Kate Simpson, Aesthetica
Based in the north of England, Aesthetica has built up a loyal, international readership for its coverage of art and culture. As the magazine marks its 100th issue, we hear from Associate editor Kate Simpson about what makes the magazine unique.
Kate is an editor, journalist, author and poet, and has written, designed and edited for over 30 editions of the publication. She’s also worked across Aesthetica’s prestigious annual awards and events programme.
Outline your Monday morning routine
I’m based in York, UK, in a little cedar-cladded duplex just outside of the centre. I’m working from home, from a spare bedroom-turned-library (where the books often get out of control and I live amongst proofs.)
On Mondays, probably as the majority of editors, it’s 1–2 black coffees and getting the email open to see how many tens, hundreds (more?) have come in over the weekend, which need dealing with before getting on with creative. (I’m a stickler for clearing emails so there’s only one scroll-worth in the inbox. Loose and lost files / comms aren’t ideal when you’ve got multiple projects on the go.)
I’m a slave to Apple Stickies (folders in folders and alerts) and I have a screen-full of them, with plans and deadlines for the day, week, month, and year ahead. It’s the only way to not miss anything. They’re the first things I check, and probably add to, in the morning. Super millennial.
I’d love to say that I keep a written diary / list, but everything moves too quickly now.
Describe your desk and what you can see around you.
Other than the myriad folders and organisation on-screen, everything’s monochrome and minimal. A matte-black desk, bookcase, magazines and proofs (usually put away underneath if I’m not currently working on them).
A grey window looks out onto my little brick courtyard, and a sun trap around midday. No colleagues here, except for on zoom, which, of course, is technology we should all be grateful for in a pandemic, but as everyone finds, triggers fatigue (especially after 2/3 hours).
Due to publishing largely using cloud files, digital programmes and remote calls, in essence, there’s a huge amount of my schedule that’s stayed largely the same whilst WFH, but there’s been a huge surge in appetite for content – especially online, with increased digital articles, videos, comms and awards content – so our editorial team is working flat-out from our little islands to produce innovative, authentic and original content that engages with the art world as it continues behind-the-scenes, and begins to open back up.
Are you feeling optimistic about 2021?
Yes, and no. I’ve been wary and sceptical of ‘roadmaps’ out of Covid since the start, and have a bit more of a restrained outlook on things ‘getting back to normal’. This is a complex idea, and there are further issues at hand, as well as what ‘normal’ means.
But I’m starting to get Vitamin D from the sun instead of from a bottle, and I went to the coast yesterday (Runswick Bay and Staithes). There’s lots to be excited about this year as we recalibrate and start to see those we love, and I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to be safe, well (Covid-free as of 19 April 2021) and working in the arts.
Things at Aesthetica aren’t slowing down – they’re speeding up.
Which magazine do you first remember?
It’s probably the Radio Times. Growing up in Yorkshire in the 1990s, there were five channels on the TV and a printed magazine that told you what was coming on, bought from the village Post Office.
We used highlighters to mark the week’s selections, but there were often clashes, having, of course, only one TV.
Which magazine matters to you the most this morning?
Poetry Review. I’m yet to dig into their Spring issue, and it’s waiting patiently for me on my stacked reading list.
Describe Aesthetica in three words.
Bold. Minimal. Contemporary.
Congratulations on reaching your 100th issue. What advice would you offer anyone hoping to match this with their magazine?
Thank you! I joined Aesthetica in 2016, and have worked on 30 issues, from Issue 70 to Issue 100, so, of course, there’s a lot of Aesthetica’s journey and formative years that came before this.
There’s a great piece from our Managing editor and Director, Cherie Federico, in the 100th issue, telling readers about the journey of two students wanting to provide a platform for artists and writers, all starting on a November Sunday hanging up flyers (illegally) around York city centre.
There’s a lot of work that goes into keeping a publication fresh and relevant and ensuring it speaks to readers – as well as huge amounts of marketing, administration, production and more. There’s no ‘secret’ but lots of hard work, perseverance, innovation and creativity.
But I think the most important aspect is staying true to your ethos and readership, whilst constantly looking to offer something unique – improving on what you did last – constantly questioning why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is there a better way? Why publish a particular piece, and why now?
