark on media and culture by taking over a magazine. Nor is it solely about the #MeToo movement’s success at ushering in a new and more diverse generation of tastemakers who have no tolerance for men who use their power to exploit.

Rather, Velasco’s appointment speaks to the efforts of a calcified institution to find a new way forward from complacency and silence. The question is, can a veteran of that institution lead sincere reform? 

 

In the art world, Artforum is a kind of Death Star, warping gravity around it, making or breaking the reputations of artists, curators, dealers, and writers alike. Everyone has a relationship with it: art critics either write for Artforum, aspire to contribute, or take pride in the fact that they don’t. (I have previously held staff jobs at Artinfo and Hyperallergic and written for many art publications, though not for Artforum.) The magazine’s design—square, glossy, defiantly unwieldy—is itself a status symbol. “It’s the one you put on your coffee table to show you have a certain intellectual cachet,” says Rachel Corbett, deputy editor of Artnet News, who first reported on the Landesman lawsuit.

Velasco thinks of Artforum as an authoritative cultural voice, on the same level as Vogue or The New Yorker. He describes the magazine as “breaking ideas” rather than news. “I would be very happy for David Remnick to be reading Artforum,” Velasco says. “He should be.” The magazine has always been ambitious, but Velasco has added an emphasis on general readership. He is also part of the recent wave of newly installed young editors of legacy titles, including Will Welch at GQ, Radhika Jones at Vanity Fair, David Haskell at New York, and Emily Nemens at The Paris Review. (An outsider to the Review, Nemens was hired to replace Lorin Stein, another #MeToo-fueled resignation.) 

The weight of its reputation can make you forget that Artforum is actually far younger than other industry titles like ARTnews or Art in America, both of which debuted in the early 20th century. Artforum was founded in 1962 in San Francisco by John P. Irwin Jr., a printing company salesman and gallery watcher who sought to cover the West Coast’s neglected art scene. The project floundered until 1965, when it was bought by Charles Cowles, stepson of publishing magnate Gardner Cowles.

In 1967, under Philip Leider as editor in chief, the magazine moved to New York City, where it built on the fading glamour of the Abstract Expressionist era. With essays and reviews in Clement Greenberg’s polemical style of theory-heavy criticism, Artforum established itself as the home for serious discussion of art at a time when such criticism was fashionable. The late sixties and seventies were “possibly the last major moment for high-stakes, exclusionary-judgments criticism, criticism on which everything is riding,” says Jason Farago, a New York Times art critic and erstwhile Artforum contributor. In the decades following, Artforum became synonymous with this absolutist mode of criticism.

Janet Malcolm’s 1986 New Yorker profile “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” of newly established Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy, provides a social history of the magazine. (A copy of Malcolm’s book Forty-One False Starts, which includes this profile, sits on a crowded shelf behind the desk in Velasco’s office.) Malcolm describes Artforum at the time as having the feeling of “a powerful and exclusive men’s club.” In the piece she interviews the critic Barbara Rose, who recalls being part of what Malcolm dubs the “Artforum Mafia”: “We were a group of people who had had the same kind of education addressing the same topics from different points of view,” Rose says. “You were talking to other people. It might only be five people but you were talking to somebody.” The magazine’s art-for-art’s-sake elitism and social insularity were blatant and unapologetic. “I don’t believe in democracy in art,” Rose tells Malcolm.

Like any magazine that survives its first issues, Artforum went through editorial phases. The seventies were dominated by a cabal of austere critic-contributors, including Rose, Rosalind E. Krauss, Michael Fried, and Robert Pincus-Witten. Eventually several of them left, in part over the publication of an ad by artist Lynda Benglis that featured a prominent dildo. In 1979, Charles Cowles sold the magazine to a consortium of investors. At its head was Anthony Korner, who took over as publisher and remains at Artforum today. Knight Landesman joined as advertising associate in 1981 and gained a reputation as a great salesman, glad-handing gallerists who bought ads; he became executive publisher in 1988. It was Korner who offered the editor role to Sischy when she was just 27 years old. Her first issue was filled with artist-made images rather than critical writing. The abrupt change, combined with her relative inexperience, provoked a backlash from contributors and readers. 

