Steve Panton and Matthew Piper are part of the editorial team of Essay’d Detroit, a writing project that publishes short illustrated articles about Detroit artists. Essay’d also operates as a platform for organizing exhibitions, events, and workshops on art writing, publishing, and curating.
To begin with could you walk me through the history of the Essay’d publication and how it started?
SP: We started at the end of 2014 and went live with ten essays. We started as a purely online publication with the intention of publishing thirty essays a year. The essays were originally one page, ten point font Times New Roman, and we stuck to that with 750 words. Every ten essays we had an event where we had an exhibition with the ten artists. Very early on the director of Wayne State University Press came along, and she said, “This is what we’ve been looking to do, publish books on Detroit artists.” So from 2015-2018 we also published through Wayne State University Press, releasing one printed volume a year while continuing to publish new essays online. The exhibitions outgrew my gallery at the time, in terms of the amount of people that would show up and the physical space that was available. Anne Parsons who was the CEO and President of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra got ahold of the first printed Essay’d, and Anne had been wanting for ten years to put art up in Orchestra Hall. So we started taking on visual art programming at Orchestra Hall, doing two to three shows a year. The reason we could do that successfully I think was because of the research we did during the writing of the essays, which allowed us to find work that fit very specific requirements of the architecture and the audience. It’s not an easy place to put work in, but if you put the right work in it’s perfect.
We built up cultural capital over the first year. We are quite fortunate to have gotten a grant from the Knight Foundation from Essay 61 onwards which allows us to pay above market rate, $250 an essay, to writers. We also had funding from the Erb Foundation. The Erb Foundation money has allowed us to put on workshops. We do two writing workshops a year, and then a curating workshop. We’ve also done a publishing workshop. The writing and publishing workshops have tended to be at MOCAD, Allied Media, or Room Project, and the curating workshops have been at MOCAD.
How many people are a part of Essay’d Detroit?
SP: The core Essay’d project has been three or four. In terms of writers, I think we are up to writer number thirty now, and that was definitely enabled by the funding. We very much believe in a ‘many talking to many’ situation, and the writing workshops have brought in six to eight writers. So the writers choose the artist that they want to write about, we don’t commission writers to write about certain subjects. The philosophy there is that if we get a diverse group of writers it is going to provide us with a diverse group of artists. We very much trust the writers, we just say, ‘write about the artists you’re most excited about.’
So the writers pitch to the editorial staff?
SP: Basically, we trust them. It has to be a Detroit artist, it has to be someone that hasn’t been written about and we don’t tend to write about artists who have passed away.
Does that get difficult, defining who is a ‘Detroit artist’? Because that can get political at a certain point, determining who is an “authentic Detroit artist”?
MP: I think we’ve drawn some pretty clear guidelines that have helped us along the way. And everyone can have their own definition of what a Detroit artist is, but to us it means someone who lives in the Metro Detroit region and participates in the cultural, artistic life of the city, whether that’s being represented and exhibiting art in the city, or participating and supporting other artists in the city, etc. So if somebody lives in Southfield and is actively participating in the Detroit art community, that’s a Detroit artist as far as we’re concerned. Somebody else may say it’s not but for this publication it is. But if someone is living in Southfield and doesn’t come to the city, doesn’t want to engage, that’s outside of our scope. We’ve gone as far geographically as Ann Arbor, which I know might be questionable to some folks,, and we’ve had a few people who wanted to write about artists who were Detroit artists but moved out of the area, and that has been a tough one, but I’m happy where we’ve ended up.
What are your backgrounds in?
MP: My background is in writing and librarianship. I was educated at Wayne State in English, Film, and Library Science, and I have been writing about art in Detroit for about a decade for a few different publications. That’s how I met Steve originally, I was the Knight Foundation’s art blogger for a while, and then I started writing for a few other publications covering art and architecture.
SP: Mainly gallery ownership, and starting different art projects around the city.
MP: And that I think is another key component to the founding story of Essay’d, which is that Steve invited the rest of us based on his experience of owning a gallery and seeing a bunch of people come through it who wanted to know about Detroit art, and there just wasn’t a resource.So the original intent was, “Can we create an online environment where people can dip in and quickly, accessibly, digestibly, understand what is happening in the contemporary Detroit art scene?”
SP: At the same time building up more of a foundation of art writing in the city, which was pretty slim five years ago.
Do you guys think about representation with regards to gender and race? I know you guys don’t pick the artists, but is that something you’re thinking about as you’re putting together each catalog?
MP: I think we’ve evolved to think more about it than we did at the beginning. At the beginning our project was all volunteer oriented and it was all about “what do we want to spend our time doing”, the four of us as writers, and I would say frankly we didn’t give a whole lot of intentional thought to these questions then because we just wanted to write about the artists we were most interested in — that was our main criterion.
For me, everything changed when we got close to publishing the first volume of Essay’d in print, and I realized that 26 of 30 artists were white. And it was sort of horrifying to see that, and to have this sense that a book becomes authoritative, even though we never intended the website to be authoritative, we never intended it to be “the best Detroit artists.” And now so many people are seeing this book that says “30 Detroit artists”, and 26 are white. That is telling a very different story than the one we were hoping to tell. That was the moment I realized we had to be more intentional about representation moving forward.
