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Sam Phillips and the art of the magazine

February 13, 2015

RA_WIN14_01 copy

As the editor of the Royal Academy Magazine, Sam Phillips has a job that is both very challenging and interesting. Indeed his insights into its production reveal that, even though it is a magazine associated with an institute, excellent writing and presentation are as important as the type of journalism you would find in any of the high quality commercial magazines you can buy on the high street. It is also a very viable option for anyone considering a career in journalism.

Tell me about yourself.

I classify myself primarily as a journalist. I fell in love with magazines as a teenager after I had a wonderful time doing work experience for ‘ID’ magazine when I was sixteen. I thought it was the best thing you could do with your time to go and meet interesting people, research and write interesting things, and then, at the end of the week or month or quarter, you would have something to show for it.

From then on I knew I wanted to work in magazines, and to deal with ideas in unexpected ways and communicate these in various stories. So I spent my teenage years working for various publishers and doing contract work around my studies.

I studied philosophy and when I came out of my degree, I did my best to find a magazine job. The starting position on magazines is usually editorial assistant (this is the same with books as well to an extent). Although I was interested in art, at that point I could have gone anywhere – had something else other than art come up I might have gone down a different route.

My first job in 2001 was working as an editorial assistant for the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, which is a quarterly magazine distributed to Friends of the Royal Academy. Because of that experience, I soon specialised in arts and specifically visual arts and architecture, which is the remit of the Royal Academy Magazine, and I have remained in this field ever since. I became the print and publications manager of the Serpentine Gallery. I’ve also written a couple of books about art – The Art Guide: London published by Thames and Hudson and Isms: Understanding Modern Art published by Bloomsbury – as well as contributing freelance to lots of different publications and editing books. For three years I worked for the Frieze Art Fair editing their catalogues and e-books. So I have immersed myself in the art world and editing and writing about it. Recently I came back to the Royal Academy Magazine as its editor.

You’re not an artist, so what does your perspective bring to the Royal Academy of Arts magazine?

I approach my work from a journalist’s viewpoint. I’m interested in the creative process and very interested in people and the ways they express themselves. I do know curators and editors who have been successful artists, but I don’t think it’s necessary, and coming at the work with a bit of distance and exterior perspective can help matters. The majority of my readers are not artists and so it can be helpful to communicate things to them without any prior knowledge.

You do cover a wide variety of subjects other than art. For example, there have been articles on subjects such as architecture and food. So the magazine does appear to have a wide remit.

The remit of the magazine is the remit of the Academy, which includes the Royal Academicians who reflect this very diverse institution. Organizationally it is artist-run and a huge amount of artists have a wide range of interests, from conceptual artists to figurative painters and architects.

Over the last century the Academy has presented exhibitions of international art, to explore other cultures, because it sees itself as an international organisation that doesn’t have to concentrate just on British art. So it feels comfortable for the magazine to talk about not just British art or British contemporary painting, but all types of art and architecture and some antiquities as well. This may bleed into other disciplines such as literature and film in terms of stories and representing what the Royal Academy is.

The art world now is a very fluid place, and as a result our editorial is becoming more varied. A painter today is obviously looking at other contemporary and historical painters. But they are just as likely to get inspiration from the Internet, Manga comics, films, literature, philosophy and even craft practices. Art is not just about painting, it’s about everything. A magazine like ours has the possibility of making these broad connections.

On the subject of making links, I believe the magazine has been asking writers to write a short story based on art works.

We’ve just launched a short story series where we ask a fiction writer to write a story inspired by a work of art of their choice. It was launched by Jeanette Winterson in September. She chose an Anselm Kiefer painting called ‘Orders of the Night’, then wrote a story about war and loss. In our latest magazine Ali Smith has written a short story in response to Henry Moore in particular a sculpture she saw at the Gagosian Gallery. It’s a wonderful story and brilliantly constructed. So this is our new initiative.

The Question

Are you constantly thinking about new initiatives?

I think art is a really open territory and, looking back to when I was considering journalism as a career, I could have found a no more interesting subject than art to construct a magazine around, because of its rich connections.