Sischy’s magazine was unabashedly of the eighties. “Rather than thin and specialist, Artforum got glossy, bossy, exclusive, faddish, smart, and cliquish, in new ways that had less to do with academia,” Jerry Saltz wrote in a memorial for Sischy. She was seen as unserious and unfashionably engaged in politics. Malcolm casts shade on Sischy’s artistic bona fides, too, writing, “Her vision of contemporary art is shaped first by societal concerns and only secondarily by aesthetic concerns.”

Sischy was editor until 1988, when she was followed by Ida Panicelli, and then Jack Bankowsky. Tim Griffin took over in 2003, then Kuo in 2010. Kuo had started as a senior editor at Artforum while pursuing an art history PhD at Harvard. As editor in chief she steered the magazine in an academic direction, with issue themes like identity politics and art’s place in everyday life. She had a dry sense of editorial humor: for an issue that included an essay on Gerhard Richter, known for his abstract paintings blurred by squeegee brushes, Kuo put a squeegee painting by the lesser-known artist Jack Whitten on the cover. 

Within this editorial legacy, Velasco might be seen as following in Sischy’s tradition—like her, he is a younger voice, motivated by politics as well as aesthetics. He is less interested in celebrity, though, and does not share his predecessor’s willingness to immediately overturn the magazine’s status quo or rip up an issue’s worth of articles. Where Sischy was an outsider, he is an insider: a product of the same institutional culture as Landesman.

 

On July 11, 2017, Amanda Schmitt and her lawyer Emily Reisbaum sent a formal letter to Artforum accusing Landesman of sexual harassment. Schmitt had worked as a circulation assistant under Landesman from 2009, when she was 21, to 2012. During this time, Schmitt claimed, Landesman sent her suggestive texts and emails and touched her inappropriately. The harassment allegedly continued after she left the magazine; in December 2012, she recalled, he pushed for a “friendship” with “no boundaries.” In June 2016, Schmitt first met with Guarino and McConnell, showing them recent messages from Landesman. They assured her that whatever he was doing would stop. It did not. (Schmitt declined to comment for this article, but Reisbaum confirmed this account.) Then, Schmitt and Reisbaum sent the letter, which requested that Artforum provide a written agreement to prevent further harassment, cover Schmitt’s legal and therapy bills, and make a $250,000 donation to Catalyst, an organization that supports women in the workplace. Artforum’s lawyers met with Reisbaum, but negotiations broke down when they insisted that Schmitt not speak about Landesman to the media. In October 2017, Schmitt filed suit.

The lawsuit was an early case of #MeToo in the art world. The industry has not seen the number of public accusations that the worlds of entertainment and media have, though perhaps not for a lack of incidents: Ben Genocchio, a former art-media executive (and my boss at one time), resigned from the Armory Show after a New York Times article reported accusations of sexual harassment by eight women; the painter Chuck Close has likewise faced accusations from multiple women. Corbett, the reporter for Artnet, told me that she believed the lawsuit against Landesman got attention because it happened so soon after the Harvey Weinstein allegations. “When the first story came out, the floodgates opened,” she said. She heard many more reports of Landesman’s transgressions. “I spoke to maybe 30 women after that, some of whose accounts we ended up reporting and some we didn’t.” The news surfaced the art world’s deeply embedded gender inequality, including at the magazine; artist Micol Hebron recently found that only 18 percent of Artforum covers since the magazine began have featured women artists.

In a statement to Artnet on October 24, Guarino, Korner, and McConnell defended Landesman, describing Schmitt’s accusations as “an attempt to exploit a relationship that she herself worked hard to create and maintain.” Former employees told me that the publishers then called a series of staff meetings, dividing the office by department—editorial, advertising, circulation, and so on—to announce news of the lawsuit. Kuo had already submitted her resignation on October 18. “I felt that, in light of the troubling allegations surrounding one of our publishers, I could no longer serve as a public representative of Artforum,” she explained. Then, on October 25, 2017, Landesman resigned. (Landesman and his lawyer declined to comment for this article.) 

Velasco was named the new editor in chief on October 26. It was also Kuo’s last day at the magazine. (Kuo was appointed a curator at MoMA the following February.) The staff put out a statement the next day, signed by Velasco and 53 other employees of Artforum and Bookforum, disavowing the publishers’ response to Schmitt: “We are now gravely aware of the work that needs to be done at our own publication.” Velasco didn’t hesitate to sign the letter, he told me, explaining, “We needed to demonstrate that we condemned the way that the magazine handled the allegations.”