This is something you actively think about now, the diversity of artists and writers represented?
MP: Yes, very much so. It’s become crucial to the project. And I think we were enabled in this by being awarded the Knight Foundation grant, which really gave us this opportunity to do better in this area because we can actually pay writers. Then we were able to get a lot more people involved in the project, and diversify the pool of writers and artists included.
SP: And also the workshops have helped to a certain extent too. Matthew has done a great job editing but there’s definitely a big difference between the editing the first essay by a writer and editing the fifth essay by the writer, so bringing along new writers has helped.
Do you guys see the work you do as being politically or socially charged?
SP: So Essay’d is a platform and it enables a lot of people to do a lot of things. Everything ultimately is political. I think we are anti-universalizing narratives by having many speaking to many. It is sort of a subtle political point, but it was antithetical to a lot of the narrativizing that was done of Detroit, particularly five years ago, particularly by people and foundations that had other interests than the health of the Detroit art community, despite how they may phrase it as helping the Detroit art community. Their intentions were to connect Detroit back into circuits of capital. I’m speaking personally now, by creating a platform where there could be many voices speaking to many, it was somewhat in opposition to some of the universalizing narratives of “Detroit is the New Berlin”, etc., etc., etc. which were largely made by people who were outside of the Detroit art world and didn’t really have the health of the Detroit art world as their major concern.
MP: We don’t have an explicitly political agenda, we didn’t create the project for any political purpose, but certainly choosing to spend time focusing on Detroit’s art community is in and of itself something of a political gesture. And I think it’s a reasonably neutral platform, but through the content all kinds of socio-political issues are explored, based on artists whose work is more politically engaged, and by the writers’ approach to some of those artists’ works.
SP: We have to keep emphasizing that Essay’d is a platform that allows a lot of different voices.
I want to say too that I’m asking you guys a lot of these questions also as self-reflexive questions, because I have my own concerns about what it means to be a white guy coming into a majority black city and organizing narratives about it’s art community. I’m curious how you guys feel about it?
MP: Personally, I’m in a place where I am looking for opportunities to use my privileged voice to uplift the less privileged, and to do that in an authentic way, which to me means building on connections and relationships. The only way you’re going to transcend network bias is by expanding your network. I think as a writer or cultural producer navigating the city these are questions you have a responsibility to think about, because otherwise, you’re liable to perpetuate injustice.
Thinking about Essay’d as a model for other publications, what have you learned?
SP: You’ve got to build up some cultural capital to turn into economic capital to pay people. I think we were over-ambitious in terms of our cadence of publication. I think we’ve often felt on the verge of burnout, but secondly we have not given ourselves enough time to promote the cultural capital that we’ve built up. This is the year that we cut our cadence down to fifteen essays a year, down from thirty. Thirty short essays doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a lot to keep pumping out week after week. Basically between every fourteen days you’re editing and publishing an essay.
I think the reason we are still going is because the template we created was achievable: 750 words, around 8 illustrations, start from the work–that’s very sustainable. But the cadence that we started with was very unsustainable. Our balance of it, against the fact that you have to build cultural capital to get funding. It’s sort of a bit of a catch 22. There are so many people out there who are so adept at social media, that I think we thought we would just find one, and we never really found that person.
MP: The last couple of years, specifically through the workshops, I personally feel like we’ve unlocked a new and really significant dimension to this project, which is using it as a vehicle to get a bunch of people around a table to talk about art, writing, representation, all these questions. People are starving for it. I find that when we get these workshops going people are energized by the conversation. They want to talk about art, they want to talk about writing, they want to read together and talk about what they’ve read. There aren’t that many opportunities to do that intentionally, and in a group setting.
SP: I think the workshops have sold out. I’ve been terrified in terms of how late we started getting the promotional material out, but they have sold out. There is a hunger there for writing and curatorial workshops, that I think, I hope bodes well for the city.
MP: People want the conversation. With our Art Writing for Artists workshop, part of it is that we pair all of the participants up, they meet outside of the workshop time and share work and write about each other’s work, just to get themselves going and have the opportunity to develop new language around their own work. And just in the feedback we got from the most recent workshop, it’s clear that it’s so important to these artists to have these opportunities, because often they don’t otherwise have them. They don’t have the opportunity on a regular basis to sit down with someone and have a focused, intentional conversation about their work.
That social engagement is so key, because so often it can feel like, “why am I doing this, this is just for me”.
SP: I think what Matthew is talking about happens on a micro level of the interaction between the writer and the artist during the writing of the essay.
SP: Coming from a gallery background, I’ve read hundreds of artist statements and you realize that artists are often trying to say the same thing over and over again in their artist statement, but never quite get there. I think that the dialogue with a writer is of benefit to the artist. I had an artist tell me that they thought this interaction was pretty critical to them being able to articulate their work in a way that got them get the Kresge fellowship, and that artist later kind of put it in a slightly different way for me which was, “it’s not that you’re telling me anything new, it’s that it gives me the confidence to go out and say that.” I think that by working with a writer, it empowers artists to look at their work in a different way.