The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Jessica Lynne is a Brooklyn-based writer and arts administrator. She is also co-editor of ARTS.BLACK, a platform for art criticism from black perspectives. Jessica contributes to publications such as Art in America, The Art Newspaper, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and Pelican Bomb. She was founding editor of the now defunct Zora Magazine. Currently, Jessica serves as the Manager of Development and Communication at Recess. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @lynne_bias.
We sat down over coffee in midtown to discuss a wide range of topics from Jessica’s first jobs in the art world to how she defines innovation through launching the ARTS.BLACK platform and the Black Art Incubator at Recess.
Brett Wallace: What was your origin in art?
Jessica Lynne: That’s a great question. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my dad taking me and my brother to a local children’s museum where they had a few Norman Rockwell paintings on view. And, as an adult it doesn’t strike me as odd, but as a child, I actually had no context for really understanding who Rockwell was or why my father was particularly inclined to enjoy his work. Now, I get it. Rockwell has a particularly uncanny way about of visualizing Americana that remains important.
In high school, I was an athlete, though I think I was always cognizant of culture and theater and dance, just not actively plugged in. It wasn’t until I came to New York for school that I started to think critically about cultural production. I went to NYU, stopped playing sports, and found myself kind of in this new generation of burgeoning hip-hop writers. That forced me to think differently about what was happening in music, especially in New York City.
BW: Were there a few people that were meaningful to you back then in terms of influences?
JL: I found great influences in people like Marcella Runell Hall, now at Mount Holyoke, who was working at the Center for Multi-Education and Programs at NYU at the time. Marcella is a hip-hop pedagogy scholar. There was also a professor, Daniel Banks, who was doing some cool work around hip-hop and theater. I got deep into that before swinging over, finally, to fine art and visual culture. In 2010 that I started writing for Zora Magazine. Eventually, I was brought on to the editorial team by my good friend Ope, and I sort of led the culture vertical.
While there, I was commissioning a lot of interviews, doing a lot of reviews on, still at the time, hip-hop related things, but slowly merging over into other disciplines and forms. I got to a point where I realized that there were smarter people writing about hip-hop; it’s a beautiful genre of journalism and cultural criticism, but it was okay if I wasn’t doing it. It was also in school that I was first introduced to bell hooks and her book Art on my Mind and in that book she’s writing about a particular type of art criticism that I actually didn’t see in the field. I was like, oh I can do that.
In 2010 digital publications were starting to blossom and a lot of traditional art magazines were also migrating to digital. This was the landscape as I started to write more publicly. Also, after school, I took a job at this important organization, 651 ARTS, a performing arts organization in Brooklyn dedicated to performing arts of the African Diaspora.
There I was — trying my hand at art criticism, learning the beautiful history of this organization, and encountering a new host of artists and the dots started to connect for me. I think I told you in our earlier conversation, I was also working part-time at Bonhams.
BW: Yes, Bonhams, the auction house. That was your first professional art gig, right?
JL: I started at Bonhams first and then moved over to 651.
BW: They are very different in scope. Nonprofit versus for profit. A utility versus an ideology.
JL: I really like that language, utility versus ideology, actually. I was caught in that. The position at Bonhams was important to me because I am not someone who studied art history. I was able to acquire the knowledge that I should have arguably had as someone who wanted to write about art. At 651, I spent time thinking about how these two very different canons either were or were not as robust as they should’ve been. I was doing a lot, probably more than I should have been doing at 22.
BW: It sounds like you were learning about what you ultimately wanted to do by testing new ventures.
JL: Yes. We were on the other side of the recession, and I think a lot of people my age were trying to figure out how to make their way in the world. I told myself, “okay I'm going to try nonprofit work, I'm going to try my hand at writing, and then I'm also going to be in the auction house orbit for a bit and see what sticks.” It just so happened that something stuck.
BW: That sums up work life today; test a lot of things, find what you love to do, and can be great at and go for it. It takes some dead ends to find. I always loved what Steve Jobs said about work, “If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.” How do you describe the multiple roles you live in today?
