The Art of Magazines

How two SJMC alumnae tranformed American Craft magazine.
By Tim Gihring
Photos by Craig Bares

AmericanCraft_web.jpgIn Monica Moses' office in northeast Minneapolis, the shelves are topped with what appear to be small yellow and orange jars. In fact, they're rolls of cinema-style tickets, of the Admit One variety, which Moses has manipulated to resemble vessels. "It's simpler than it looks," she says humbly, quickly collapsing one into the familiar circle and spoiling the illusion.

The tickets came from New York, along with everything else in the former headquarters of the American Craft Council (ACC), when the 70-year-old nonprofit moved from Manhattan to Minneapolis in 2010, with one notable exception: the staff. Not one New Yorker made the move. The organization, which relocated to cut costs, would have to restart its key components practically from scratch: four annual craft shows across the country and a bimonthly magazine, American Craft.

The magazine may have been overdue for a reboot anyway. Founded in the 1940s, it covers fine craft -- ceramics, glassmaking, woodworking, etc. -- for a readership of about 90,000 people, mostly artists, collectors and others who receive the magazine as a benefit of joining the ACC. But over the years, the magazine had grown ponderous and academic, far removed from the paint-splattered, sawdust-strewn workshops of the artists receiving it.

Moses (M.A., '91) was hired as the editor of American Craft in June 2010. Several years earlier, as the deputy managing editor and then executive director of production innovation at the Star Tribune, she had led a striking redesign of the newspaper and was the second publisher of the upscale Marq magazine. She knew immediately what she wanted to do with American Craft. "I thought it could be more accessible, more visual," she says. "No more 'art speak.'" But she had no staff, no stories in the can and only six weeks to finish the next issue.

Mary K. Baumann (B.A., '73) and her husband, Will Hopkins, were the first of Moses' hires, sharing the title of creative director. They had recently returned to Minneapolis after several decades in New York, where they led award-winning redesigns of Forbes, Architectural Digest and other magazines. "Monica and I," says Baumann, "are bonded together by a desire to push the envelope."

Within a few weeks, the first issue was done. Within a year, membership in the ACC had ballooned by about 14 percent. Today, American Craft is adding staff (there are now nine editors and designers) as Moses and Baumann find themselves in the rare position of growing a magazine in the toughest publishing environment either of them can remember.

█ █ █

The new ACC headquarters are in the former Grainbelt Brewery, a historic stone edifice the color of pale ale. The airy offices have exposed brick walls and ductwork, suggesting a blend of old and new and an appreciation of honest craftsmanship -- nothing hidden, no tricks. The library houses the nation's largest collection of books and periodicals on fine craft, including American Craft issues going back to the black-and-white era of men turning pots with their ties on. The last issue published before Moses took over is easily recognized, laden with talk of "dualities" and "critical discourse" and burdened with a static cover shot of rope art hanging limply on a wall, like seaweed.

Moses saw American Craft as solid but malleable clay, an opportunity to create a more accessible yet still important publication, a delicate blend she'd been trying all of her career to perfect. After graduating from St. Olaf College in the 1980s, she got her first journalism job as a copy editor at the Anchorage Times in Alaska before deciding she needed to ground herself in the principles of the profession. She enrolled as a graduate student at SJMC and sought, in her thesis, to write about the latest academic theories on journalism -- ideas about civic journalism and hyper-local agendas -- in such a way that reporters who had never opened a book on journalism could apply them to their work. She was stymied, however, by a schism in the school at that time between academics and professionals, and graduated more determined than ever to bridge the gap.

Baumann says of her colleague, "It was ingrained in you that you can't stand still, that you have to figure out new ways of doing things." And Moses did, going on to teach design and visual thinking at the Poynter Institute before arriving at the Star Tribune. At the newspaper, she overcame editorial resistance and turf battles ("You should have seen the first time I mentioned 'charticles,'" she says) to create a more visual news experience.

Baumann, meanwhile, had been taught early on, as a photojournalism major at SJMC in the early 1970s, to pay attention to both words and pictures. "I had a fantastic professor [R. Smith Schuneman, the founder of the University's photojournalism program] who demanded we shoot and write," she says. After honing her skills at 3M, she landed her dream job in the art department of LIFE magazine in New York. From there, she and Hopkins began a long career of helping national magazines visually redefine themselves. Mary K and Monica

As it happens, Baumann and Moses were both freelancing for Milkweed Editions, the local publisher, when they met shortly before the ACC moved to Minneapolis. By then, Moses had left the Star Tribune and acquired a second master's degree in a completely different field: human development. The turmoil wrought by the Internet and the ensuing collapse of the Star Tribune's advertising base had pushed the newspaper to the brink of bankruptcy and left Moses disillusioned. "I said, 'I am so done with this journalism stuff,'" she recalls. It was a friend who noticed the vacancy at American Craft and convinced Moses to give publishing another shot.

She didn't actually need much coaxing. Moses and Baumann both have a deep appreciation for arts and crafts. Moses, per the ersatz jars, is an artist herself. Baumann and her husband are avid collectors. In fact, Moses was initially concerned that the couple was too deeply involved in the scene to embrace the sort of changes she envisioned for the magazine. But neither woman anticipated when they signed on that they would suddenly be at the forefront of a craft renaissance.

