Claudia La Rocco, pictured in 2013, will lead The Back Room, a new interdisciplinary publishing platform. (José Carlos Teixeira)
In the prohibitively expensive Bay Area, the local arts community has largely resigned itself to news of closures and departures. There’s mourning but little surprise: We simply hold on to what remains all the tighter. What happens more rarely, and is surprising, is the creation of a new venue or platform that might decrease some of that outbound flow.
Today, Small Press Traffic announced a new project called The Back Room, an interdisciplinary publishing platform that seeks to fill the gaps in local and national arts writing. Led by writer and editor Claudia La Rocco, former editor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space, The Back Room will launch in fall 2022.
In the announcement, Small Press Traffic (SPT) listed the local and national outlets we’ve lost in just the past five years: Walker Reader, Creative Time Reports, The Believer (though there’s good news on that front), California Sunday, Art Practical, New Life Quarterly and Open Space, which was shut down by the museum (along with SFMOMA’s film program and Fort Mason Artists Gallery) at the end of 2021.
La Rocco says many people reached out when the news about Open Space broke, suggesting she continue on independently, or under the auspices of another organization. Syd Staiti, SPT’s executive director since 2019, was one of those people. “Syd was really the only person that it felt like, ‘Oh, this would make sense, this lines up with my values, where my heart and interests and curiosities have always been,’” La Rocco says. (She previously served on SPT’s board, and Staiti wrote for Open Space in the past.)
It felt like a great fit for SPT as well. The new platform’s name comes from the nonprofit’s very beginnings: it was founded in the back room of a Castro bookstore in 1974. “We think about the ways in which poets and outsiders have traditionally gathered in the backs of rooms and it being a space that is where the more exciting conversations tend to happen,” Staiti explains.
Over nearly 50 years, SPT has morphed and shifted, hosting reading series, leading writing workshops, organizing conferences, publishing magazines and books, and—during the pandemic—commissioning online projects to keep its community members in dialogue with one another. But throughout its existence, Staiti says, “it has always been artist-run.”
SPT’s own nimbleness is appealing to La Rocco. Instead of carving out an experimental space within a large-scale institution, The Back Room can be in conversation with SPT’s own wide-ranging programming. The plan is to publish on a biweekly basis, commissioning eight pieces per season, with two seasons a year. The platform will be W.A.G.E.-certified, guaranteeing writers a base rate of at least 25¢ a word for new pieces.
“There’s certainly no shortage of places where people can publish online to their hearts’ content at this point,” La Rocco says. “But places where you feel like you are respectfully edited and respectfully paid—those for me are two of the priorities.”
It’s a mentality Staiti fully supports. SPT has secured seed funding for The Back Room and is hoping to raise an additional $20,000 for the 2022–2023 seasons of programming. “We’re intentionally going to start small. We both share a desire for resisting that urge to overproduce that kind of permeates the atmosphere,” he explains. “As Claudia says, we’re not trying to be Hyperallergic.”
As for taking either a local focus or a broader one, La Rocco envisions a 70/30 approach. “It seems like there is a key balance of paying attention to the local and speaking from a place versus speaking from the floating art world circuit,” she says. “I also don’t have any interest in this sort of protective circling where we only talk to ourselves.”
Striking this balance will take time and attention, hence the lighter publication schedule. No one—not the writer, the editor or the reader—benefits from a work schedule where an outlet is doing too much with too few resources, La Rocco stresses. “I don’t want to be an art martyr,” she says. “I don’t want to be embarrassed when I ask somebody to do something for less than what an organization should ethically pay them.”
In the background of all the stories written about venues closing, projects ending and people leaving the Bay Area are the venues, projects and people who have made and continue to make this region a vibrant artistic scene. When The Back Room launches later this year, Staiti and La Rocco hope we’ll see that activity reflected through well-crafted words—and realize their truth.
The Back Room, La Rocco says, can be a happy, important contrast to the sometimes reductive Bay Area narrative of loss. “There’s also continuity and things that last,” she says, pointing to SPT’s upcoming 50th anniversary in 2024. “It’s exciting to think about making a new thing inside of an organization that changes and evolves, but also has this beautiful consistency of supporting and paying attention to Bay Area artists.”
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