Changes at Contemporary Art Daily: A Conversation with Founder Forrest Nash

by Paddy Johnson on July 22, 2015 Interview


When I first met Forrest Nash he was wearing khakis. It was June 2009 in Venice, four months before Hyperallergic declared khaki-pant wearers amongst the most powerless—at least in the Lower East Side. In 2013, Nash made the ArtReview Power List—the subject of Hyperallergic’s satire—khaki’s and all.

I liked Nash immediately. He was smart, had a great eye, and was almost completely lacking in pretension. His knowledge of art was encyclopedic and at that point he’d only been running his blog Contemporary Art Daily for a year.

Contemporary Art Daily (CAD) is a curated website featuring extensive documentation of selected art exhibitions from around the world. There’s no one style the site gravitates towards, but the photographs on the site typically show art deliberately hung and arranged in interiors like gallery and museum spaces, and include a range of installation and individual shots of the work.

Now the site is updated 10 times a week and religiously followed by art professionals across the globe. The blog began with Nash in 2008, while he was still a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It has since grown. In addition to CAD, the site now includes Contemporary Art Venues (a venue listing service) and Contemporary Art Quarterly (comprehensive documentation of an artist’s career). To make all this happen, CAD now employs four full-timers including Nash. In 2012 the blog became a non-profit.

In short, a lot has happened over the past seven years, and a lot of his happened relatively recently. Contemporary Art Quarterly was launched earlier this year and Nash moved from Chicago to California this summer. I wanted to get the full history on the site, so we sat down to talk.

Paddy: Maybe we start at the beginning: When, how, and why did you start Contemporary Art Daily?

Forrest: I started CAD in the fall of the 2008, mostly as a project to encourage myself to do more research into current contemporary art. I set it up in a single day using a template and started compiling images that were already available online. Within a couple of weeks, I figured out that I could request better quality materials [from galleries, museums, and artists]—and then be allowed to publish them. I think that’s when I began taking the project more seriously as a something more people might be interested to look at.

Paddy: How aware are you of an audience, and has that audience shifted over time?

Forrest: At the beginning I was not aware at all; I would say now I feel a sense of responsibility to our audience. While that hasn’t completely changed the nature of the project, it’s something we talk about in the office, and something I take very seriously. I think our motive to become responsive to our audience was part of our decision to become a not-for-profit organization. And all of our decisions we’ve made since 2012, when we became a non-profit, are about making things better in some way for that audience.

Paddy: What does “making things better” mean?

Forrest: For us, it means two things: Like many art institutions, we are trying to find a valuable curatorial position and work to increase the visibility of artists that we admire; and then, using the access we have to improve the public’s access to high-quality documentation of their work.

Paddy: When did you realize that this was needed?

Forrest: From the beginning I was very aware of the limits to the research I could do myself. I’d meet and talk to people who were somehow inside the system, either professionally or because they were wealthy collectors, and they had a context and knowledge that was just clearly not available to me as a student. At the beginning I started Daily just because I wish it existed for myself. I wished that I could easily get a rough picture of what was happening in contemporary art at any given moment.

Paddy: That sounds like how so many important things begin—because you wanted it to exist and it didn’t. How has your office environment changed over the years? You began as one guy with a blog.

Forrest: At first it was just me in my apartment, doing things very shoddily. I remember being on a funny cruise ship with my family at Christmas, a couple of months after Daily started, scrambling to get a post up before midnight so I didn’t break the “daily” part of the idea. The Internet was so unbearably slow on cruise ships in 2008.

Paddy: I have similar memories! No cruise ship, but in the beginning I would stay up all night to get a post up because I felt the blog needed to be daily to be successful. (And because I didn’t know what I was doing, it would take me several hours to write a paragraph.)

Forrest: Daily is very hard! Somehow we haven’t missed a single day in approaching seven years.

Paddy: I didn’t know that! So, how did you transform what seems to be a very personal project into a non-profit business?

Forrest: Quarterly was really the impetus for us to become a non-profit—I thought of it in 2011 and realized that it would take a lot more labor than I could conceivably handle on my own freelance economy. It’s taken more than three years of active development, and much of that was building a little institution that could deliver three archives every quarter. I could have had the first group out much sooner, but I want to be able to keep the promise of the idea.

Paddy: Are you the kind of person who is never late to appointment? Because it seems like you might take punctuality very seriously too.

Forrest: I’m still learning about traffic in L.A., but generally speaking, I do my best.

Paddy: Ha. And did becoming a non-profit help you grow the business?

Forrest: Yes. After we became a not-for-profit in 2012, I was able to start gradually hiring people to help me professionalize the process and to work on new projects. There’s now four of us working full time, and the organization that serves as an umbrella for all the stuff we do is called Contemporary Art Group. We’re in the midst of a transition— I just moved to Los Angeles, and I think another colleague will join me here this fall, but two of us are staying in Chicago. We’re learning how to work remotely.

Paddy: How has moving to L.A. affected CAD? Or has it?

