The concentration of media ownership is never a good thing. Integration leads to anticompetitive behaviour in the marketplace — especially among publications owned by the same parent company. So should the art world be concerned by the recent news that Brant Publications, owned by powerhouse collector Peter Brant, now owns all the assets of Art in America, The Magazine Antiques, Modern Magazine and ARTnews, which joins his flagship, Interview Magazine?
It depends on how you look at it. Brant was already a majority stakeholder, which gave him full control over the companies. In July 2015, as the Observer reported, Brant Publications sold its 100% ownership of Art in America to Artnews S.A., the publicly-traded company based in Warsaw, Poland that owned ARTnews. BMP Media, a Brant subsidiary then purchased a 60% stake in ARTnews for $16.9 million.
So the only difference now is that he owns 100% of the stock. The question then arises: now that ARTnews is under private ownership, how will that impact its coverage moving forward, especially since it’s no longer a publicly-held media entity?
Brian Gabrial, the Chair of Concordia University’s Department of Journalism, believes it “cuts both ways” on the difference between private and public media ownership. “Sometimes when you have private ownership, you have people who believe in what they are doing more so than publicly-held companies beholden to stockholders, where the bottom line is increasing stock prices,” he says.
The New York Times, for example, has had the Ochs/Sulzberger family as its publisher for over 115 years. Conversely, Gabrial cites Postmedia Network, Canada’s largest media company which owns the National Post and other media outlets, as a concerning example of public ownership: “all they care about is the bottom line.” Now controlled by American hedge funds, it has been called “a cancer on Canadian journalism” and been accused of creating a media monopoly. Earlier this year, 90 Postmedia employees lost their jobs, and the company announced it would merge newsrooms in four cities where they own two papers in each market. This means that Postmedia-owned papers in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver share a newsroom, even though they continue to put out different publications. This inevitably creates less independent journalism.
A spokesperson for Peter Brant told the Observer last year that “there are no plans for staff reductions” and “no titles are going away… the two companies are combining assets to become the largest and most influential print and digital publisher in the art world.” But cuts were nonetheless made as a result of the merger while ARTnews was still publicly held.
Last December, ARTnews CEO and publisher Izabela Depczyk announced her resignation. Her departure coincided with the exit of her father, former Philip Morris executive Marcin Depczyk, from ARTnews’s board. According to ARTINFO, from the time Artnews S.A. bought ARTnews in July 2014 to the Brant merger in 2015, full-time employees in New York shrunk from 34 to 17. By the fall, ARTnews went from a monthly to quarterly publishing schedule.
Media industry bible Folio: even went so far as to call Brant Publications’ July 2015 sale a “corporate maneuver” since many of its allies were installed on the board and in leadership positions. In January, former Warhol protege Vincent Fremont was tapped as Artnews S.A.’s new CEO. Private equity investors Heiner Rutt and Ed Sherrick — the latter a former exec at a company owned by Brandt — joined the board.
In the statement released by Brant’s reps last week, Peter Brant said that all the publications would “continue their normal operation” under BMP Media’s privately-held ownership: “this will allow us to begin to grow the US magazines.”
But in Gabrial’s view, private ownership has a drawback. “They tend to have more editorial control, so they may put a stronger stance on what the magazine does,” he says. “That obviously isn’t good for journalism either.”
Which brings it back to Brant Publications owner Peter Brant. The avid collector is the founder of the Brant Foundation, which was one of the eleven tax-exempt private museums just investigated by the Senate Finance Committee. Like Louise Blouin, he’s a media mogul whose commitment to the art world runs parallel with his personal art investment interests. Most media owners were hit hard by the Great Recession, but Brant admitted to the Times in 2010 that his “art collection has been more lucrative than his [family] newsprint business,” and Bloomberg later reported how that collection provided some capital to buy White Birch Paper Co. out of bankruptcy.
According to Eric Grode, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University, art world media brands are unique. “I can’t think of any other artistic sphere where you can really affect the value of artists,” he says. “A well-placed person can really contribute a lot to the fluctuations of prices.”
Yet the art media game has evolved in such a way that the authority of traditional media brands has become shaky in a competitive online space. Art in America and ARTnews, once robust print competitors, now compete for clicks in social media and distributed content. Internet traffic, in Grode’s view, has become the main metric for measuring a media brand’s success, and an equalizing force in the marketplace.
“One thing that we’re seeing again and again is that relevance cannot be taken for granted,” he says. “You can’t coast on your reputation, because reputation is becoming less and less [important] to younger generations. So now places that have a reputation often tend to have the resources to hold onto their reputation. But, if you don’t do that, just the fact that you’re from the storied, August publication that’s been around for a hundred thirty eight years — they don’t care about that.”
Correction: June 3, 2016
An earlier version of this article stated that digital content at both ARTnews and Art in America had been consolidated on artnews.com as a result of Brant Publications taking control of both properties. Andrew Russeth, editor of artnews.com, confirms that both publications still maintain separate sites.