Patricia Bickers interview: London, PR and journalism (2009)

What happens when PR, art journalism, mainstream coverage and the art world collide?

Patricia Bickers interview

About two years ago, I contacted Patricia Bickers, editor of Art Monthly to ask her some questions about art and publicity dynamics in London. I did this after reading two magazine editorials that I pulled up in an "art" and "mass media" library database search.

One editorial is called "Attention seekers" (Issue 270, 2003); the other "Fire down below" (Issue 278, 2004). In the latter, it tells a story on how more mainstream coverage of art can certainly have its downsides:

"It may seem hard to credit, but there are those abroad, especially in continental Europe, who actually envy the media coverage art receives in this country. It is true that this admiration is usually directed at the amount rather than the quality of coverage on the familiar grounds that even bad publicity is better than mere indifference... Certainly the visual arts are no longer ignored, as they had been in the past, at least by the popular press and media."

The editorial then surveys developments leading up to the media coverage of the Momart warehouse fire which destroyed several works of contemporary art in 2004, which had happened a few weeks earlier... (See "Burning shame" by Jacques Peretti in The Guardian, 5 June 2004.)

"The savagery of so much of the press coverage of the [Momart warehouse] fire, and of the correspondence it generated in the letters pages of newspapers, has revealed the true picture of contemporary art’s relationship with much of mainstream media. There has been no sea-change, it is merely that editors know a good story when they see one, even if it happens to be about art, and journalists respond accordingly."

"Those who envy the high profile enjoyed by contemporary art in Britain should be aware that there is a price to be paid for getting in bed with the media." (Click to see the editorial "Fire Down Below" in full.)

After reading this, I contacted Patricia Bickers in 2007 via email to ask for her thoughts about the publicity and art journalism dynamics of our time.

R.J. Preece: Do you think that, especially with the PR agency element in London, that good writers on art need to become more like journalists (of the serious variety vs. tabloids), to get through the PR packaging and sometimes strategic writing and visual constructions that generate different levels of excitement?

Patricia Bickers: Yes, but then the need to understand the context in which art is made, displayed, promoted, bought and sold or in other ways mediated, should be part of any good critic’s understanding of their role.

The alternative is mere stilkritik.

R.J. Preece: Do you think the relationship of the artwriter to the artist or gallery, if any, should be made more explicit to readers?

Patricia Bickers: Absolutely.

It should be a requirement that critics declare an interest where there is one. The art world is a very small, not to say incestuous world, but that is no excuse for not drawing some lines and adhering to them as much as possible. Insider trading is a crime in the business world so it should at least be possible to establish (or re-establish) the boundaries of what is acceptable in art world practices. The case of the Tate purchasing work from Chris Ofili while he was still a trustee is one such area where the lines need to be clear.

R.J. Preece: If a text on art were approved by the artist/gallery, do you think this should be stated explicitly to readers?

Patricia Bickers: Yes. However, as a matter of policy Art Monthly does not submit copy for approval by the artist or gallery; the only exception is in the case of an interview, where the act of transcribing is subject to error and misinterpretation, so both the interviewer and the artist/subject are sent a proof of the edited text. Writers receive edited proofs of their texts prior to going to press as a matter of course.

R.J. Preece: Do you think there are instances in certain UK artist practices over the past 10 years in which media/communications advisors are actively advising on the potential media coverage impact while the art is being conceptualized and produced, and this is fused with media/communications objectives?

Patricia Bickers: Probably, but it is usually more subtle than that suggests. It is particularly the case in the more collaborative projects such as Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave: there is the commissioning/enabling agency, Artangel; Times Newspapers who contributed funding to the project and Mike Figgis and Channel 4 making a documentary of it. In those circumstances it is very hard to control all aspects of the work, including or especially PR. It is usually the last thing on the artist’s mind.

R.J. Preece: If PR strategy at times is shaping certain presentations of art in the London/UK art world, why can’t it be presented explicitly by the art-PR team? Would that reduce its power and effectiveness? Does it have to be "hidden" to be more effective?

Patricia Bickers: From their own point of view they would, I imagine, probably like their own intervention to be as explicit as possible, since that is presumably how they solicit more work. I still think it is important for artists either to resist the pressure of PR "shaping presentations of art", or to confront and deal with the implications of such pressures in their work-–after all, Hans Haacke has been addressing those very issues in his work for years.

It is important, too, for institutions to resist. However, the art world is still uncertain to what degree they should relinquish control, though the sight of Sir Nicholas Serota introducing the award of the Turner Prize [in 2007] in front of a wall of logos as if he were at a football match or a Formula 1 event, suggests that the PR and marketing people were running the entire event, though not yet presiding over the decision-making process!

R.J. Preece: Do you think that detailed studies of art, artist, PR, gallery/space and resultant media coverage, in other words, critical media analysis with visual analysis, would generally be encouraged in the London art world? Does something like this support the concerns you raised in your editorials, or are the possible range of dynamics fueling media coverage just something that art professionals and students really know clearly already?

Patricia Bickers: As a teacher as well as an editor, I try to make students aware without destroying ideals or shutting off alternatives.

I do think we need to redraw the ethical map; people are very confused and as usual it is to do with money. Having to go to sponsors, cap in hand, erodes the public service ethos and leads to too many compromises. I don’t wish to turn the clock back, I am a realist, but the partners in the transaction need to be on an equal footing. The arts sell themselves far too cheaply. Public funding stiffens the backbone and clarifies the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. Public money brings notions of public service (not the same as giving in to government instrumentalism vis-à-vis the arts) which is invigorating.

Ironically, if people in the art world truly believed in both public funding and in the idea of public service they could make a stronger case for private funding because the private sector is attracted to the public sector precisely because the art world represents an exotic, highly specialised target audience/market.