Where does Aesthetica sit in relation to the other big voices in modern art publishing?
There are many magazines that sit with us on the shelves – Dazed, Frieze, Apollo, Burlington, ArtForum, Kinfolk, British Journal of Photography, Creative Review etc. But really, the reason these magazines still exist, including ours, is that they all offer something different.
These publications are comparable in that they might cover similar formal ground, be classed as an art magazine, and even cover the same artists or exhibitions from time-to-time, but there’s stylistic, aesthetic and conceptual variations between them all.
With Aesthetica, we speak to a wide-ranging audience, spanning everything from contemporary art, design, architecture, photography and new technologies to film, music and books. What we publish isn’t necessarily specialised for a certain media or genre, as we focus on the most contemporary and innovative practitioners, all doing something new.
We’re also incredibly focused on talent development, not just across the magazine but with our various events and awards (the Aesthetica Art Prize, BAFTA-Qualifying Film Festival, Creative Writing Award and Future Now symposium). We offer a huge amount of space, and a positive platform, to emerging voices. Many of the artists we feature are fresh to the face of Instagram, and don’t have a website yet.
We look for ‘art’ in the broadest sense, featuring works that are both visually engaging and conceptually or culturally important. There are layers to the images and pieces that we publish, all with ties to a rapidly changing world, from the climate crisis to conversations around social justice.
We also have a highly curated aesthetic (see our name) that we upkeep with every issue; each page is considered for the story it tells and how it sits in the journey of reading a magazine as a whole. There’s a huge amount of thought in the commissioning and sequencing of the magazine – with micro conversations about colour, composition and narrative. We pay a huge amount of attention to visual and textual economy – you’ll not often find the same word in an article – and that’s what sets Aesthetica apart.
How has the magazine dealt with the pandemic closures of galleries and shows?
Because Aesthetica doesn’t only rely on the largest or most seminal shows for content, there was lots of room for our editorial to shift, change and expand, focusing on less time-specific news, but on covering larger stories with an original angle – something that you wouldn’t be able to find in other magazines.
We went talent scouting, featuring more emerging artists than ever before, and dug into our archives, creating themed strands and articles that created connections between past and present. (See the 100th issue website page for roundups over the years including Changemakers: Art and Activism; Art for the Climate: Sustainability in Focus; and Trailblazing Women Artists, amongst others.)
But ‘news’ quickly began to fill up our inboxes again, and not long after the closures, galleries – just like publications – began to innovate with digital shows and online events. Humans are adaptable by nature, and art is the mechanism by which we make sense of the world, so of course, people kept creating, and finding ways to share their work. And we listened.
How important is your York base, away from what many would consider the heart of the art world?
Beyond rent being cheaper, there’s real merit to working outside of the capital and pushing back against a London-centric or a capital-centric industry, especially in publishing.
Of course, London is amazing, vibrant, creative, diverse ... the list continues. But myself, and the Aesthetica team, work hard to move beyond labels and subvert the expectations of being based in York (Old as opposed to New), questioning what it means to be classed as ‘regional’ or ‘local’ purely for being based in the North.) (Note: the train to London is 1h50 and many city commutes take the same amount of time.)
But, really, the crux of Aesthetica’s ethos, and reason for staying in York, is that art is global – it isn’t defined by its borders or by home-base. Art moves beyond these parameters, breaking structures down and searching for a more nuanced understanding of how we live together. We exist in a hyper-connected world, where we can – and do – connect with individuals across the world.
Just as London’s physical galleries are opening up conversations about representation, striving to present exhibitions that are truly indicative of the world, so to are we with what we publish and how we work.
Aesthetica speaks to global audiences and features global artists, from New York to Japan, Paris to Canada, South Africa to Slovakia.
What’s going to be the highlight of this coming week for you?
Getting started on the 101st issue! I’ve got a couple of days set aside for research, carved out amongst finalising calls with speakers for the Future Now Symposium, and catching up with media partnerships, as well as meetings mapping out digital editorial content and marketing plans.
Editorial is where my heart lies and I genuinely love researching, curating, designing and conceptualising each issue, building on the last magazine’s ideas whilst trying something new. We strive to make each edition better than the last, curating an experience through the pages. Shaping the magazine from initial research to a print-ready product is incredibly rewarding.