JL: Most often I usually just say I'm a writer and an art administrator, which is rather boring. But I do feel like fundamentally as we have come to understand those terms, they fit well for me. You know like some people have thought of ARTS.BLACK as a type of innovation effort and so, by extension, people refer to me and Taylor, my co-editor, as innovators. Admittedly, I don't always see myself that way but those are my own hang ups.
BW: Innovation has a long steep history of what product life cycles and disruption and it comes from a corporate lens.
JL: And maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the subtext. How do I acknowledge that I’m offering something new to the world without feeling like I'm kind of using language from a world that doesn’t exactly match my own, as a nonprofit worker, as a critic? Those are my own hang-ups. But I do like using the term “art administrator” understanding that language as someone who helps to place frames around work that’s already being done by artists, helping to think critically about how to make those processes as efficient as possible, as rigorous as possible. I don’t know what the other terminology I would use at the moment.
BW: Yeah, you’re comfortable with it .
JL: Super comfortable, but I’m aware that language often fails us.
BW: I suppose this is a two-part question. How did you get started with ARTS.BLACK, as an online journal? I think you frame it as a journal. And what is the vision that you have, at least now being a couple years into it?
JL: I love telling this story. Taylor and I had a host of mutual friends, who had been saying for years, that we needed to meet. When we finally met, I knew that something good would come from the friendship. We kept in touch and a few months later, Taylor posts a Facebook status asking people to identify young, black, art critics are. It becomes this thread of hundreds of comments and while that’s happening, me and her are also texting. She sends me a message saying that she’s purchased this URL, arts.black. She’s like “I have this idea, I know you’re a writer, I'm interested in cultural production, I'm a writer, let’s do this thing.” It’s almost hard to say no to that. Taylor’s energy is very laser focused.
We started off on Tumblr which was great in the beginning because we needed a platform that would allow us to disseminate the idea very quickly. A lot of the other young, black, art critics that we were reading were also publishing work on Tumblr. The decision to start on that platform served a dual purpose, and the mission was quite simple: to find young, black, art critics, people who weren’t necessarily being published in the mainstream journals, and to publish them in ours. Early on, we realized that we wanted ARTS.BLACK to be both a site for new writing and also a feeder, providing writers opportunities with other publications. That was and is really important. As an editor, I recognize that there are places who should absolutely pay attention to the writers I publish.
BW: Oh, that’s a super interesting way to think about a business model.
JL: We’ve had some great people write for us who are also writing for other publications. I don’t ever want ARTS.BLACK to be the only place where you can find black critics. But, if you do need a starting point, you can come to us.
BW: I like how you’re trying to use it as a platform that not only publishes, but closes the gap to publishing. How does the model work? What have you most learned about the model that stuck with you?
JL: I have to be so honest, as someone who also works in the nonprofit world, I was very adamant about not becoming a 501(c)(3). Taylor and I had many conversations about the pros and cons, and I was adamant about not moving in that direction. I didn’t want to fight for grants. I didn’t want to labor over proposals. It’s exhausting. We decided to become an LLC. However, most funding opportunities are still relegated to formal philanthropy so we also have a fiscal sponsor.
But, I still think that the LLC is an important statement to make, in that, we are beholden to only ourselves. A fiscal sponsor offers flexibility, and it allows us to acquire funds through grants should we decide to apply every now and again, but I didn’t want that to represent the entirety of the fiscal model. We don’t quite yet have a subscription model in place, so that’s one of the reasons that we took the break, to really look at a business structure. And, as many entrepreneurs have to do, sometimes you just figure it out as you’re in it. I'm really excited for 2017, because I think this is the year where we’ll learn what exactly it means to run, not just a journal, but a business. How do we ensure that subscribers feel compelled to give over five dollars a month to enjoy these essays that we’re publishing? What is our responsibility to them, then once they give?
BW: Yes, in terms of distribution of content, breathe of content etc.
JL: Exactly. ARTS.BLACK is not unlike any other publication. It requires us to ask tough questions and to dig our heels in and learn some things that we probably would not have imagined and considered.
BW: I imagine whether or not to take on advertising is a big decision.
