Five years of MAS Context
In December, we released our Narrative issue. It proved a serendipitous theme for us, as it marked MAS Context’s fifth-year anniversary. This half-decade has indeed been a story, a journey—a series of connected events, efforts, ideas, and late night ideations that have delivered twenty topic-based issues, a special university issue, several live analog events, and thousands of emails. As our next year begins, it’s a good time to look back, and forward, too. A transparent look, so that we can learn from our efforts, as well as open a window onto our little world so you know more about our, well, narrative.
But before we go into details, let’s revisit some of the basics of MAS Context. The journal started in 2009 as a side project of the architecture office MAS Studio. We thought it was necessary to create a platform that instigated discussion around themes from multiple disciplines and perspectives. We shared our and your ideas and essays and treatises and tracts with as many people as possible, making access to it all free—online, to download, and even to attend an event. The goal was to reach both people who work in any design field, as well as those who traditionally don’t read design publications yet might be curious about it. Throughout these years, our approach and goals have remained constant, but we have adjusted elements to enliven and enhance the content, make access ever easier, and improve the quality of the physical copy, too. Along the way, we have been assigned an ISSN from the US Library of Congress, become an official not-for-profit organization, established an esteemed board of advisors, and received several grants.
MAS Context started as a quarterly journal and our release schedule has stayed that way. It may sound obvious, but meeting the deadline every three months, issue after issue, has been one of the key (and hardest) things to accomplish. It’s helped us develop a consistent structure for our work, but also to lend credibility to our efforts. A great struggle, and, we have stuck to it. In these five years, we’ve published 20 issues, plus a special issue, “University Works.” This amounts to 326 articles totaling 3,388 pages. Along with the issues, 14 invited guest contributors have browsed our archives and curated their selections for our In Context section. All this content was generated by 357 contributors who wrote from 71 cities around the world and was read from 197 countries/territories. We have had three versions of the website, the last one designed by Plural, a creative studio practice that has also led the design of the last seven issues.
While the website allowed for people to access the content we created from anywhere in the world, it isn’t always the best format to generate a good conversation around the topics explored. In the end, the goal of each issue is to jumpstart a conversation, not to become the end of it. So gradually, and as we received grants for our work, we started organizing events that would ground our work and let us engage with a new audience. In these five years, we organized 32 lectures, 4 exhibitions, 1 competition, 1 gathering in New Mexico, and invited 2 bookstores to set up shop at our events. We also participated in 4 exhibitions that travelled to 29 cities and participated in 2 events as panelists. It has been extremely rewarding to connect with real people in real places and have real conversations.
As I am sure happens with most independent and small publications, the funding of MAS Context has been … interesting. We don’t run advertisements, so the page ratio is simple: Editorial 100%, Advertisement 0%. Our approach all along has been to focus on applying for grants that would cover the hard costs, basically printing physical copies and organizing events. Several institutions, companies, and individuals have teamed up with us to provide their time, space, furniture, mailing list, and advertisement space free of charge—thank you! The editorial team, designers, and contributors have all donated their time to make this adventure work. How has that worked? Well, honestly, it’s been a struggle. We love doing what we do and the more we do, the more we like it and what lies ahead. But the amount of time required is enormous, and we all have other (paying) jobs that demand our attention.
So, to move from perspective to fact, in our five years we have received $25,000 in four grants ($20,000 from The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and $5,000 from the Graham Foundation), $177 from donations, $249.07 from sales, and $1,000 from MAS Studio as start-up capital and initial expenses. For the first four years we used a print-on-demand service that was good and bad. On the plus side, we had no upfront costs and anybody could buy it directly from them (eliminating shipping costs for us). On the other side, the quality was predetermined (and not exactly what we wanted) and the cost per copy came to nearly $35 (without shipping), twice the price of what the sale cost should be. So we didn’t expect many (or any) sales of the copies and we printed 25-50 copies of each issue for our contributors and donors. This past year, we have worked with Graphic Arts Studio, a local printing company, and, by using their HP Indigo 7600, we are making a limited run of 100 numbered copies per issue, with a cost per copy of $18. While that won’t bring any profits, it allows us to put a number of physical copies in the hands of those of you who want one at a reasonable price.
All that money has been spent as follows: $19,500 printing copies of the issues, $1,700 shipping issues, $1,250 to website programmer, $2,750 organizing events (AV and chair rentals, printing, beverages…), $800 in speaker fees (this year we were able to invite and pay out of town speakers), $50 to participate in Archive13, $350 in bank fees, $40 in state fees, and $0 on salaries (editorial team, design team, and contributors).
What’s next? Well, the simple answer is more quarterly issues, more events and more interesting themes. We are already working on four issues for this year and are setting up a structured lecture series in Chicago. Of course, we are also open to organizing or participating in events taking place in other cities, but that will happen as we go. We are also adjusting a few things that need specific attention, the primary one being funding. We have received a grant from the Graham Foundation for 2014 and 2015 that will help our efforts, but other sources need to be explored. Another area of focus is producing and distributing a larger amount of physical copies. It will still be a limited run, but at least enough to reach specific venues and people who want to subscribe or buy individual copies. And finally, we are strengthening the way we work. This year, Rick Valicenti and Bud Rodecker from Thirst, an extraordinary communication design practice based in Chicago, will be in charge of the MAS Context identity. Not only will they bring their graphic expertise, but also create a new structure to engage more designers who will shape the outcome of each thing we produce.
We love that you read, share, and discuss MAS Context. Whether online, with your colleagues at work, or your friends at a bar, please continue to do so as much as possible. If you enjoy reading our issues or attending our events, and you can make a donation, big or small, don’t hesitate to do so. It helps us tremendously to continue to do our work and it is tax deductible for you—so hey, a win-win situation. If you want to partner for an event, donate your expertise or material (any paper mills?), have a venue where we can organize an event (your uncle owns a great space?), beverages that you can provide (your amazing local beer or craft cocktails?), or just want to provide feedback on what we do, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We hope to talk to you soon.
We would like to thank everyone who’s contributed to the issues in any capacity, submitted proposals that were rejected, written a review of our issues, mailed letters of recommendation to our multiple grant applications, supported us financially, met with us to sort out things we couldn’t figure out, shared our content physically and virtually, and introduced our work to their friends and colleagues. We deeply appreciate it.
And with that sincere thank you we wrap up what we have been up to and what’s coming next. I hope it was useful for you to understand the inside of MAS Context as it has been for us to reflect on the past five years. We hope that you can all be part of our next chapter.