Everyone has such differing opinions about what a work of art is. This is allowed, because art is completely open to interpretation. Even if someone accrues a huge amount of knowledge about a particularly genre or becomes an art historian or scholar, there is nothing to say that their view is automatically more valid than someone else’s. Someone who has no knowledge of art may have a visceral and fresh response to a piece of artwork. Those two responses, of the scholar and the untrained visitor, are both valid and enrich the debate about art.

From my perspective as an editor, I apportion the space I have available, which is 50 editorial pages. Through research and speaking to my colleagues in the Royal Academy, I consider what sort of subjects I should cover in my editorial space. So this may be on a particular art exhibition at the Academy to a new building by an architect. There are so many different ways to address such subjects. You can publish a long piece of criticism, or an interview, or a personal response by an interesting figure. Or is it better to focus on one work and analyse how it was constructed? There are a large amount of angles I could take.

One of an editor’s jobs is to decide what would be an interesting take on the subject they’ve decided to cover – what has not been done before, what will add to the conversation. Once you’ve decided that then you can think about who will write the piece. Sometimes it’s more natural to go to a novelist. For example, in our last issue Melvyn Bragg wrote a piece on Rembrandt. He talked about Rembrandt from a novelist’s perspective, focusing on character. But if you wanted to decode all the elements of a Rembrandt masterpiece then you might go to an art historian who would talk in detail about how the painting was made. In that way the different angles you choose allow the different voices to be heard.


What does your work as an editor involve?

Once I’ve chosen the writer I give them a brief to get the best out of them. That is best done in writing, because if you just say ‘write 400 words on Rembrandt’ it’s likely they won’t come up with what you want. So I do write a detailed brief, often including questions I would think the piece needs to answer. Sometimes this can be more flexible depending on the writer and subject. But I find the initial correspondence about what the territory covers is key. Because once that is agreed between an editor and a writer, in theory it should be a lovely process where the writer enjoys the commission because they know what they’re doing and the editor takes the text and designs it in an appropriate way.

The text will come in and to a certain extent it will need copyediting, because it’s rare that the piece won’t need any clarification. So I will track changes on a document and sent it back with questions when necessary, which the writer will then respond to. That might happen a few times until I think the article is clear and working well, but also enabling the writer’s voice to be heard as clearly as possible. Then the magazine is designed and sub-edited. This is when the headlines are written and the facts checked. Sometimes text has to be cut to make sure it fits on the page.

Before we go to press we send the writer the page to make sure they’re happy with the final result and they don’t have any last thoughts they want to include.

It does sound as is your job is a very interesting.

It is very interesting. I do need a flexible approach as a magazine editor. We have an A3 piece of paper where we have a box for each page, all in a row – it’s called a ‘flatplan’. All those boxes have to be filled in, half with adverts and half with editorial. That is how we have a plan to see where everything is going. But often you’ll find something comes in longer than expected and you’ll decide that it needs more space. Likewise something will come in where you think it needs a bit of editing to reduce the word count, because it’s punchier as a smaller story. So you do have to be mentally nimble.

An example of the need for a flexible approach is in the issue we’ve just published, where we commissioned Alan Moore to write about William Blake to coincide with a Blake show at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I was a bit loose with my commissioning notes and thought he would only want to write a short piece because he’s a very busy man. I had suggested he write about 500 words. However, he wrote double that. But when I read it I knew I couldn’t change a word of it. It was so beautifully written you could not unpick it, because there is not a syllable out of place. It’s an amazing piece of writing about Blake’s view of Isaac Newton, jumping off from his satirical print about the English scientist. It’s one of the best things we’ve recently published. In that instance I would have been a fool to tell him ‘I want you to write a shorter piece so you’re going to have to cut it down.’ It was a piece of writing that had to be published in full to make the most of it. In that case I had to shelve another article to make room for it. So there are sometimes things that come up at the last minute where you have to fit something in.

So the magazine is a way of providing some depth to events and related subjects?

The magazine has a dual purpose. It informs Friends about the Academy’s exhibitions and events, and also, by providing some useful background or discussion, increases their enjoyment of going to see an exhibition. But, hopefully, the magazine is also an entertaining read in itself. I have to make sure that – whether they plan to come to a show or not – readers find the articles an interesting read and that the magazine is something they might pick up alongside their weekend supplements or other journals and magazines.

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips

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