Interview: Matt Nash, Big Red & Shiny

by Claire Ruud

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      Matt Nash
      Photo: Rob Coshow

      Matt Nash is the publisher of Boston's Big Red & Shiny, an online art journal not unlike ...might be good, although it's much bigger. He started Big Red & Shiny in 2004 with C. Sean Horton and later Matthew Gambler, and since then it has expanded to include both a blog and a Twitter feed. Nash wears many hats; he's also a professor and a practicing artist, and I caught him by phone in his studio, or so I thought.

      …might be good (mbg): So you’re in your studio right now.

      Matthew Nash (MN): I was hoping to be, but I got tied up with work. Once you’re on the faculty somewhere, there are committees, meetings…

      mbg: And between all that, you still have time to produce Big Red & Shiny.  Tell me how you guys got started.

      MN: You know, I went to grad school with Duncan MacKenzie, who founded Bad at Sports, and Lori Waxman, who also does Bad at Sports. We all studied with Kathryn Hixson who was editor of the New Art Examiner. I think we all wanted to write about art that was not being written about. I came out of a publishing and advertising background. Eventually, I realized that what interested me most about publishing was disseminating ideas, and the web was a better forum for that.

      mbg: Do you have a story about the founding moment of BRS?

      MN: Boston is segregated into different neighborhoods, and everyone had their own clique. So often, when someone would ask whether you’d seen something in Chinatown or Jamaica Plain, chances were, you’d missed it because you hadn’t heard about it.

      Then one day, a grad student—Sean Horton, actually—and another professor pulled me aside to talk about the possibility of using the web to connect all these people. The first model we developed looked a lot like a blog—a multi-user open forum. But we soon realized that these kinds of open forums descend to the lowest common denominator really quickly. So we eventually settled upon a more traditional publishing model with a publisher, editors and contributors.

      Our first issues came out in February of 2004, right at the same time that the city shut down three or four of our best alternative spaces as part of an effort to rout out underage drinking and so on. There are conspiracy theories about the city trying to push the artists out in order to finish the gentrification process in certain areas, but I think they really are just that, conspiracy theories. Because we started publishing in that moment, many of the early pieces are quite angry, really, even though the project came out of a really optimistic time.

      mbg: Now, you’ve achieved an established place in Boston’s art scene.

      MN: We like to joke that when we started we were the dirty punk-rock kids in a basement, and now we’re the thirty-somethings with wives, kids and jobs. These days, I’m not getting out to as many shows. And now that BRS is larger and more established, I have galleries calling asking why they haven’t been reviewed. Sometimes I miss that feeling of being on the outside, fighting the good fight. But we still crack a lot of jokes, and don’t take ourselves too seriously.

      mbg: I watched the National Summit on Arts Journalism last Friday, and as the editor of an online art journal, I was frustrated by the superficial level at which all the projects were discussed. In order to learn from these models, I need to know about the nitty-gritty of financing and production. Can tell me about the specifics of how you make BRS work?

      MN: We’ve got a fairly traditional magazine model. I’m the publisher and I deal with ads, coding & site design. Then we’ve got editors, each of whom is responsible for a pool of writers. The editors are doing the recruiting, the correspondence, the actual editing. In addition, one of these editors keeps up the blog, and another does all our social media—twitter, facebook, and so on.

      mbg: That’s a pretty large organization. How are you funding it?

      MN: Until about two years ago, we were almost completely funded by a single foundation. Then the foundation changed their mission statement, and as a result we lost their support. Last year, we were almost exclusively funded by ad sales.

      We don’t pay writers, but we make up for it by hosting a dinner with a lot of booze every year, so everyone can meet each other and build a stronger community. We’ve also partnered with a local free newspaper, the Weekly Dig, to do their listings and reviews. We assign some of our regular writers to those stories, and the Dig pays them.

      mbg: Something else that caught my attention at the Summit was that success was generally measured through hits. I wondered, is that really our only measure for success? How do you measure success at BRS?

      MN: Long ago, I learned that I would drive myself insane by worrying about these kinds of metrics. To me, success is simply that we keep doing it, that it seems to be generating conversation, that people are still interested. Since we’re a not-for-profit, we haven’t got shareholders to please. That said, I think many of our editors do really value comments, re-tweets, and so on—things that show that people are paying attention.

      I used to track hits very closely. But when it comes down to it, there are just about 16,000 to 17,000 people who want to read about art online in the Boston area. A couple years ago, when we were very focused on partnerships with similar projects in other cities—Bad at Sports, for example—we sometimes got up around 60,000 readers per month, because we were getting a cross market selection. But these readers didn’t stick around to read about Boston, they were interested in Chicago.

      mbg: I totally get that—we’re all so busy with the conversations going on in our own cities that it’s often too much to look beyond them to similar conversations in other areas. But when I have the time to look around, I see thought provoking pieces and interviews in all these publications that fit so well into the conversations we’re having in Austin. I’d really like to find a way to share ideas and strategies and questions across our regionally-focused publications. For instance, I’m interested in creating some sort of Arts Journal-like round-up that could go out daily or weekly. An editor would go through all the participating publications and hand-pick the most interesting/relevant pieces for a national or international audience.

      MN: I actually tried to create something like that a few years ago when we were working on all those collaborations with other publications. It would be quite simple to do. But in the end, it came down to a question of funding.

      mbg: What advice do you have to offer to anyone who wants to start a project like BRS?

      MN: I guess my advice to anyone who wants to start a project like ours is to just do it, worry about the specifics later on. If you are surrounded by enough good energy and motivated people, a determined leader can find a way to make that work. Flexibility is important, but so is having a goal and pursuing it.
      There was a moment in grad school when we were on a field trip with Kathryn, and I asked her how she started being an art critic. I was expecting her to say something about grad school, degrees, internships, whatever... but what she said actually had much more of an impact on me. She said "I just started writing about art." I've always remembered that, because every time I want to over-complicate a project, to wait until everything is in order, things tend to fall apart in the waiting. If the time is right and people are ready, make it happen.

      Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.

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