After three and a half years of struggling to be the "magazine of digital arts and culture," Artbyte appears to be giving up.
"With the economic situation and advertising, it would be crazy on my part to go ahead,"
said publisher and Editor-in-Chief Gabriella Fanning.
Fanning is reluctant to say the magazine is dead, but this much is clear: last Thursday she laid-off her editorial and advertising team in New York, and publication is "suspended."
The final December issue is complete, but won't be printed unless more advertisers or financial backers can be found, Fanning said. The comprehensive website (artbyte.com <artbyte.com>) is also likely to close in the coming months.
Since its first issue in October 1998, Artbyte tried to cover the wide gamut of digital culture -- everything from Net art to electronic music to video games. There seemed to be a growing niche: filling the gap between mainstream technology magazines, like Wired, and specialized art sites like Rhizome.
But bridging such a wide gulf isn't easy, as shown in the very first issue: articles ranged from
"Monsters of Grace: Philip Glass interviewed about his new digital opera"
to the less highbrow "Art of the Morph."
Recent issues featured cover stories on digital cinema, architectural visions of the future, and artists who've "crossed-over" to new technologies. Along the way, the magazine attracted some top thinkers and personalities to its ranks, such as the Guggenheim's Jon Ippolito, musician Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky), new media pundit Mark Dery, and scholar Lev Manovich.
But the path was "tumultuous," and the magazine consumed a series of six editors, said recent-hire Reena Jana -- whose first issue may never come to press. Jana said the editorial switches were due to "growing pains," common to many new businesses. Still, all that change was confusing to some readers.
"You never knew what the next Artbyte was going to be,"
said Rhizome founder Mark Tribe.
"I think they've been struggling for a long time to define an identity and editorial voice and audience, and they never really succeeded in creating a publication people felt they needed to read."
"I honestly wasn't completely sure who the audience was for the magazine,"
said Magdalena Sawon, co-director of New York's Postmasters Gallery. She said she liked the magazine, and read it often, but sometimes found the arts coverage "a little spotty."
Even so, the magazine was widely read among fans of digital art and culture, and circulation grew to 40,000. Artbyte seemed to be finally reaching its stride.
"I'm thrilled to say that the publication has truly begun to come into its own,"
wrote Jana in an introduction to the unpublished December issue.
"Our content reflects what [Artbyte] always was and is: smart, informed, critical, yet fresh and fun, serving up analysis and images that reflect how we live and create with new technologies."
The issue promised features on art, fashion, and atomic-age design; extensive video game reviews; and even Ethan Hawke on digital filmmaking.
But the magazine still isn't profitable, said its publisher, especially after advertising revenues plummeted with the dot-com bust. Fanning financed Artbyte largely by herself, along with the magazine Art on Paper.
"To handle two publications on my own is quite heavy,"
"At a certain point I had to sacrifice one... My heart is broken."
(Meanwhile, Art on Paper will remain in print.)
Certainly the magazine isn't alone -- it seems the economic climate has killed the lion's share of technology and media magazines, from The Standard to Silicon Alley Reporter to Brill's Content.
And so, once again, digital culture faces a void. Sure, there's still the UK's Mute magazine, the Leonardo journal, Rhizome, and glossy magazines that occasionally cover art and technology. But what ties it all together, and reaches a general audience?
"I think [Artbyte] has done some exceptional articles over the last few years,"
said Steve Dietz, a prominent digital arts curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
"Anytime there's a loss of intelligent coverage of digital culture, that's a big loss... It will definitely leave a gap."
"It's sad," agrees Tribe,
"because I think the magazine could have been successful. I think Artbyte's disappearance will leave a real gap in the publishing world, and the global new media art community needs a print publication like the one Artbyte was trying to become."
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