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Sam Phillips

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Editor of the famous Royal Academy of Arts magazine, art critic, writer and teacher when he still has some time, Sam Phillips is one of the few people who you should really listen to when they start talking about art. As we wanted to know a little bit more about his career path and about his work as an art writer, we asked him a few questions. Here goes.

{Artsper}: Before we begin, can you tell us a little about your career path and background?
{Sam Phillips}: I knew I wanted to be a journalist from a young age, as I loved magazines and newspapers when I was a child and teenager – it was just a question of getting on the career ladder. I gained as much experience, some paid some unpaid, while I was studying, on publications like The Guardian, The Independent, The Economist, Time Out and I-D Magazine, and I also edited my university’s student magazine. So when I came out of my degree in Philosophy, I was in good shape to apply for editorial assistant positions, which is the entry-level job for publishing.
I worked as editorial assistant, then assistant editor, on RA Magazine, which is the quarterly publication of the Royal Academy of Arts, which is a well-respected art and architecture magazine, with a circulation in excess of 95,000. It is distributed primarily to the Friends of the RA and it aims to engage them with the RA’s activities and the wider art world.
In 2006 I went freelance, which involved some substantial part-time roles, including Print and Publications Manager of the Serpentine and Catalogue Editor for the Frieze Art Fairs. Around these roles, I wrote two books – The Art Guide: London (Thames & Hudson, 2011), and Isms: Understanding Modern Art (Bloomsbury, 2012) – and lots of articles for different publications, and also worked as an editor on various magazines and books. Then in 2013 I came back home to the Royal Academy, this time as editor of RA Magazine. It’s a pleasure to work here again, as the remit of the RA is so broad – it shows and encourages all types of art and architecture, so I am constantly engaging with fascinating subjects across visual culture old and new.

{Artsper}: Art journalist and editor of renowned publications, you have a broad knowledge on contemporary art. What motivated you to work in the world of art?
{Sam Phillips}: Art is endlessly fascinating as an area because it connects so broadly and vividly with other subjects. One can view an artwork or an artist through so many different lenses. For example, an article on an artist can consider the character and creativity of the artist; their influences, which tend to range widely from literature and film to philosophy and politics; the fabrication of their pieces, which can be fascinating in terms of material and process; the appearance and viewer’s experience of their artworks; and the meaning of those works, which often touches upon important areas of lived experience, from human emotion to social systems. So while I’m working with art, whether contemporary or older art, I am constantly linking with and learning about rich and rewarding areas of life and culture.

{Artsper}: What did you bring to the landscape of artistic media by becoming the editor of the Royal Academy of Arts magazine?
{Sam Phillips}: I’ve been editor for about two years. The magazine did not require a radical overhaul, as under previous editors its content and tone had been very well received by Friends of the RA. But magazines are about constant refinement, and aside from aside from general issues of magazine craft, there are three areas that I have tried to improve so far.
The Academy is such a vital and dynamic institution because it is led by artists – these include some of the biggest names in British culture, from David Hockney RA and Cornelia Parker RA to Richard Rogers RA and Thomas Heatherwick RA. For any editor, having a connection to such interesting figures is an absolute gift, so I have tried to incorporate their voices and ideas much more centrally to the magazine’s content. Academicians from Norman Foster RA and Zaha Hadid RA to Tracey Emin RA have written articles for the magazine, and I have encouraged Academicians to suggest editorial ideas across the magazine – from what books to review to what writers to commission – to invigorate the publication, and to communicate to Friends how central artists and architects are to the RA. Our summer issue, for example, is guest-edited by the architect David Chipperfield RA.
I have also launched a new section called Debate, which aims to encourage highly opinionated, possibly impolite writing on critical issues in art and architecture. Often artists write these pieces, or otherwise eminent critics and other figures. The RA in general is a forum for debate, somewhere where any subject can be tackled. And I have tried to incorporate a more literary, lyrical tone across the magazine where possible. This has included commissioning a short story each issue, where the story is inspired by a work of art, as well as commissioning poems and more personal and evocative responses to art, rather than straight journalism.

{Artsper}: Could you tell us a little about the project of “The Art Guide: London”?
{Sam Phillips}: That was a very enjoyable book to write. “The Art Guide” is essentially a guide to the art collections of London, but what sets it apart is it’s structure, as it is organised by genre rather than gallery. So it begins with a chapter on ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, then Greek and Roman Art, then Medieval Art, then chapters covering the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo etc., all the way to modern and contemporary areas of art. Each chapter introduce readers to that genre, explaining key ideas and practices, while describing the works that can be seen in London’s collections. So, in essence, it’s a history of art through the works one can see in the city.

{Artsper}: A cultural event that has made a particular impression on you in 2014?
{Sam Phillips}: Biased as I am, I’m going to say the Royal Academy’s exhibition of the German artist Anselm Kiefer. Honestly it was one of the most moving and majestic shows of art I have ever seen, and I shed a few tears. Kiefer’s artworks are both magnetically, viscerally appealing in aesthetic terms and deeply interesting intellectually and emotionally.

{Artsper}: Can you tell us about a few art galleries from London that you feel people should be keeping an eye on?
{Sam Phillips}: To keep in touch with the latest developments in contemporary art, I would visit commercial galleries including Ancient & Modern, Corvi-Mora and Wilkinson, and non-commercial spaces such Chisenhale Gallery, Studio Voltaire, Cubbitt and Cell Project Space.

{Artsper}: If you could have dinner with the artist of your choice who would it be?
{Sam Phillips}: Great question! In terms of art history, it would have to be Picasso, as I speak some Spanish – although if I had an interpreter I might go back in time to ancient Greece and meet the sculptor Praxiteles, or dine with Titian in 16th-century Venice. Actually, scratch that, maybe I’d dine with Basquiat. Damn, that is a hard question. Today… that’s an even harder one… I’ve been lucky enough to meet most of my artistic heroes, bar I think Gerhard Richter. So I would go for Richter, as I hear he’s a lovely man and he makes lovely art.

{Artsper}: The art market is progressively turning to the digital world, what do you think of Artsper’s project?
{Sam Phillips}: Clichéd as it sounds, the digital world does cross borders. I can have the work of a British artist and a Bengali artist on my screen at the same time after a few clicks. So I particularly like the internationalism of Artsper, in that it can introduce me to galleries outside the UK, many of whom I have not visited before. More and more people are browsing and buying art online, so I will projects like Artsper with interest, to see how they fair in the future.

{Artsper}: Back to art writing in general; what would be your advice for a young art writer?
{Sam Phillips}: Don’t write for free. OK, that’s not quite true, as you may need to write one or two articles for free, just to have those in your portfolio. But don’t normalise the idea that you do not deserve to be paid for your time – it isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for every other writer. Instead spend your time researching the ‘market’ for your work – i.e. the many magazines and newspapers and other publishers who pay freelancers for the right story. Perhaps this might mean you have to cast your net widely, thinking of angles other than straight exhibition reviews. Remember that strong editorial ideas pitched correctly should get you commissioned, and paid.

{Artsper}: What are your projects for 2015?
{Sam Phillips}: I’m planning to do some teaching this year, which I’m looking forward to, as teaching a subject really clarifies it in my mind, and the interaction with students always teaches me more than I expect. For example, I’m running a course called ‘Introduction to Art Criticism’ at the RA in November, which, jumping off from your last question, aims to help aspiring art writers perfect their skills.

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