The remaining publishers quickly softened their stance, but it didn’t do much to placate critics. A group called We Are Not Surprised (WANS), described on its website as comprising women and transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people working in the art world, released an open letter in response to the publishers’ defense of Landesman. The letter spoke out against sexual harassment and bias, quoted the artist Jenny Holzer—“Abuse of power comes as no surprise”—and counts more than 9,500 signatories, including artists Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman. (WANS did not return my queries for this article.)

Landesman had long been the subject of speculation about a lack of boundaries with women, but many who worked with him inside and outside the Artforum office told me that they had not realized how far his actions went. Kate Sutton, Artforum’s international editor, told me, “It was not an easy time for anyone. There was a lot of grief in multiple directions.” After Landesman’s resignation, she flew from Zagreb, Croatia, where she lives, to New York to offer her support to the rest of the staff. Sutton had been particularly close with Landesman. “Knight was like a father figure to me,” she said. “I used to speak to him every day, and then to not talk to him at all, it was a shock.” 

Velasco was similarly mournful when talking about Landesman. “I had an amazing relationship with Knight; I felt very safe with him,” he said. “It’s a very different picture of him now. I wish everybody could have had the experience I had.”

Chandra Glick, a photo editor at Artforum, was less nostalgic. After Peiffer, the longtime senior editor, left, Glick debated whether to stay at the magazine. There was an “anger you could feel every single day in the office,” she said of that fall and winter. “If you’re a person who has ever had to deal with trauma, that gets called up.” 

O.K. Fox, who worked in circulation and at reception, told me the magazine was “hemorrhaging” staff in the aftermath of the lawsuit. In addition to Kuo, Peiffer, and Grosser, other departures included senior editor Julian Rose, editor Paige K. Bradley, assistant editor Isabel Flower, and another assistant editor, though not all were in public response to Landesman. It was a dramatic shake-up for a magazine with only a few dozen names on its masthead. Perhaps sensing the discord within the office, the publishers bought the editorial staff lunch every day for about a month—a small gesture that was outweighed by a drop in their usual biannual bonuses, according to employees. Fox was unhappy with the leadership at Artforum—“They haven’t done anything to address the fact they covered up an abuser for years”—but stayed on until mid-January to collect health insurance. 

WANS and dealers like 303 Gallery’s Lisa Spellman were pushing for a boycott. The magazine entered a now-familiar state of #MeToo limbo: The abuser might be gone, but what does an institution have to do to demonstrate that it is trustworthy again? McConnell convened a group of female colleagues and went on a diplomatic tour of New York galleries, where they met with gallery staff to answer questions about what had happened and what Artforum was doing about it. This seemed to allay suspicions toward the magazine as well as fears that it might disappear.

Ultimately, Velasco’s promotion to editor also succeeded in keeping many staffers and contributors on board. “It could have looked good to bring someone in from outside, but honestly, you needed someone who really loved the magazine to deal with the months that followed,” Sutton, the international editor, said. Glick agreed: “It was reassuring that it was someone whose values I was still in line with, that it was someone from here who I already had a positive relationship with.”

Landesman still owns equity in the magazine, though the publishers are trying to reclaim it. He seems to think his exile is temporary; this past February, he attended the Frieze art fair in Los Angeles, wearing one of his trademark brightly colored suits.

 

January 2018 marked Velasco’s first issue as editor of Artforum. It was devoted to abuses of power. Features included coverage of photographer Nan Goldin’s work indicting the Sackler family for its hand in the opiate epidemic; writing by Johanna Fateman on feminism and sexual violence; and an essay by Paul B. Preciado on “Baroque Technopatriarchy.” For the cover, Velasco used an image by Kia LaBeija, a vogue dancer born with HIV—a less established and more personal choice of artist than the magazine’s usual. Velasco’s impassioned inaugural editor’s letter criticized “angry or sad or self-loathing men,” all but naming Landesman.

In Janet Malcolm’s profile of Ingrid Sischy, everyone seems to live in Manhattan lofts of varying degrees of scale and austerity. In the decades since the eighties, however, the art world has gentrified along with the city. These days, you can’t afford a SoHo loft even on an editor in chief’s salary. Velasco lives in a rent-stabilized apartment in an aging building in a neighborhood of Brooklyn often called South Williamsburg, if only to separate it from the glitzy new condo towers on the waterfront. His two boyfriends Ryan and Sam, both artists, also live in the building, occupying apartments on lower floors. The arrangement is convenient except that they all tend to congregate in Velasco’s space, making it tough when he has to work late. 