Forrest: I’ve only just arrived, still no furniture in my apartment even, so it’s only beginning to affect things. So far, it’s most visibly affected things in terms of workflow. I wake up early and my colleagues are already in the middle of their day. I’m sure it will affect Daily in a deeper way, but I’m not sure I know how it will go yet.


Paddy: I’m curious about how the organization is structured. What do the four people do? Are you still the driving curatorial force?

Forrest: My colleague Bryce [Dwyer] oversees all of the operations of the organization, and for now focuses a lot on Contemporary Art Quarterly, which is our newest project. [Quarterly offers comprehensive documentation of every exhibition and project in an artist’s career] Brook [Sinkinson Withrow] is responsible for the production of Daily, and Maddie [Reyna] handles Contemporary Art Venues, our directory, which includes managing the relationships we have with sponsors. All four of us, and any interns or part-time assistants who happen to be around, meet together to decide what gets published on Daily. We all have an equal vote, and we all talk about the exhibitions together. I still act as the first filter, deciding which exhibitions we should request materials from, and then Bryce and I winnow down the list to what gets considered in the meetings. It’s quite a challenge— we consider probably a couple thousand exhibitions each month, and we’re trying to publish around forty. So we’ve developed a detailed process.

Paddy: Do you ever feel frustrated by not being able to publish more than you do? If so, what ways do you have to deal with this?

Forrest: Sometimes. There are moments when it feels like there are too many exhibitions that we want to publish, and we have to make hard decisions between shows. More generally, I think I have a frustration that the curatorial motive, which is well-served by the limitation to ten-ish shows per week, is in conflict with the motive to provide more access. One thing we want to do long-term is to be able to provide very high-quality documentation of many, many more exhibitions in the context of an archive, so that even the shows we don’t publish on Daily are still available to anyone who’s interested to see them. The voting helps— I don’t have to anguish too much because my colleagues are so smart and opinionated that they’ve usually outvoted me anyway.

Paddy: Let’s say that archive existed. Would there be any curatorial motive to it?

Forrest: Our plan is to call it, maybe boringly, Contemporary Art Exhibitions, and the only curatorial aspect comes out when we try to define the scope. Obviously, we can’t document everything that anyone has ever called art, so we have to try to narrow the purview. Our plan, and this could change, is to do that by focusing only on some venues, more or less the venues that we’d be willing to include in Contemporary Art Venues, our directory of galleries and museums. So if the venue feels important, we’ll take documentation of every exhibition if we can get it.

Paddy: It seems like CAD is growing. How is business structured? Do you have a grant writer?

Forrest: So far, we make most of our money from a combination of sponsorships and private donations. We have two kinds of sponsorships: small, annual sponsorships from a wide range of galleries and museums that are in our directory, and then larger sponsorships from companies that work more like traditional advertising. We’ve actually only dipped our toes into grant writing, but we’re trying to expand on that in the second half of this year. We wrote a few at the beginning and didn’t get them, so we decided to put more time into areas that paid out quickly. We’re only just now able to afford the luxury of a modestly longer view.

Paddy: So, now you’re introducing new programs, like Contemporary Art Quarterly. Can you talk about that more?

Forrest: Contemporary Art Quarterly is, we hope, our second “major project,” meaning we hope it becomes as important to our audience as Daily is now. Like daily, it has a simple clockwork premise: deep archives of the activity of three artists each quarter, so twelve artists each year. The archives are mostly full of exhibition and performance documentation, but we also include other things, writing or lectures by the artists, for example. We treat each artist’s CV as a task list, and go out into the world and hunt for everything we can find. In rare cases, the artists are already very organized and can work with us, but for most of the artists so far we’ve had to go out and gather most things ourselves.

Paddy: Does the work you do at CAD influence the artists you chose for Quarterly? And how are they chosen?

Forrest: The research we are always doing for Contemporary Art Daily has definitely produced the knowledge we’ve used to curate Quarterly. I think the first three artists we featured were all published early in the life of Daily, and we’ve followed them closely ever since. Working on Daily gives us a broad context, and that context helps define the meaning of the artists we choose to focus on. I think of art as a system, and so, understanding the broader system as much as possible helps you understand its individual members.

Paddy: How is art a system? Do you mean that the field has a structure?

Forrest: I think of art as a social system. The question of what is and isn’t an artwork, in my opinion, is a rhetorical distinction that is always being agreed upon by a loose group of people. I think you can look at the relationships between those people and see the outlines of a system. Obviously, no one can really watch all of the activity that happens within that system, but if you limit your scope you can get a feeling that you understand what’s going on, more or less.


Paddy: Like Contemporary Art Venues—you narrow the scope and thus create a kind of de facto means of defining art.

Forrest: Yes—not art in a broad sense—but by defining a given social context that is loosely referred to as “Contemporary Art.” Like any social system, it totally breaks down when you try to draw bright lines. Obviously, there are thousands of venues that are working in the field of contemporary art that are not within our purview. It’s a cliche, but there really are a vast number of “art worlds,” and we are very clear that we’re only focusing on one of many; not because it’s the best or the most legitimate, but just because it’s the one that I care about.

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