In conversation with Anna McNay, the Assistant Editor of Art Quarterly

Lise Arlot
Jul 30, 2018 · 7 min read

An interview with Anna McNay, the assistant editor of Art Quarterly with an extensive background in the art world.

Anna McNay, Assistant Editor of The Art Quarterly

1. To start off, tell us a little bit about yourself! Where do you come from? Please, also tell us about your academic and professional background and your interests.

I grew up in Kent and am very much a country girl at heart — desperate to get back out of London to live among the birds and trees. I studied German and Linguistics at the University of Oxford, with a year in Erlangen, Bavaria, and went on to postgraduate studies in Theoretical Linguistics, focusing on the Syntax and Semantics of Information Structure (basically word order and meaning!). I held a teaching fellowship in Oxford and an Alexander von Humboldt research fellowship at the Humboldt University in Berlin. I then had some time out due to serious illness and ultimately decided to follow a different route. After a spell teaching English as a Foreign Language, I took on a research internship at Turner Contemporary, Margate, collating archive material for their second show (the gallery wasn’t open — in fact, not even fully built! — at this point), ‘Nothing in the World but Youth’. I had applied because of the research aspect, but then it suddenly hit me, having stepped outside of the academic bubble, that I might find other jobs relating to art — a long-time love and something I’d always studied for pleasure, but never thought of as a potential career. I took a curating course and went back to study part-time at Birkbeck for an MA in History of Art, for which my chosen papers were on Renaissance Art and Depictions of the Madonna and Child; Art Nouveau, Rodin and Hysteria; the Contemporary Sublime; LGBTQ art; and a dissertation on Presence and Absence in the Representation of the Female Body in the Work of Marina Abramovic and Ana Mendieta. During that two-year spell, I was initially kept on at Turner Contemporary to write and edit for the publication to accompany the show, and I also began writing for Studio International, after a chance meeting with their Creative Director in a gallery. Doors began opening, through meeting artists and gallerists and being recommended, and I started to write more for different publications (albeit several unpaid ones to start with) and for catalogue essays and artists’ websites. I was advised to find a USP and this developed to be working with LGBTQI artists and art exhibitions and awards. Through this, I became Arts Editor at DIVA magazine, and shortly afterward, just as I was finishing at Birkbeck, I also became Deputy Editor at State media, where I stayed, in a part-time freelance role, for nearly four years. With Studio International, I also piloted making filmed interviews with artists, which really took off. I began to be asked to judge prizes, advise on awards and exhibitions, help with artists’ mentoring schemes, speak on and host panels, and lead in conversation events — all of which I still do, albeit to a slightly lesser extent since taking on the full-time role of Assistant Editor at Art Quarterly just over a year ago. I also recently began curating, however, and have four shows under my belt and several in the pipeline.

2. What do you love the most about your job and what is your average day like?

It’s hard to describe an average day as they are all so different, although I certainly have more routine now at Art Quarterly than when I was entirely freelance and often press-tripping around the country and beyond. It depends, however, at which point of the production cycle we’re at. As a two-person team, it’s always fairly intense. I am in charge of collating all information about future exhibitions and calling it in when not forthcoming (we have a five-month lead time, so it’s often quite a challenge to get the information that far ahead from smaller venues); commissioning along with my editor; writing my own contributions (previews, reviews, book reviews, interviews, features, listings, etc); editing incoming copy; sourcing and licensing all images for the issue; co-ordinating photoshoots; dealing with invoices and the overall production budget; managing the production schedule and liaising with designers, printers, repro house, etc; compiling and overseeing the comps list; liaising with the Advertising Manager to check all advertisements and to place them within the magazine; researching and writing and producing the volunteer committee events booklet that comes out with the magazine; editing copy to fit and adding and checking captions and credits; proofing; and signing off, with my editor, at the designers, the repro house, online, and, when we go down to press pass at the printers, there as well. What do I love most? The variety, I guess. And getting to produce a physical magazine — that is always the biggest thrill, finally getting to hold it in my hands and flick through it.

3. What’s the latest/coolest thing that you are working on at the moment?

We run a series in Art Quarterly called Meet the Collectors, and I tend to do the dead ones, while my editor prefers the living candidates! I just did a big piece about Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill, ahead of their massive autumn exhibition, bringing back many objects from his collection, now dispersed all around the globe. I’d never visited Strawberry Hill before and it is such a dreamy place! I also just love getting stuck into these bigger research pieces, where I can read all about peoples’ lives and try to piece together their characters.

Outside of Art Quarterly, I curated an exhibition with three fabulous painters, called Threesome, looking at the queer female gaze. It took place at New Art Projects earlier this year but is now set to go on tour, first stop being The Gallery, Liverpool, in November, during the Liverpool Homotopia. We are currently putting together a publication to accompany the show — and a Kickstarter campaign to fund a further tour — so that is all very exciting as well.

4. What are the best ways for you to find inspiration?

Sometimes, if I’ve seen or written about a run of hugely uninspiring art, I need to go to a gallery to see something I know I will love, to reignite my passion. Reading a good book, with new ideas and new vocabulary, also works. Or attending a lecture or a course. I need to feel I am continually learning, otherwise, I get stuck in a rut. Getting out into the countryside also really helps — a long walk, or helping on a farm, or going riding.

5. In your opinion what is one of the biggest hurdles for the art industry at the moment?

The very fact that it is becoming an ‘industry’! The market is responsible for a lot of crap art. And for artists being pushed down routes that deaden their inspiration. For galleries closing and fairs becoming the new model and for it all becoming about trying to go big, pull out all stops, shock, and grab attention. I think art needs to go back to its roots, and artists need to remember that it is, at its core, about something aesthetic — conceptual works elicit a very different response. It’s not visceral, it’s all about thought. I got into art in part as an escape from having become too caught up in my head and analytical thinking. I needed to return to myself and to put myself in front of something that made me have a gut reaction or feel something without having to break it down and understand it. To know that someone else was feeling something similar too. The pressure to conform to the taste of the market is the worst enemy of the budding artist.

6. What are your all-time favourite art spaces/events to go to and what is your latest discovery? Any artists you’re keeping a careful eye on?

I think my favourite museum if I can pick anywhere in the world, is the Leopoldmuseum in Vienna, because I am a big fan of Egon Schiele. Whenever I go, they always have a superb exhibition on, and there is enough of the permanent collection on display as well. I also love the Musée Rodin in Paris, and, of course, I have a huge soft spot for Turner Contemporary, which not only is a great venue, but also means taking a day trip to Margate, where the evening sun is the best and most beautiful for miles about.

In terms of artists I’m watching, there are a good many, and I can’t really name a few without feeling bad for all those I’d inevitably miss out! I work with Matt Roberts Arts and his mentoring scheme, and also have done a lot recently with Be Smart About Art, so I have my eye on a lot of the artists related to both of those schemes. But it’s also great to see some of the young artists we filmed with Studio a few years back really starting to make it big time now too. I always feel a sense of pride on their behalf!

Don’t forget to check out Anna’s website and blog.

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