JL: It’s a huge question that isn’t going away. We’re definitely trying to figure out the best model. Do we go advertising with a mix of a subscription? Do we do no advertising and go maybe the route of the Big Round Table or Mother Jones?We’re definitely learning a lot and I think that at two years in, this is part of the maturation process.
BW: How is thinking about the product and pool of writers you’re working with?
JL: I definitely want to grow the source, grow the pool.
BW: So you’re open to emerging writers or critics reaching out to you?
JL: Absolutely, but we’re also going to scale down. On the other side of our break, we’re coming back with a monthly issue form, publishing two pieces a month. While this means we can only publish two writers a month, I think it will force us to be as thoughtful as possible as editors. We’ve also divided up the labor in new ways. Taylor will solely work on the publishing side of things and head the business efforts, and I will lead the editorial efforts.
BW: As you said, less is more. If you limit it or create self imposed rules, it could allow you to focus and be experimental. What does it mean for you to be a critic in the art world today given the state of the state?
JL: I am someone who’s always understood and believed that writing is a political gesture. And, I also acknowledge the ways that artists and other cultural producers really use their work to respond to a moment. I think that’s my responsibility as a critic — to document and preserve what’s happening in real time so that there’s an archive that is created. It becomes a tool from which people in the future can learn, but also a way of acknowledging that artists are problem solvers. Artists ask questions of the world, and those questions and inquiries and investigations deserve to be taken seriously. They also deserve to be acknowledged in a public manner that invites other folks to respond to them.
I think critics are able to do that and the best critics want that to happen, so that’s what I'm really trying to do. Who aren’t we hearing? Like you said, what voices don’t make it to the center when we’re in these moments of political upheaval?
BW: I like the idea of what you’re saying, shining a light on these parts of the world that are so critical or unseen right now.
JL: As an administrator and a critic, I'm going to wear both hats now, I think that there are multiple centers. There are multiple places where fantastic work is being created and fantastic deep high level conversations are happening. It’s my responsibility to see it and to always acknowledge it and celebrate it when I can. I live in New York, so that means that I can’t be in Kansas City all the time, but if I know something’s happening, and if I know people are doing great work there, I want to be able to proclaim it, and I want to be able to ask questions of it, and create space for it.
BW: Who or what inspires you?
JL: I have been spending a lot of time re-reading two critics, Barbara Smith and Lucy Lippard. Barbara Smith identifies as a black feminist critic, and was part of a group of women who founded the Combahee River Collective. They put forth a few texts, the most seminal being This Bridge Called My Back. Smith wrote this pretty brilliant essay “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism” and in this essay, she identifies what her responsibility is to other black women artists as someone who identifies as a critic. She wrote this in the ‘70’s, and I think I maybe read it once in college, but it’s very different now reading it given the new political reality.
I’ve been returning to her essay because I'm also trying to negotiate my responsibility, as we’ve been talking about, as a critic, but also as someone who identifies as a black feminist. On the other side of that, Lucy Lippard is someone who made it a point to think about multiple centers. Both women were around the same time, at the height of the feminist revolution, the height of the black power movement, the black arts movement. I think they present to me some really important lenses through which I may examine what’s happening now.
I’ve been inspired by them recently, and I'm trying not to end up in a rabbit hole of reading everything by them. Then, more broadly speaking, I’ve been really inspired by the collective energy of so many people in the country right now. It’s hard not to think about what’s happening under this current administration. But folks are coming out and showing up in big ways, and it’s hard to ignore them; that feels so potent right now, the urgency in that. I think people are realizing how high the stakes are. I’ve been galvanized by watching so many of my peers and friends and colleagues join the ranks and commit to, not just a one-time movement but a mobilization effort.
BW: Yeah, it’s inspiring. As they say, planes take off against the wind. Do you have an unrealized project?
JL: Oh, man. This is a great one because this is going to hold me accountable. So I’ve come back to essay writing that’s not related to art or visual culture. We’ll see how successful I am in that, because maybe at this point everything for me is rotating around visual and performance culture. But I really want to write a series of essays about my father and his biological father. The thesis of the project is in my connection to them and the invisible things that you inherit from people. At the same time, I really would like to use this project to think about the landscape of black Americana from about 1968 into the present moment. I believe in that project, intellectually so, but it’s increasingly becoming harder to find the time to get it off the ground. I had a really fantastic residency last summer in Maine, where I did the early outlining and drafting of a couple essays.