█ █ █

Pam Diamond, the ACC's marketing and communications director, has tracked a renewed interest in arts and crafts for several years now -- attendance at the ACC's craft shows, she says, is "off the charts." She ties the movement to the same forces spurring a national obsession with everything local and handmade, from organic food to indie music, bundling the foodie philosophy of Michael Pollan with the rustic rock 'n' roll of Bon Iver. "In this economy, people are leading with their values," Diamond says. "They're saying, 'I'm living with less, so I'll choose carefully'--even their coffee cup. They'll buy it from a local studio and meet the artist who made it. It's a lifestyle about making intentional choices."

Diamond notes that many artists today had other careers before the economy tanked. "That artist making coffee mugs?" she asks rhetorically. "Maybe he left his day job as an accountant and is rebuilding a farm now, catering to people who love local food. It's happening, in one way or another, all over. When people have nothing to lose, they innovate."
And yet, before American Craft moved to Minneapolis, you might never have known from reading the field's leading publication that there was a renaissance going on at all. There were few stories about innovative artists and even fewer about ACC member artists, much to their chagrin.

Chris Amundsen, the new director of the ACC, says he asked Moses when he hired her what kind of magazine she envisioned: "Do you want an educational journal or do you want to reach a broader audience?" It was a fair question. Although the magazine's editorial bent was "holier-than-thou," as Baumann puts it, previous directors had obviously approved. And not without reason. "For a long time," Moses says, "craft as a medium had an inferiority complex in the art world. Is it art? Is it not art? As a result, there was a drive to gain acceptance in art circles, and that was reflected in the magazine."

The move to Minneapolis, Diamond says, allowed the ACC to consider loosening up the magazine. "Moving to the Midwest was already such a shift in mindset for people," she says, "that we had license to say, 'Blame it on the Minnesotans!'"
One of the first things Moses did was triple the magazine's photography budget, a move Baumann supported. With her New York connections, Baumann hired world-class photographers and splashed the pictures across the pages. Moses shaved the stories to make room. When it comes to visuals, Moses is uncompromising. "If the pics don't work," she says, "write about someone else or take new pictures."

The stories became punchier, faster reads, better connected to trends and the broader culture. One recent cover story featured Nick Offerman, who plays woodworker Ron Swanson on NBC's Parks and Recreation and also happens to be one in real life. The writing became more colloquial: "Keep Your Damn Flowers" read a recent headline about a glassmaker. A regular column called "Voices" was begun to give artists a place to weigh in on things like the best handmade gift they've ever received or the artist they most admire, their "platonic craft crush."

The magazine, acknowledging the breadth of craft's appeal, has broadened its potential audience. "There's a thread," says Moses, "between a knitter in Apple Valley and a MacArthur-winning ceramist, and I'm OK with that." American Craft is now sold on more newsstands than before and it's not uncommon to see it in hair salons as well as galleries.

Last September, in honor of the ACC's 70th anniversary, Moses and Baumann attempted the magazine's most ambitious cover story yet: a chronicle of "America's handmade history." Across 16 photo-filled pages, a timeline highlighted the biggest moments in fine craft, decade by decade. The project was as gutsy in its assertiveness as its scope, establishing the new staff as the arbiters and keepers of craft. "It earned us some credibility," says Baumann. "Artists said, 'Wow, they are truly serious about this.'"

If the story drew the core readership of member artists into the fold, the ongoing coverage of their work and opinions has kept them there. The reader-writer bond, judging from feedback, is now uncommonly close. "We were the enemy before," says Diamond. "Now it's a lovefest."

█ █ █

On a Tuesday morning, the editors and designers gather in the dining area of Baumann and Hopkins' abode, a ground-level condominium framed by broad stone arches, wood beams and limestone columns. Once part of a mill, it's no surprise the space was featured in The New York Times Home section a few years back. Here, the staff read through the final layouts of the magazine, word by word, "like dumping a bucket of sand on the floor and having to pick it all up with a tweezers," says Moses. With Baumann and Hopkins close at hand (they typically work from home), it's easier than doing it in the office, and certainly more pleasurable.

Moses takes a break to show a cheeky video the staff recently made about the magazine. "You might be thinking that making a magazine like American Craft is easy," Moses says to the camera. "Have you ever worked with artists? Some artists are [bleeping] crazy." The staff cracks up. It's that kind of irreverence that seeps into the magazine, although it's never irreverence about the subject matter -- it's about the stuffiness of journalism itself. "They take their work seriously," Moses says of her writers, "but not themselves."

Baumann hands Moses a few more layouts, then lingers, marveling at some photos of blown glass. "If you see something that excites you," she says, "you literally feel it in your heart. We try to achieve that."
Moses studies the pages silently before nodding her head. "This desire to make things," she muses, "it's not a reasonable thing. We're driven by some impulse to use our hands that we can barely understand." She picks up her pen once more to make notes on a page. "If you can remind people of that," she says, "then you've done something that's meaningful."

Tim Gihring is a 1995 SJMC graduate and the longtime senior writer and arts editor at Minnesota Monthly. An artist himself (his studio is housed in the Northrup King Building), he serves on the Minneapolis Arts Commission.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by showard published on June 1, 2012 2:17 PM.

Finance Writer Gail MarksJarvis Honored with 2012 Award of Excellence was the previous entry in this blog.

SJMC To Host Student Journalists From Around the Country is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.