Who Has Your Back?by Eleanor Heartney
Like most people in this august profession, I stumbled into art criticism in the early 1980s through a slew of unlikely meetings. Following my failure to secure a “real” art job with my newly minted MA in art history, I found my home as an art writer through a series of encounters with remarkable individuals. My personal pantheon includes Glen Hanson, the Minnesota gallerist turned Country Western singer turned Benedictine monk turned artist who gave me my first art paycheck and my first close up look at real live artists; Derek Guthrie, founder of the New Art Examiner, a scrappy, Chicago-based “art rag” that thrived on controversy and gave me my first authorial voice; and Richard Martin, the reclusive and elusive editor who edited Arts Magazine while moonlighting from his full time job at FIT and opened his New York publication to writers like me with lots of opinions but no connections.
But the person who probably had the greatest impact on my subsequent career is Elizabeth Baker. I’m sure I won’t be the only one in this section who will cite Betsy’s influence. During her thirty-four years as the editor-in-chief of Art in America, she turned a whole generation of scribblers into writers. Betsy’s gentle encouragement to dig deeply into an idea and examine all its sides, her boundless knowledge of all aspects of contemporary art, and her unerring ability to see the flaws in any argument made her invaluable to all of us lucky enough to work with her.
Among the things I learned from Betsy:
Be professional—which means completing assignments on time, doing your homework, and being receptive to criticism and suggestions.
Have the courage of your convictions—which means saying what you really think clearly and unambiguously. (And realizing that if you can’t do that, you may not really have thought it through sufficiently).
Be generous—which means it’s fine to offer a negative judgment, but not a destructive one.
Sometimes I meet publishers who extol the fact that they don’t lay a hand on an author’s writing. Yikes! Betsy never let you get away with anything—and that was a good thing. While being alerted to factual errors and gaping holes in one’s argument may not feel so great, it’s a relief to know that someone has your back. No writer wants to march out there in print with something that is going to be embarrassing later.
And all this was done with incredible grace and a willingness to let each writer develop a personal style and set of interests. For a young writer not sure if she really was a writer, Betsy’s encouragement meant everything. And for an older writer, her openness made it possible to explore ideas that might be eccentric, unusual, or unfashionable.
Betsy, who remains a vital presence on the art scene, is a vivid reminder that none of us manages to get anywhere alone. She showed and continues to show us the meaning of the art community at its best. May every young writer be lucky enough to find their Betsy!
ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a New York-based art critic and the author of numerous books about contemporary art.