“There is nothing like Glasstire in Texas. There’s not anything like Glasstire in most of the country.”
With those words Rainey Knudson begins a video interview about Glasstire, her online journal of Texas art, recently recognized as a finalist for the National Arts Journalism Summit, the theme of which was “New Models in Arts Journalism.” I view the arts, journalism and non-profit worlds as three environments ripe for fresh, entrepreneurial thinking, so naturally I invited her to chat about these topics here.
Her arts initiative began as a Moot Corp project called Bone & Company when Knudson was an MBA student at McCombs (’97). Moot Corp has a reputation as a high-intensity refiners fire turning budding b-school-entrepreneurs into market killers. In her case the entrepreneurial flame fused her dreams and ambition into Glasstire, now celebrating nine years of relevancy in the Texas arts world. To sum it up in her words, “If you are excited about something and you feel like there’s a real need for it, you should go for it. Life is short.”
My interview with Rainey Knudson.mp3.
Edited Version of Our Conversation
David Wenger: The theme “new models in arts journalism” seemed like an ideal place for us to start our discussion. The arts, journalism and nonprofit work all seem to be ripe for a fresh entrepreneurial view. Is that the spark that created Glasstire?
Rainey Knudson: They are all ripe for a fresh entrepreneurial view but the spark that created Glasstire was the Internet. Journalism, as we all know, is going through a massive painful transition right now and arts journalism, which is a very small, far less profitable component of journalism, generally speaking, is no different and it is of course because of the Internet. The same is true for the arts and the same is true for nonprofit work.
And I think people are approaching the business of the arts, how the museum is run, how the commercial art scene works in different ways and thinking very differently about all of that. Because the arts went through a tremendous transformation over the course of the last 100 years from how they used to be, some things worked, some things didn’t. People are really looking hard at how nonprofits work, how the arts work and how journalism works.
I had done a print magazine before I did Glasstire,and so I was dealing with the classic print issues of printing and distribution and the very costly expense of that and of course this was before print on demand was available. My partner and I decided to fold that project, but I had done a lot of travel around Texas in working on the print magazine. I had spent a lot of time in Dallas and Austin and San Antonio and out in West Texas too, looking at museums, meeting artists,looking at the galleries and getting to know the art scene in all of these places. This was late 2000 and the Internet was not sexy anymore at that point but it made a lot of sense to start up a website to connect these communities because there was a lot of overlap, and a website was the obvious place to connect everybody and it was virtually free to start it up. That’s how it came about.
DW: Talk about your decision to brand this as an online publication versus a print publication that happens to have an online version.
RK: I’ll be honest with you I’m not the most strategic of thinkers, and so when I started it I wasn’t really thinking about the implications of being online versus print, beyond just the very practical considerations of it being much cheaper to do it online. There was clearly a need and it was an easy thing to do. It was something that I would enjoy doing. It would continue my interest in the arts and continue my interest in promoting the Texas art scene, which is great and which is still not really recognized for how great it is, nationally. And so I just got it started.
We launched officially in January 2001, even then there wasn’t a sense that newspapers were going to be gone in 10 years and there wasn’t the sense that the print media was about to radically transform. There may have been a sense out there, but it wasn’t nearly as gelled as it is today. And so websites were treated as curiosities and funders weren’t really interested in taking seriously something that involved audience participation or that involved blogging, God forbid. Early on it was harder, frankly, to be taken seriously because we were a website and anybody could do a website, and why does this cost money and etcetera, etcetera.
What we’re seeing strongly in the past 12 months is a real shift in how people regard websites in arts journalism, obviously across the board, and how people take far more seriously the idea that a great blogger can self edit. They don’t have to have an editor to be taken seriously. And websites are the critical hubs for how everybody gets information for everything, not just the arts. So we’ve seen a huge transition in how things are regarded.
