December 09, 2012

Show Me the Money: Daily Serving

Show Me the Money is an earnest attempt to get people to talk about money in the visual arts.

Daily Serving is an international online arts magazine with 35 different contributors from around the world. In addition to exhibition reviews, they have columns reserved for longer reconsiderations of artworks and art practices outside of the review format (#Hashtags); an art advice column (Help Desk); a weekly column tying together artistic practices, exhibitions, and popular culture based in Los Angeles (LA Expanded); artist interviews; and features on selected artwork sent in by Daily Serving readers (Fan Mail).

Started in 2006 by Seth Curcio and Julie Henson, the platform has informed the couple’s professional and artistic lives. My biggest takeaway after talking with them is that they are really working toward a smart model. While trying to diversify the responsibility for the content of the site, they are both trying to cultivate long-term relationships with organizations who invest in them, as well as think of new ways to work with this network of advertisers. They look at the information that their sponsors provide as an asset, really, an addition to the content of the site. That, in itself, is a revelatory way of looking at things for me.

The art world is a niche. My impression is that most people in it, if that is the path that they have chosen, are trying to work for the common good in some small ways. Julie and Seth’s outlook on media partners and sponsorships reinforces the idea that all ships do rise together, and that fund-raising shouldn’t necessarily be looked on as a bad part of the job, because in the end, everybody can benefit from working together.

graphic developed with Lauren Venell

The following interview is edited for length and clarity. It touches on why Julie and Seth are committed to the sponsorship/advertising revenue model, the ways in which they’ve tried to streamline, and how managing Daily Serving, working other jobs, and practicing as artists all inform one another. Newlyweds, Julie and Seth have a tendency to finish one another’s sentences and thoughts. The formatting below is an attempt at keeping paragraphs together though there may be more than one speaker within that paragraph. 

You started in 2006. Can tell me your start-up story?

Seth Curcio: Julie and I went to an undergrad program together — a really amazing but small liberal arts program in Charleston, South Carolina. Since we didn’t have access to urban areas, we were doing a tremendous amount of online research about artists and exhibitions that were happening all over the world. After a while, we had built a large system of bookmarks for our research structure, and we decided that we should try to find a way to make it a public format. In that early stage, we worked with my brother and a developer to create Daily Serving as a simple blog that had pretty much a singular voice that was writing almost every day.
Julie Henson: For the first year, year and a half, Seth wrote every post, every day. It became part of his practice, though I would occasionally help out with a post here and there.

SC: Just before we formally started Daily Serving, I took a job as the director of a nonprofit art space in Charleston, called Redux. It’s a 6,000-square-foot warehouse that had a studio program, education program, and a small residency program. Julie worked there with me doing a lot of the development, fund-raising, and administrative stuff. Though we were in a smaller community, we were interested in inviting artists from outside of our area come to the space and produce exhibitions, but we didn’t always have access to them. When we were talking about launching Daily Serving, we knew that we could potentially operate it as a curatorial tool to help us meet artists from around the world and hopefully bring them in to do programming with us.

Though it wasn’t connected to Redux’s programming — it was an individual effort of ours — we wanted to utilize it in a way that would benefit our efforts and our programming there. So we would do things like cover an artist and then several weeks later call up and interview that artist, and then at the end, if the interview went well, we would invite them to possibly come to Redux and put together an exhibition. That way, we could build a really great network of friends and potentially fellow artists that wanted to work with us.

JH: When we were in Charleston, we started to bring on new writers from different locations. We started with artists or curators that we knew from outside the area that were interested in writing about shows that they were seeing, and we also put out calls and developed writers in New York, Los Angeles, and here in San Francisco.
SC: But it was still pretty small. I would say in 2009, when we moved out to San Francisco, we probably had between 12 and 15 writers working for us nationally and internationally — about a third of what we have right now.

JH: When we moved out here, I got a lot more involved with managing the site and working with all of our writers to develop a larger base of writers that we could engage.
SC: Julie really tripled our writers and our writing program in the last three years. A lot of that was international contributors, so now we really have a great voice all through Europe, Asia, and Australia.

JH: The other thing that we’ve done since we’ve moved out here is that we’ve started partnering with both local and international arts writing institutions. This allows us to keep an eye on a particular area and exchange content with them.  They can take whatever content we publish, as long as they link back to us, and we do the same. The whole idea is that you strengthen all the publications with better content and you increase readership.

You both work full-time jobs, are practicing artists, and run Daily Serving, taking up 20 to 25 hours of every week. Do you think that you’ll be able to maintain this schedule? Are you reaching a point where you feel like you’re working all the time?

