The Chicago-Based Press Reenvisioning Equity in Arts Publishing – The Brooklyn Rail

New York City

Center For Book Arts
Candor Arts: July 10, 2015–August 31, 2021
April 21 – June 25, 2022

One of the last books published by Chicago-based press Candor Arts before it closed in August 2021 was a compilation of the Quarantine Times. The boxy red hardcover anthologizes the online publication put out by the Public Media Institute (PMI), which runs a multi-hyphenate arts space, print magazine, and radio station in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Featuring essays, comics, and reviews from more than 150 contributors published during the March 2020 city-wide lockdown, the book documents a particular moment in the city’s cultural history as the arts community pivoted to a new COVID-inflected reality.

Quarantine Times was recently on view in a retrospective exhibition at 062 Gallery in Chicago. Candor Arts’s diverse publishing projects function like an archive of the Chicago arts during the six years the press was active. Ranging from poetry chapbooks to photo portfolios, the more than fifty editions produced include the monographs accompanying major museum exhibitions, such as Barbara Jones-Hogu at the DePaul Art Museum, as well as books featuring the work of Chicago-based artists, writers, and scholars Myungah Hyon, Justin Nalley, Sampada Aranke, Amanda Williams, and others. The exhibition opens at Center for Book Arts this month and will travel to Connecticut project space Sparkle Taffy.

But the real work of Candor Arts still lies ahead of it. Candor founding members Matt Austin and Melanie Teresa Bohrer aim to restructure art publishing into an equitable process that fairly compensates all contributors, rather than one in which artists pay exorbitant costs to publish their work for little profit. The core of Candor, Austin says, is “to offer an alternative to what is the standard for artists, which is self exploitation, compromising your self-worth, and justifying it through capitalist ideas of exposure or recognition.” This idea that “sacrificing yourself will lead to something better” pervades most of the arts, not just publishing, he says. So while the exhibition may mark the end of Candor Arts, it also marks the beginning of the Candor Collective, a new, non-hierarchical arts publishing network that picks up the same egalitarian goals that guided the previous iteration.

Candor Arts grew out of an earlier Chicago-based publishing project, The Chicago Perch, which Austin started in his apartment in 2012, as he expanded from making his own books to teaching and producing for friends and acquaintances. Austin, who has a background in photography, taught himself book arts techniques by watching YouTube instructional videos. When the eligibility for Illinois state arts funding ran out—the grant that had been The Chicago Perch’s main source of support had a stipulation that prevented recipients from a fourth year of funding—Austin and the other Perch collaborators began rethinking its structure.

From this, Candor Arts registered as an LLC in 2016. Bohrer, who has a background in printmaking, started working with Candor the following year, later becoming a business partner. Supporting the press primarily by revenue generated from book sales, Austin and Bohrer hoped that this business model would prove more sustainable than piecing together grants (particularly after one of the grants that had supported The Chicago Perch more or less disappeared under former Governor Bruce Rauner, who slashed art funding in the state).

Between its founding in 2015 and its official closure six years later, Candor Arts generated over three hundred thousand dollars in payments for artists and contributors and placed editions in over one hundred and fifty institutions worldwide. The range of subjects and publishing techniques is expansive: Deviant Proposals: An Anti-Binary Journala pocket-sized zine with contributions from queer artists writing about queerness; White Gazea body of haunting photos from National Geographic paired with erasure-based poems drawing on the magazine’s texts; This Is Not A Gun, a collection of 40 artists’ responses to different objects police have mistaken for guns. Among other things, Candor Arts’s output also includes projects in the forms of decks of instructional cards, publications that use conventional glossy printed four-by-six photos to compelling effect, and clamshell boxes containing multiple object in editions as few as ten.

Initially structured to split both production costs and profits equally between each artist and Candor Arts, the press transitioned into providing production for free while ensuring the artist still received half the profits. Most editions numbered fifty books, but projects and budgets gradually grew larger, sometimes adding paperback editions to accompany hardcover copies. But by 2019, revenue began to lag behind costs, and with the onset of COVID-19, continuing to run the press, which then had two full-time employees, began to look untenable.

In its next iteration, the publishing project formerly known as Candor Arts will still function as a small business, although collective members will support themselves through other means. But the team behind Candor will expand to include more people, as well as to ensure that it is a minority-white organization at all times. “Our experience of mixing [commissioned services and Candor projects] was really confusing for everybody, because we offered two polar opposites,” Austin explains, “One was people paying us to make books, and the other was people paying us nothing for us to make books to pay them.” Instead, Austin and Bohrer will offer commissioned publishing services through a separate business composed of the two of them, called Em Design. As Bohrer notes, this evolution is a “return to not being driven by these capitalistic tendencies of producing things quicker and more of them in order to sell more.”

Collective members are currently located across the US, but Bohrer and Austin anticipate that it will become an international network of people who share resources equally. No one will earn more than any other person, and they’ll employ collective decision-making for all aspects of the business, from accepting new projects to determining who will become a member.

As Austin explained, “No matter what governor we have, no matter how much money we have, no matter what the studio looks like, we have each other’s backs, and we’ll do whatever we can for each other, forever.”

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