I met him there one morning. We talked over Nespresso on a couch in a second bedroom that he had turned into an office. It was again full of foliage: a snake plant, a papyrus, an orchid. Slouched on Velasco’s lap was Sister, a motherly pit bull he adopted in 2018. A large, luminescent abstract painting by Jack Brusca, whose work Velasco knew from a sign Brusca had made on Fire Island, hung above the couch—a recent acquisition. The painting was the first significant piece of art he had ever bought: $2,000, from the internet rather than a brick-and-mortar gallery. (As a prominent art editor, buying from a gallery would be complicated, but Velasco adds, “I can’t afford the work I see at the galleries who advertise with us.”) 

Velasco is casual and soft-spoken; he tends to build thoughts gradually, testing ideas out sentence by sentence. Describing him as handsome is unavoidable. His dark hair seems permanently tousled and his eyelashes belong on some exotic animal. At home, before work, he wore the Brooklyn-standard professional uniform: chambray shirt, jeans, Nike sneakers. 

He grew up in Portland, Oregon, in what he described as a matriarchy; he was cared for by his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, who taught him to read when he was three. (His father, a musician of Mexican descent from Los Angeles, left just after he was born.) In high school, Velasco was the opinion editor of the school newspaper and pursued interests in literature, theater, and modern dance. Senior year he would go out dancing at a club called La Luna, which had a queer night every Monday. No one in his family had gone to college, so he had little preparation when graduation came. He applied to just one local school, Reed College, and was admitted. He paid his way with scholarships from Reed and the Ford Foundation. Entering his first classical humanities seminar, he remembers, “was total culture shock. Everyone else seemed to have a foundation for this stuff.” But he was up for the challenge, promising himself: “Okay, I’m not going to drop out, I’m going to figure it out.” 

From Reed, where he encountered theorists like Lucy Lippard and artists like Adrian Piper as guest lecturers, Velasco went to New York University, graduating with a fluency in critical theory and mounting student debt. His first day job was as a marketing assistant at the academic publisher Routledge (he chose the company because it had published Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble), but the work left him bored. He found a listing online for an editorial assistant at Artforum, and dropped off his résumé in person at the front desk. “Nobody does that. It’s so insane that I did that,” he recalls. “They hired me, which is also very unlikely.” He gradually began contributing to the magazine and worked his way up to Web editor, where he developed Artforum’s Scene & Herd column, an infamous fixture of art media that toggles between party reporting, social commentary, and self-satire. 

Velasco’s Artforum reflects his enduring interests in ideas of gender, activism, and performance. His background, atypical for the art-world elite, provides a perspective that could help shift the magazine toward more mainstream concerns. His most radical gesture so far, and certainly the one that got the widest notice, was to put the mascot-meme Gritty, a symbol of chaotic internet-y leftism, on the December 2018 cover—crossing a highbrow-lowbrow line that the magazine traditionally avoids. (The idea started as a jokey email suggestion from Glick, who said she finds Velasco more collaborative and less hierarchical than Kuo.) But although he wants Artforum to be more open, he has found that some elitism is useful. “I’m happy for people to think of it as a club that’s kind of hard to get into; that’s not a bad thing,” he says.

In his second print issue, Velasco published a 12,000-word essay on Wonder Woman and archetypes of feminism by Sarah Nicole Prickett, a regular contributor and close friend. It was one of the longest pieces the magazine has ever run. Prickett describes Velasco as someone who “loves writers, which is very rare, because writers are not lovable,” and who has an appreciation for writing that is challenging as well as readable. “People get upset if they have to feel stupid for even a moment,” Prickett says. “David likes things that are more poetically confusing. He likes a good koan.”

Artforum’s May 2019 edition, which had the theme “art and activism,” is the issue that best shows Velasco’s vision; even if it were his only accomplishment at the magazine, he says, he would be satisfied. In his editor’s letter, he writes about the tension between the purist’s idea of art for art’s sake and the desire for art to make real change in the world in trying times. “I’ve recently been in a lot of rooms with justifiably angry people trying to figure out whether art can do more,” he writes.