JH: It’s definitely an intense schedule, for sure, but I’d say that we’re both very stubborn individuals in a lot of ways, and we love it. One of the things that we always talk about is how each of our jobs — Daily Serving, our art practice, and our paying gigs — all feed into different aspects of our creative practice. I think they all work together in interesting ways, so it’s hard to think about losing any part of that.
SC: At this stage, we’re interested in working smarter. We are constantly trying to streamline our process so that it’s simpler, more efficient, more direct, and focus on bringing more people in to collaborate with us.

JH: One of the new things that I’ve done this year is bring on regional editors for the site. Right now, editors work on a volunteer basis, but they are the only volunteers on our site (besides us), and they are starting to share the responsibility for the site.
SC: And likewise they get to share in the creativity of directing the content portion of the site. We have an editor that has been working with us for about a year now in Los Angeles. We have another editor working with us from Singapore, and she’s managing the Asia-Pacific region.
JH: She also sources new writers in that region, as well. So it gives her an opportunity to shape it in a way, so that there’s more of a collective voice that takes place and at the same time it helps us reduce some of our responsibilities.

SC: So I guess the short answer to your question is we are definitely tired with the amount of work that we do, but we are determined to continue the site and have it reach more readers, so we’re always looking for new and smarter avenues to achieve that. We know we that we might not be able to do it forever. But we have a responsibility to ourselves, and to our readers, and to the writers. Right now it’s not hard for us to keep doing it. It’s not a burden for us.

Have you thought about trying different financial models? 

SC: We’ve looked at different kinds of models, like placing the financial burden on the reader as opposed to the advertiser, or nonprofit models where we do fund-raising and fund-raising events, but we really don’t feel that that would really provide us with more access or money.

In the very early days of Daily Serving one of the ideas was to branch off and to have an online component, a physical location component, and a print component that would augment one another and do things that the other one couldn’t do. Then we did a show for Scion in 2009 in L.A. that was kind of one of the initial testing grounds for how that model could operate. But ultimately that also takes a pretty huge investment, and you’re essentially running three different business models simultaneously, each of which has to be able to sustain itself.
JH: And that’s not necessarily a sustainable for-profit model, either, in this market.

SC: So we’re continuing with the for-profit model, using sponsorships as our revenue stream in particular because we like that it allows us to build relationships with people directly, talk about their needs, and understand what their goals are in a way that connects us and builds relationships. It seems to be the most lucrative for the amount of effort, and it also allows us to help and impact other organizations through our readership. We just found ultimately that it’s just easier to run a for-profit. As a business model, it’s more streamlined for us.

JH: We’ve both worked in nonprofits for most of our career-lives and have a donor development attitude toward our sponsors. We know how to program and fund-raise, and know how those two things work together. So we’ve taken that model and attached it to the way that we run Daily Serving in a way that is actually easy for us.
SC: We also tailor who we work with so the advertisers and sponsors who appear on the site are not only offering something that our readers want, but they are also organizations that we believe in. So that’s what we try to do; we try to strike a balance. What we don’t want to do is put something on the site that’s going to be irrelevant to our readers just because we’re receiving money to do so. Instead, we try to maintain sponsors that are centered with their interest in the arts, and work it so that the sponsorship program and the banners that appear on the site further extend the content in a way, by acting as a resource for our readers and not just as peripheral information.

This allows us to accomplish what we want and streamline quality. And I think next year there’s a good chance from my projection and working with the advertisers that we’ll have a 50 percent increase in revenue from this year. I think that the momentum is there.

SC: Ultimately we found that this is the right balance. We generate enough revenue to pay our writers, to pay for the development of the site and the marketing, and have a little bit of retained revenue each year so that we can continue to grow and do some larger investments further down the road. And we’re able to accomplish all that within the time frame that we have allotted and we still have creative freedom to play with ideas. It’s kind of in a sweet spot right now.

JH: I think that if one of us were to commit a full-time job to it they could do a lot more.
SC: And probably create more revenue, but then that person would also have to pay themselves a full-time salary, so that would also bring a lot of stress.
JH: We kind of toss around these things endlessly, but right now this is the most sustainable way of working for us. And again, we’re stubborn.

What are your goals, both financial and in general?

SC: I think what we want to do is continuously refine it and keep the bar high with the site’s content. Right now we want to refine the platform so that the information is easier accessed by readers, and we want to widen our network as much as possible. We want to cover activity on every continent, to highlight geographic locations that just don’t have representation in the Western world, and really be an international destination for this type of art reporting.