As I say that out of one side of my mouth, we are actually looking forward to our 10 year anniversary in January of 2011 and we’ve been kicking around ideas for how we want to commemorate that and the idea that everyone seems to be lobbying for is to do a print publication, looking back at the first 10 years of Glasstire. There’s a strong sense that as much as the internet is being respected and as much as it’s being taken far more seriously as a reliable source for information and as a business model. There’s still something about that printed material that you can put on your bookshelf, that you can hold and you know, read in bed, that makes people happy. So we are actually thinking about doing a one-time publication for our part.
DW: I can see that would be a factor, especially in an arts publication because we’re used to seeing art laid out on a page with a beautiful layout and perhaps the expectation is that an online environment isn’t as pristine, from a graphic standpoint, as a print publication might be.
RK: Well it can be as pristine. I don’t think the graphic component of it is as big of an issue. With Glasstire we don’t have a pristine environment because we consciously choose not to have a pristine environment because we think part of the problem with arts journalism, traditional arts journalism is that it takes itself far too seriously. It takes the job of talking about art, not that it takes it too seriously but it over intellectualizes it and makes it very precious, and there’s this desire to create theory and saddle art and art speak with a lot of academic jargon, which is something we reject.
And we reject the sort of visual compulsion towards minimalism that has characterized so much of arts journalism and which still characterizes “serious arts journalism.” I think people are more and more used to looking at images on the web. I think there’s so much digital imagery in the art world now. I don’t think that works against it necessarily but people do like their art. I’m straddling the question. People do like their art books and their art magazines still, it’s true.
DW: You’ve made some big strides in using social media to promote Glasstire.
RK: Yeah we were late to the game with it but we just hired somebody who is young and who sits on the web all the time and who’s a very experienced sort of builder of web traffic and knows how all these things work, to just handle our twitter account and handle our Facebook. So we have somebody on staff who does that for us. And we all monitor and pay attention to it. I think social media’s critically important. It’s not something that I want to do for Glasstire or our Editor or anybody else wants to do. We needed somebody dedicated to do that. But we’ve seen a huge jump in traffic and so much of that is from the social media effort. And from getting picked up on content aggregators like Digg, we see huge spikes in traffic from those kinds of episodes. Traffic equals advertising dollars so it’s critically important.
DW: You were an MBA grad out of McCombs business school in ‘97. You participated in Moot Corp in ‘97 with a project called Bone & Company. Talk a little bit about that experience and how it turned into Glasstire.
RK: Bone & Company is somewhat oddly named. It was named for my grandmother, it was her maiden name but it was a project about selling art by a mail order catalog which was an idea that was being bandied about at the time, “Make art more affordable, make it more accessible, photograph it in homes, get away from the pristine white walls of the gallery space and we could just make a fortune selling art.”
I never launched Bone & Company, but what happened was I met a publisher who was interested in doing an art magazine and I had a lot of knowledge at that point from all the research I had done for Bone & Company, vis-a-vis the publishing and distribution aspects of doing a magazine, and I had this passion for art so I ended up going into the editorial side, which actually made a lot more sense for me personally. I had an undergraduate degree in literature and was always interested in writing and that was a better fit for me.
DW: Some might term what you do now as social entrepreneurship but it sounds like you were really thinking about business.
RK: Very simply, within about six months of launching Glasstire it became painfully clear this was never going to be a profitable, for profit enterprise. So it made sense immediately to go the nonprofit route. I’d talked with some of the Houston foundations and they said it would be something they’d be interested in looking at if we got our 501(c)(3), which we did. So one of the things with arts journalism now is people are wondering if there is a for-profit model that will work for arts journalism. And there are a lot of for-profit models out there, magazines and a couple of websites, but people are still feeling their way with it.
If we had not been a nonprofit we would not have made it this far. We wouldn’t have survived without foundation money and contributions, we just wouldn’t have made it on our advertising alone. Advertising is a growing component of our budget but we still depend on the unearned income component of our revenue.