Since early 2018, though, Artforum has barely addressed the lawsuit against Landesman, which is ongoing, and Velasco has done little to break the silence. Reisbaum has added claims of defamation and retaliation to the lawsuit, arguing that Artforum’s public response as well as its conversations behind closed doors damaged Schmitt’s reputation. In January 2019, New York’s Supreme Court dismissed the case, at Artforum’s and Landesman’s lawyers’ urging, on the grounds that the connection between Schmitt’s employment at Artforum and Landesman’s actions was tenuous and distant in time. Reisbaum has appealed the dismissal, in part on the basis that there is no legal time limit.

When I ask Velasco about Schmitt, who is after all a former colleague of his, he points only to his editorial content. “If anybody’s paying attention to what’s going on inside the magazine, they’ll see a response,” he says. “That might not be satisfying to everybody, but that’s what I have to offer right now.” 

Addressing the institutional culture that sustained years of Landesman’s alleged abuses will require more from Artforum’s leadership than critical essays. Failing to do so risks even further alienating those the former publisher hurt. “A bit of transparency would be good,” Fox, the former employee, says. “It’s not enough to have a veneer of content that’s progressive if it isn’t structural or systemic.”

Velasco argues that Artforum is a “small business” obligated to defend itself from what he describes as a $500,000 lawsuit, and that the courts will provide a final answer for Schmitt. Velasco’s authority is surely limited; the publishers are making the legal decisions. But his response has an aura of hypocrisy coming from someone who appears, on paper, so invested in creating more equitable, alternative social structures. 

 

Still, Artforum seems to be back on its feet. It remains financially independent—a rare accomplishment in a sector of media that has consolidated in recent years. McConnell informed me that the magazine’s ad pages took a hit after the lawsuit but have since recovered, and Velasco described substantial jumps in the number of ads in this year’s issues. Most recently, in July, the magazine published an essay that was instrumental in forcing Warren Kanders, the owner of a company that manufactures tear gas used by US Customs and Border Protection, to resign from the board of the Whitney Museum. 

The art world is invested, to some extent, in the magazine’s inviolability, as a monument to the community’s intellectual seriousness and insular identity. There’s a wagon-circling defensiveness around the crisis. “Artforum has been around for so long and so many people have connections to it that they took [critique] as a personal attack,” says Hrag Vartanian, the editor in chief of Hyperallergic. Another way to say it is that the art world has been struck by a kind of willful amnesia. As the artist Sharon Louden described it to me: “Artists are so starving for validation [from Artforum] that we smoothed it over, and that makes us complicit.”

On a rainy evening at the end of May, I attended a crowded panel that Artforum hosted at the New School, in Manhattan. It was called “How Soon Is Now: Art, Activism, and Accountability” and included Nan Goldin, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, art historian Claire Bishop, Artforum writer Tobi Haslett, and Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum. Velasco moderated. Some in the audience planned a protest—an email had gone out the day before calling on people to bombard Velasco during the Q&A session with questions about Landesman and the magazine’s lack of accountability. 

In his introduction to the event, Velasco, dressed again in jeans-chambray-sneakers, briefly addressed the magazine’s culpability after Landesman’s resignation. How could Artforum possibly point fingers? “My answer is simple: I can’t,” he said. “This experience drove my understanding of what the magazine should be and what it might be able to offer.” 

The panel proceeded to discuss whether activism could be a form of art and how politics commingles with aesthetics, with Velasco gently maintaining the momentum. After the Q&A began, a woman requested a mic and asked why Velasco had spoken, in his introduction, as if the Landesman problem were over when in fact the case was still open. Would Artforum address the accusations in court or continue to push for dismissal? 

In response to the question, Velasco gave a weary grin, to laughter, and began, “We are following normal legal procedure.” His tone was uncharacteristically formal and brief, with a forced politesse. No further questions on Schmitt followed, and the woman’s thread wasn’t picked back up by audience members or panelists. Discussion continued into the more generalized, abstract realms of museum ethics, governmental responsibility, and the problem of capitalism writ large, until Velasco concluded the event. The audience applauded and filed quietly out.

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Kyle Chayka has contributed to publications including The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and The Paris Review. He is the author of The Longing for Less, a book on minimalism (forthcoming from Bloomsbury). Follow him on Twitter @chaykak.