JH: My primary focus right now is finding writers in under-represented parts of the world, finding people on the ground there who can really tell us what’s happening. Not just big highlights — I want to know what that local arts community is about. We had someone living in São Paulo and another writer in this remote community in India, and those are the kind of places that I find really interesting to see what’s happening there. So I would say that’s our biggest programming goal.

SC: We’re also trying to find ways to get our writers to engage with one another. Last year we tried a model where we would select a particular concept and encourage all our writers to focus their writing within that theme. For instance, we focused on the idea of failure for a week and had seven different writers push this concept through their posts to develop a conversation.
JH: Some of them would do interviews with local artists, some of them would review shows, but all would focus back on this particular issue.

SC: In terms of financial goals, what I’m trying to do is find new, integrated models for our sponsors to reach our readers through things like dedicated emails, through social media, and new ways to integrate content with the ad. We’re working to free the sponsor from just the banner ad and offer them a myriad of different solutions for how to reach our readers and do it in a way that seems completely seamless. This way, the reader never even realizes that they’re viewing an ad so that their experience is the best possible, and it opens up new ways of generating revenue.


 “At this stage, we’re interested in working smarter.  We are constantly trying to streamline our process so that it’s simpler, more efficient, more direct, and focus on bringing more people in to collaborate with us.”


What about advice for other people?  What are some things that have worked and some things that haven’t worked?

SC: One thing that I would recommend is that people think through heavily, before starting, a project that does anything on a daily basis. Because that takes a tremendous amount of energy. We joke around about that a lot.
JH: It should have been Weekly Serving or When We Feel Like It Serving. I would also venture to say that in the future we might pick a project that was set up with a start and end date, because I think there’s something really nice about knowing the longevity of the project, even if it changes into something else.
SC: Find a project that has a very sound financial business plan built in, that has a proven track record with other companies that have done something similar. Or if you want to do a project that may not have the best financial model, try to figure out a way to integrate closing dates to it, otherwise you get in a situation where you built something that is your baby and you won’t ever want to let it go.

What are some non-monetary payoffs you receive from running Daily Serving?

JH:Well, no matter where we travel, we have connections to people who are working on interesting projects and who are engaged in their communities. We have made so many great friends and colleagues over the years with Daily Serving. I feel as if we have relationships with people all of the world now, all with similar interests.

SC: It’s also been an experimental ground to test ideas. If we’re interested in a particular idea and another artist is also visualizing that idea, you could contact him and have a conservation with him directly about those ideas. Or if we want to see the take on an idea from seven or eight writers around the world, we can go ahead and ask everyone to have a conversation. So in that sense the platform allows us  to extend our own practice. I think that working for the art center was very much like that; it was a lot of work. Though we were there working 60 to 70 hours a week, it was essentially a full playground of ideas where we could try out any idea that we wanted. Daily Serving ended up being the same way in the virtual realm.

JH: And it still is. One of the things that we don’t take for granted is that we have over 100,000 people that listen to us and engage with us even though it’s virtual. One of the other things is that it’s been an opportunity to show ourselves what we’re capable of and what we’re capable of building on our own. That gives us a lot of confidence to go into other situations and know that we can succeed. And in a lot of ways that’s equally important, even if there’s not a financial benefit to it.

Comments (4)

  • This interview is quite inspiring — I’m particularly interested in the way Seth & Julie have decided, at least for now, to keep Daily Serving as part of the overall mix of creative practice for them — and that in part DS continues to give them a place to explore or test ideas they’re turning over creatively.

    One thing raised an eyebrow for me, I have to admit — as ASM points to above, the balance between the practical and ethical in running a for-profit of this nature is challenging; DS seems to negotiate the balance well overall. I’m curious about Seth’s statement that a reader not realizing they’re viewing an ad (rather than pure content) is the best possible experience — could someone post a link to an example of revenue-generating ad-content that doesn’t feel like such? How is the balance struck there? This isn’t to say that content produced by or with a sponsor/advertiser can’t also be relevant, useful, interesting and valuable for a reader. Nor is it necessarily a criticism — I mean, in some ways Open Space, to take another example, could be said to be posting “sponsored content”, every time we write about an upcoming SFMOMA program or exhibition — but it is a question.

  • Great interview. I am always impressed with the intelligence, tenacity, and pragmatism with which Seth and Julie perform.

  • Thanks for this interview. It’s instructive to see how smart people develop side projects (that can even grow into primary projects) and how those independent endeavors feed into and effect their work lives as you let happen with Daily Serving and Redux. It may be a tricky practical and ethical field to maneuver, but if you do it right all the projects and artists involved have a lot to gain.

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