An Interview with John Arkelian, Founding Editor of Artsforum

By: Susan W. Smith

Volume 14, Issue 4, April 2019

In March, I received a link to a travel essay published in the online edition of the popular and impressive magazine – Artsforum.  I recognized Ian Coristine’s photographs and enjoyed reading the charming text.

The author visited Gananoque, one fall weekend in 2018.  He stayed overnight at the Comfort Inn and walked King Street meeting many shopkeepers and gallery owners.  He had dinner at the Riva and saw a play at the Thousand Islands Playhouse.

November 2018 article featuring our Thousand Islands. [Screenshop courtesy Artsforum Magazine. Copyright (c) 2019 by Artsforum Magazine. see https://artsforum,ca/travel/other-wanderers]

No visit to Gananoque is complete without a voyage on the Gananoque Boat Line and of course, learning about Boldt Castle.  The writer had his passport in hand and was only disappointed when he did not receive an official customs stamp as a tourism keepsake for entering the United States, if only for a couple of hours.

Yes, this was interesting indeed, but it did not take me long to realize that the real story lies with the author himself and his creation:  Artsforum Magazine! In brief terms, John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.  Among his eclectic pursuits, he has represented Canada abroad as a diplomat, advised the federal cabinet as an international lawyer, conducted criminal prosecutions as a federal Crown Attorney, served as a professor of media law, been a candidate for Parliament, and directed an international film festival.  And, he is the founding editor of Artsforum Magazine, from his base in the Eastern (Greater Toronto Area) GTA.

Ready for some fun?  The official introduction to Artsforum quotes reactions to the magazine as:
“Fiercely Independent”
The description carries on with another dozen descriptive phrases… Suffice to say it is a rich combination of material available online 24/7.

Believing that John’s description of Artsforum holds true for TI Life as well, I asked John how he created Artsforum, and most of all why?

Now available 24/7 as an online magazine featuring news and all things art as Artsforum Magazine. [Screenshot courtesy Artsforum Magazine. Copyright (c) 2019 by Artsforum Magazine.]

John had this to say:

“When I joined the board of directors of the Durham Council for the Arts, I cast about for ways that I could make a unique contribution.  The arts council (which serves the sprawling region on Toronto’s eastern border, comprising about 650,000 people, 2,590 square kilometres, two cities, several large towns, and large swathes of rural land) already had a good newsletter, and that’s all an arts council really needed.  But, I had a yen to try something far more ambitious.  I am a professional journalist and editor.  So, why not become a pro bono publisher, too – by creating a full-fledged, brand-new magazine of arts and ideas – one that would be engaging enough to appeal to people wherever English is read.  So, in the fall of 2000, Artsforum Magazine was born.  It aims to challenge easy assumptions (so-called ‘conventional wisdom’) by prompting its readers to think critically for themselves – whether the subject be film or foreign policy.  It aims to publish writing, photography, and art of the highest quality.  It aspires to excellence; it is intended to appeal to those who are curious about the wider world, and it covers not just every aspect of arts and culture, but also a broad gamut of public policy issues (you’ll find thoughtful analysis of international relations, human rights, and political affairs).  We’re interested in ethics and in public probity, and we can great pride in challenging all that is unjust, duplicitous, and corrupt.  Integrity is our byword – both for the values we espouse and for the quality of work to which we aspire.

Lofty goals, yes, but accomplishing them without physical infrastructure (computers et al.), staff, or funding was no easy feat.  It demanded sheer determination (also known as a stubborn refusal to say die).  For most of its eighteen-and-a-half year existence, Artsforum Magazine existed only in its physical, “hard-copy” form.  Not-for-profit and deliberately non-commercial, it quickly grew from 16 tabloid size pages to 40.  Some editions contained over one hundred capsule book reviews and an equally voracious number of film reviews – along with fiction, poetry, art, interviews, and reviews of live theater, concerts, and dance.  There were memoirs, photography from some of Canada’s finest practitioners, and essays on the pressing events of the day.  Our content expressed opinions; but our objective has always been to be a catalyst to prompt our readers to think about issues themselves.  When the teenage daughter of one early reader approached me to take vigorous exception to our review of a book or film she liked, it was a small signpost that we were accomplishing our mission – to prompt our readers to engage with issues of the day, to think about them, and to enunciate their own views.