DW: You made a decision to brand this as a regional publication, or at least the focus is on a regional arts focus. What were the arguments pro and con about doing that and what convinced you this was the correct path?
RK: Well as much as we all love Texas, the Texas art scene, which is a very great art scene, as I said before, doesn’t enjoy the stature it really deserves. You talked about social entrepreneurship. One of the things I really believe in is that the Texas art scene is a great art scene and it’s my mission to help get the word out about it and help bring it to a larger audience and help shine light on the artists who are working here.
Some of the institutions here are wonderful, so as a regional publication what I liked is it was going very much against the grain of what was considered appropriate or certainly sexy in the art world. That was not Texas, that was New York and Los Angeles, particularly back in 2000. So by going against the grain of that and celebrating a place known mostly at that time for President Bush, not somebody you associate with the art world necessarily, we were doing something that was bizarre, I think for some people. It was like, why would you even bother?
Within the art world regionalism is regarded suspiciously and rightly so to a certain extent, and this is very much getting in the art world as opposed to the business world. There’s this sense that yes there are some of these institutions like the Menil Collection in Houston or the Dallas Museum of Art or other places in the Midwest or Southwest and yes they’re fine, and okay there might be a few artists, a handful of artists around who have real talent, and then they move to New York or LA and get serious. But really, that’s [Texas] not where the action is. And that’s just simply not the case.
The beauty of the Texas art scene, and what gets me so excited about it, is it’s like a sleeper art scene. There’s a study in Houston sponsored by the city and the University of Houston that says there’s this huge art economy in Houston that’s not generally recognized even within the city and it’s a real impact on the economy. Of all these artists there’s this huge community of working artists. It’s cheap to live here and the psychology of Texas plays into it. There’s the sense that you can do whatever you want, and the sense of freedom and because it’s not New York or LA. There’s less of a microscope on what people are doing and there’s more freedom to get really innovative and that’s what’s exciting about the Texas art scene, and that’s why I chose early on to focus on it.
Plus each city has a very distinct personality and a very distinct art community and its fun seeing the interconnectedness, but also enjoying the very different personalities of Austin versus San Antonio versus Dallas. They each have their own thing going for them and it’s nice to put them all together in one package.
DW: What are some of the personal satisfactions, the success stories that keep you going?
RK: I may not have been a normal MBA candidate or student in the sense that I wasn’t really interested in consulting or finance or some of the more traditional career paths out of business school. Not to knock them because believe me I’m sure I’m in the bottom 10th percentile of my class in terms of earning, but I’m doing what I love and I always remember I had some great professors at UT in the entrepreneurship program and they were just so fantastic and some of them are still there and some of them are not still there.
I’ll always remember Jeff Sandefer actually in his class had us all go around and each student had to say what his or her passion was, which was kind of putting us on the spot, almost a bit of an embarrassing exercise, but it was great to hear what people were really into. And the point of the exercise of course was if this is what you’re really passionate about and if you’re really serious about being an entrepreneur and doing a start up, you better do something that you love because it ain’t easy.
So I feel really proud that I have built this thing. Yes it’s a nonprofit, and that’s a totally different business model but it is a business and we do employ people and we’re keeping Texas artists who might not have other outlets or might not have had other outlets before Glasstire, we’re giving them an opportunity to stay in Texas. In our small nonprofit way we’re really trying to cultivate the art scene and the writing scene here. So that’s the thing I’m most proud of, I’ve created something that gives employment to people, and that is helping to celebrate something I am very passionate about which is aesthetics and the arts in my home state.
To students who are interested in entrepreneurship and interested in doing something they want to do, I would really encourage them to follow that dream. Entrepreneurship is not rocket science. Yes, there are challenges and yes you have to be strategic about the way you think, and yes it’s very hard, but it’s also not that hard to start something up. If you are excited about something and you feel like there’s a real need for it, you should go for it. Life is short.