The art magazine Parkett – the chicken or the egg?



In 1984, «Parkett» was founded by a small group of idealistic art lovers. Published in English and German from the outset, its declared intention was to function as a transatlantic transfer of contemporary art. The magazine was created in collaboration with the best contemporary artists and most prestigious authors between New York and Zurich; today, «Parkett» has become a global brand. The publishing team, however, has remained unchanged in the 27 years of its existence, with publisher Dieter von Graffenried, editor-in-chief Bice Curiger, and editor Jacqueline Burckhardt still at the helm.

Tickets to immortality are available on West 53rd Street in New York City. Artists to whom the Museum of Modern Art dedicates an exhibition have definitely arrived. In the year 2001, the MoMA’s pearly gates swung open to admit art magazine Parkett. The world’s most prestigious modern art museum exhibited all the artists’ editions that had been created exclusively for Parkett over the years. The list of names reads like a who’s who of contemporary art: from Louise Bourgeois and Andreas Gursky or Bruce Nauman to Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol.

Living with art – living by art

Numerous artists whose oeuvres are now considered classics of contemporary art worked with Parkett at an early stage of their career in so-called collaborations. Parkett reports on artists who in turn create work – the editions – that exclusively complements the issue. This work is sold in limited editions and constitutes a major element of the publication’s financing.

Indeed, Parkett is a hybrid between a very large magazine and a small art museum. Roughly one third of its income is generated by selling works and multiples, according to 57-year-old publisher Dieter von Graffenried who came into contact with art at an early age in his hometown of Basel.

My parents always took me along to art museums when I was a child, and I first visited Art Basel in 1971.

Parkett’s concept is supportive. “Seeing as we put such a lot of effort into each issue, we want to introduce artists we really believe in,” said editor-in-chief Bice Curiger in a 1994 interview. Nothing has changed since then, and the editorial team quite obviously has a good eye. In 1987, three years after they began, the Zurich-based publishers opened their first office on Broadway in New York – a magazine with a German name.

From a branding point of view Parkett is a ludicrous name.

Even today, publisher Dieter von Graffenried does not fully understand why, from the very beginning, the name Parkett worked as well as it did. In German, the word Parkett refers to the floor of a stage or a dance floor alongside its more common meaning of a wooden floor, or parquet. Clearly, a floor can be taken to symbolize a space for encounters. A Parkett can be used to dance and perform on, and galleries and museums often have parquet flooring. “Although the name is awkward, it is not ingratiating – a pleasant little detour before you reach the actual topic of art,” von Graffenried says. In a ploy to distinguish themselves from other art publications, the creators of Parkett hid the term “art” in the title: The only indication of the actual subject are the embellishments to the letters “A”, “R”, and “T”.

Initially, the magazine appeared quarter-yearly, then from 1995 onwards three times a year with newly designed covers. Now, after the latest overhaul, it is published biannually. The volumes have become thicker, denser and contain four artist collaborations instead of just one, two or sometimes three, as was formerly the case.

Dieter von Graffenried explains this new development as a deliberate slowdown in order to ensure quality. In the face of the enormous workloads of both editors, Bice Curiger and Jacqueline Burckhardt, he says, it is a miracle that they have any time to put into Parkett at all. Bice Curiger has not only been curator at the Kunsthaus Zurich for many years as well as editor of the Tate Modern’s magazine in London; she is also director of this year’s Biennale in Venice, thereby ably stepping into the shoes of the acclaimed Harald Szeemann, the venerable godfather of Swiss curators and brilliant exhibition maker.

Global network

Jacqueline Burckhardt is also difficult to keep up with. After twelve years at the Swiss Federal Art Commission, eight of which as its president, Burckhardt is currently consultant and curator of numerous foundations, panels, institutions, and academies. She also acts as an art consultant for the pharmaceutical concern Novartis.

With a PhD in economics, Dieter von Graffenried is responsible for the business and publishing end of things – or, as he puts it, “for keeping the shop running” – and is Parkett’s contact point and confidant for the artists’ edition projects. He also acts as a consultant to publishers and supervises museum projects. In New York, where he lives part-time, he spent seven years as co-chairman of the Swiss Institute, another hotspot for contemporary art.

With the magazine’s great international success, it is small wonder that “conspiracy theories” crop up regularly about the power concentrated in the Parkett network. Both skyrocketing and nosediving artistic careers have been attributed to coverage – or lack thereof – in the publication. Dieter von Graffenried furrows his brow at the accusation and professes a certain weariness with allegations of favoritism. “Choosing an artist is an emotional and intuitive process,” he says. As a brand, Parkett’s scope is extensive and he cannot imagine an artist who would not fit in.

Parkett is a brand that accommodates the most diverse artist’s positions.

Of course, it remains indisputable that Parkett and its makers intensify trends in contemporary art. But it is also clear that the question of influence is as old as the chicken-and-the-egg dilemma. The one cannot be without the other. Case in point are the early 1980s when Parkett picked up on the reviving interest Americans developed for European art, and stilled the hunger for new art from the old continent with articles about German artists such as Kippenberger, Baselitz, Richter and Polke, as well as the Italian transavantguardia movement.

In 27 years, the publication has become an international institution. Wherever the art scene’s main actors meet – Parkett’s team is already there. And so, the rising interest of Asians for contemporary art did not pass unnoticed. After shows in Japan and Singapore, the Seoul Arts Center exhibited the Parkett editions last year, and Beijing and Moscow are to follow. The Artworld Magazine in Shanghai translated 15 articles from Parkett into Chinese and used these to create a theme issue. In 2008, the magazine introduced its readers to Ai Weiwei, the dissident Chinese artist, whose recent arrest provoked loud international protest – even before his grandiose appearance at the documenta in Kassel, Germany in 2009.

But will print continue to be a viable medium for contemporary art publications? Unlike other publishers, Dieter von Graffenried is not worried about the irreversible online trend: “Fortunately we are not solely dependent on the income generated by sales of issues.”

In the past ten years, revenue in the art book trade has decreased by 50 percent.

Von Graffenried believes that art journals aren’t just suffering due to the shift onto the Internet, but because there is simply too much art on offer. Each art gallery and every exhibition publishes their own, frequently subsidized catalogs and publications. The number of Parkett subscribers, however, has remained stable for years, with an average of 5000 readers and a high renewal rate. And so it comes as no surprise that this fall Parkett is preparing a state-of-the-art website to replace the current one which is literally bursting at its seams. After 27 years, Parkett is still reaching up from the boards for the stars, leaving others to doze in their box seats.

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