Artsforum is based in what is generally regarded as “suburbia,” but it always had much bigger aspirations.  I wanted a magazine that would be intelligent, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and attractive enough to attract readers anywhere in the world.  Artsforum was available at arts venues all across the Eastern GTA and then in downtown Toronto, too.  It was free; but those readers who chose to subscribe generated the revenues needed to pay for the magazine’s printing.  

Although we covered the regional arts scene, we also went far, far afield; indeed, our remit knew no borders.  Like a truly inquiring mind, we were interested in everything, everywhere.  We attracted writing, photography, and art by thinkers and creators with national and international reputations.  We also attracted talented newcomers, whom we published for the very first time.  We earned awards and nominations as far off as the U.K. (for our essays on foreign affairs), and attracted readers across Canada, and the United States, and even a few overseas.  Our readers are curious folk; they tend to be well-educated and well-traveled, they attend concerts, watch good films, read books, go to plays and galleries, and yearn to learn about new things.  Fourteen years ago, Artsforum gave birth to Cinechats, its own year-round international film festival (in partnership with a university, a college, and the regional arts council), thus far bringing over 600 feature films from all around the world to more than 28,000 filmgoers (and counting) in an innovative form of continuing community education.

A few years ago, I launched the online edition of Artsforum Magazine, which is truly without borders.  In its physical and its online editions, Artsforum has been favorably compared to the “New York Times Review of Books” and Great Britain’s “Times’ Literary Supplement.”  Before its online edition appeared, John Howe, a prominent Canadian artist living in Switzerland had this to say about Artsforum:  “Ever dreamed of subscribing to a cultural magazine that doesn’t seem to be eating out of the hand of half a dozen media magnates?  Something pluricultural and unassuming but nonetheless covering everything worth seeing, reading, doing or listening to for a season?   Well, it exists, and in Canada to boot!   There is no on-line version or website, which either makes John a dinosaur or a man of character.  (I opt for the second, since the editorial team occasionally has a kind word for me.)”

An online magazine called Offscreen had this to say about Artsforum:   “Recently discovered this Canadian wide-ranging cultural issues online journal (Artsforum Magazine) which reminds me in its scope and literary bent of the excellent print magazine, “The Believer Magazine,” perhaps with a more politically driven interest (and from a Canadian perspective).  Still, it is an ‘old-fashioned’ (I mean this in a good sense) liberal arts style magazine with a critical interest in all the arts (film, poetry, painting, photography, music, television, theatre, fiction).”
And, at the risk of being immodest, one of our readers wrote to say: “I am in awe.  You are among the few Renaissance men still in existence.  The word ‘genius’ comes to mind.  You are a brilliant essayist.  A wonderful clarity of thought comes through in all your work.  Artsforum has a very special character and its own stamp.  It is never condescending.  Like you, it is gentlemanly – in the finest sense of the word.”

Our single most commented-upon content has always been our Ideas sections (which deal with foreign policy and the like), followed closely by our massive Film coverage; and by our Travel sections.  Our travel writing favors impressionistic essays that aim to convey a visceral sense of the place being described – to introduce our readers to the vistas, the flavors, the cultural expressions, and the people who abide in a particular place, by conveying a tangible sense of what it feels like to be there, seeing that sight, tasting that food, watching that play.  

Gananoque provided a felicitous match for us, as a place with historical heritage, abundant charm, lively visual and performing arts, engaging people, and immediate proximity to great natural beauty.  As to the Thousand Islands, we had reviewed Ian Coristine’s first book, and his gorgeous photographs instilled in me an irresistible, abiding yearning to make the acquaintance of the magical places they so powerfully depicted.”

Visit the current issue of Artsforum at:

By Susan W. Smith, Editor,

Original content by John Arkelian © 2019 by John Arkelian.

Posted in: Volume 14, Issue 4, April 2019, People

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