It was in the Space Gallery in Portland, Maine. They were piloting a program that brought artists of many disciplines to the space, to just work. There are no excuses. I don’t want to make excuses for myself. That project is what I need to be focusing right now.
BW: This sound like you’re reaffirming your intent.
JL: This is my way of reaffirming, I'm going to finish the essay collection.
BW: Could we talk about Recess and the Black Art incubator you launched?
JL: Absolutely. I currently am the manager of development and communications at Recess. I think Recess is probably one of the most dynamic art institutions in the city. It's a place that believes in artists and believes in artists as high level thinkers with a specific focus on process. We emphasize the relationships that artists form with publics and the rendering visible the artist’s labor. We don’t often have the chance to sit with an artist as they’re also sitting with a project so Recess is unique in that way.
I came on-board after co-organizing the Session project, Black Art Incubator, alongside Taylor, Kimberly Drew, and Jessica Bell Brown. We hosted 30 workshops in 35 days, which now seems like a phenomenal feat and essentially we were honing in on a few central points. What does it mean to bring together the seemingly disparate connections in the art world? How do we provide support to artists and those who may not necessarily identify as artists in ways that look different from other more conventional structures, like an MFA program, for example? And, then also, how do we have the tough questions about race, gender and class that permeate a lot of what we do in the arts, but are rarely addressed? Recess became a work space with plants, a computer station where folks would come in and kind of like send emails, get things done, and a reading area. The project had four pillars: office hours, open crits, archival practice, and art + money talks.
Our art +money talks were focused on everything from how to successfully write a grant, to how to market yourself as an artist without gallery representation. Our office hours invited professionals in the field to meet with other folks in the field who had questions about career paths, career transitions, or just wanted to talk to somebody who was working as a curator at a major New York City museum. Our open crits brought artists in conversation with curators and fellow writers. Whereas our office hours were more intimate encounters, the open crits usually involved two to three artists at a time. If someone from the public came in off the street, they could choose to sit and join in on that conversation. It was, in some ways, an exercise of trust and care because critiques, as you know, can be so loaded and so anxiety ridden.
BW: Yes and so inaccessible for so many people. They take place in demarcated spaces within institutions far too often. I love what you’re doing to create pathways and make things accessible. New York City is hard to get a foothold period and I see your work creating these pathways and platforms for others...almost like springboards. And, not just in NY, but in other centers.
JL: And that was important for us. We often referred to BAI as a living Google document which means the process of revision, editing, and then rebuilding has to always be taken into consideration. The local context was certainly important to the project. At the same time, we had so many conversations during that project with visitors who were just in town for the weekend and in that way those conversations were equally as generative because every single person who came through the doors made an imprint that accumulated over time. It was a profound thing to witness.
We also held a meditation yoga session. We were very particular in thinking about processes of care for one another and for ourselves. How do you slow down without losing the rigor of the work?
Our last official public event was a potluck where we just invited everyone to reflect with us. What does it mean to incubate? How should we be thinking about work in this time period? What didn’t you see that you wanted to see in the incubator. What would it mean to mount the project again?
And so, as I mentioned, afterwards I was brought on full-time, and I’m excited about watching other projects, though very different in structure, commit to the exposition of process. That’s what we were doing with BAI. Gallerists make decisions. Grant makers make decisions. Critics make decisions. Artists make decisions; we wanted to be transparent about those processes and invite visitors to agree, disagree, build, construct, tear-down, together in a safe environment.
BW: Provide a safe place to take intelligent risks or any risks.
JL: Exactly. Or, remove that veil.
BW: What’s next for you in 2017?
JL: I don’t think I’ve said this on the record yet, but I have a very, very targeted goal at the end of 2017 to write two pieces, whether they be like short reviews or short interviews, in another language. I speak Spanish, and I recently started studying German, again. I want to start writing in these other two languages as my own challenge, but also again, as a way of throwing out ropes and connecting with new people and new ideas.