Getting Hyperallergic: Arts Administration Distinguished Speaker Series ☆

Pictured: Veken Gueyikian, Hrag Vartanian, and Meghana Karnik; photo by Juliana Driever

Pictured: Veken Gueyikian, Hrag Vartanian, and Meghana Karnik; photo by Juliana Driever

by Myiesha Gordon

If you had an opportunity to have a conversation with established professionals in your industry, what would you ask? I pondered this question as I prepared to attend the first event in the Distinguished Speaker Series, sponsored by the program in Arts Administration (ArAd). It’s a graduate student’s dream to engage with industry professionals in an informal setting, to listen as they regale stories of their professional journey. Sometimes, it’s the anecdotes that offer the most insight. Sometimes, it’s a cautionary tale or lesson learned from a mistake that prove to be invaluable.

The event featured Veken Gueyikian and Hrag Vartanian, co-creators of the celebrated online arts publisher, Hyperallergic. The blogazine was created in 2009 with a mission to help promote independent voices in the visual arts and to push back the corporatization of art. Veken and Hrag wanted to tell certain stories—something new that did not yet exist. They chose an online format instead of traditional print because they found that most art magazines did not make sense to the general public. They also recognized the practicality and accessibility of online media. Hrag, whose background is in art history, realized that his passion was writing for online platforms instead of print. Veken, who has a background in engineering and medicine, later developed a passion for marketing. From this he founded Nectar Ads, a partner to Hyperallergic and an online ad network devoted to the visual arts.

Screenshot of Hyperallergic, 02.18.15

Screenshot of Hyperallergic, 02.18.15

Since its inception, Hyperallergic was established as a laboratory for ideas and platform for arts writers. Hrag and Veken had a shared commitment to pay their writers from the beginning. For the first two years of the company’s history, the husband duo worked full-time jobs to ensure that they were able to pay their writers. They currently have a staff of four full-time editors. Hrag mentioned that they also pay their interns, which was followed by a round of applause from the event attendees. Hrag said this gave him a rush.

When asked why the Distinguished Lecture Series is a necessary program, second year student in the ArAd program and coordinator of the event, Meghana Karnik said, “I strongly believe in John Dewey’s characterization of education as a lifelong process. Scholars and practitioners need peer discourse and engagement to breathe fresh air into their professional practices.” Meghana originally conceived of the Hyperallergic event as a seminar on the role of cultural criticism in 2014 but decided the issue would be too specific for such a format. “As a panel, we explored a broad swath of topics: launching a new business, censorship, public participation in the arts, the arts market, and the politics of unpaid internships. I think that was valuable, given that our audience included students from Arts Administration and Art Education.”

Students from various programs at Teachers College attended the lecture. Ana Maria Farina, an Art Education Master’s student from Sao Paulo, Brazil, was a Hyperallergic reader prior to attending the lecture and feels that such events help prepare students for their careers. She said, “To have the opportunity of hearing from people that are actually doing something successful is helpful not only to understand how the theory works when put into practice but also to encourage and inspire students to do so.”

Veken and Hrag are passionate about advocacy in arts communities. They pride themselves in producing content that rejects the idea of objectivity in journalism. Theirs is an unorthodox approach in the art world, with coverage that is not influenced by the art market. “We don’t care about the art market, we want to tell stories about art,” said Hrag. Throughout the conversation, the speakers dispelled the myth of art administration being glamorous and aesthetic-driven frivolity. Rather, the founders of Hyperallergic are motivated by something more meaningful—social justice, freedom of expression, and nurturing an arts ecosystem that appeals to the average citizen. Through Meghana’s event, Hyperallergic’s success and purpose were explored, inspiring the arts community at Teachers College and deepening student’s commitment to cultural discourse.

To learn more about the Distinguished Speaker Series, visit www.tc.columbia.edu/artsadmin.