Interview: Non-Profit LIMBO Magazine Founder, Nick Chapin

An egalitarian publication that shares the wealth between contributors

Born from a global pandemic, but perhaps even more from a dedication to the creative community, LIMBO magazine is a non-profit publication whose proceeds go to out-of-work artists, designers, illustrators, photographers, writers and other creatives. Founder and publisher Nick Chapin started the publication after finding himself at a loss for paid work. Rather than panic, he began mobilizing. Teaming up with Francesca Gavin (curator, writer and editor) and David Lane (creative director at The Gourmand and Frieze), Chapin devised a profit-share structure which means contributors are paid evenly from all funds raised.

Through that concept, along with various established artists waiving their fees in order for emerging ones to receive higher payments, and an honor system for customers, the set-up is truly egalitarian—an anomaly in any industry existing within late capitalism, and certainly in publishing. The result is a high-quality magazine drenched in talent. A magazine that readers will feel just as good buying as they will flipping through the 172 pages of thoughtful essays and beautiful art.

We spoke with Chapin about the magazine’s concept, the profit-share system and how he turned a negative into something so positive.

When you—like so many in the creative industry—lost work during the pandemic, what was your first reaction? And how did that reaction turn into LIMBO?

When my paying work disappeared, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. Like so many people I felt like a bystander; watching this global car crash for our industry play out in slow motion. I didn’t want to accept that, and I didn’t want to lose touch with all the great people and ideas I was working with. It struck me that, for once, everyone in the creative world was sitting idle and it seemed like there must be some way to mobilize all those great minds. But the wheels had stopped spinning and it wasn’t clear when they would start again. With galleries closed, publishers cutting off contracts, and production suspended it seemed clear that if we were going to capture the moment we would have to find some grassroots way to work around all that frozen machinery.

I was also genuinely curious about what everyone was doing and making while cut off and locked down. I thought it would be amazing to steal a look inside the homes and minds of interesting people, and to create a sort of snapshot of the creative world in suspended animation.

It struck me that readers might pay for something like that and, if we could connect the audience that would usually be consuming culture out in the world with the people who really create it, even if they were isolated from each other, we could experiment with a new model for cultural exchange rooted in community and fairness.

You teamed up with Francesca Gavin and David Lane, how did the three of you come together for this project?

The three of us knew each other from work in independent publishing and the art world. David was art director at Frieze when I was publishing director there, and of course I was a longtime fan of The Gourmand. He and Fran knew each other from early days hanging around Dazed, and Fran and I had spent a number of gallery dinners together talking about new ideas for podcasts and publishing. So we all had a grounding in art, culture and indie magazines, and we all believed in the joy and importance of bringing great aesthetics and ideas together. Together we also knew a lot of leading artists and had the contacts to try something like this, though I don’t think we every imagined it would gather quite so much momentum so quickly.

The first edition has a remarkable list of contributors—some super-established and others emerging—how was each submission selected? Was there a specific brief for this first issue?

The rationale was completely mixed: people we loved, people who we knew were doing interesting projects, people we knew needed the work. On the first day we did a marathon Zoom session and made a long list of artists and writers we’d like to include. It was a fantasy list, really—we never imagined they would actually say yes. But we thought… why not ask? By the next day Miranda July, Peaches and Julie Verhoeven had all said yes and we thought, “Wow, that’s already a magazine I want to read.”

We offered a blank page and asked people to fill it with whatever was on their minds

The brief was mostly wide open. We offered a blank page and asked people to fill it with whatever was on their minds. From the beginning we thought that creating a printed magazine in a moment of all-digital culture was a statement in itself, and we wanted to play with that and the history of magazines—zines and glossies alike—and to riff on their tropes and cliches. So in some cases we offered artists a magazine brief we thought would be a fun jumping-off point: horoscopes, classified ads, a gardening column. But it was never prescriptive, and people went in pretty wild directions. So ultimately the whole thing evolved organically. It’s a genuine reflection of what artists and writers were thinking and making and doing with themselves.

Were there any artists that you were especially excited to have contribute to this issue?

Everything feels special for different reasons. We were blown away to have legends like Vivienne Westwood, Ed Ruscha, Wolfgang Tillmans and Collier Schorr in the magazine, as well as minds revolutionizing popular culture like Miranda July and Tyler Mitchell. Dan Fox’s brilliant essay on lockdown life through the lens of film, illustrated with an incredible photo series by Jack Davison, really resonates with me, as does Paul Maheke’s breathtaking essay The Year I Stopped Making Art. Both are essential reading.

I particularly love the series of Public Service Announcements we ran to provide the pace and texture that a magazine usually get from ads. They’re all done by amazing independent designers and design brands. I was really excited to have Brain Dead and Total Luxury Spa involved. These are small brands with a global reputation rooted in community and activism (as well as insanely great design). It feels like collectively we’re part of a bigger movement in community commerce which gives me hope for the future.

It’s non-profit, with all proceeds being shared between contributors and staff—can you explain a little about how you divide funds?

The idea was always to be as egalitarian as possible, and to value all contributions equally. We take 70% of the profits and divide them evenly amongst the artists, writers, designers and other contributors regardless of what they submitted. There are 100 contributors in the issue, and about 50 of them waived their portion of the profits so that others more in need could benefit. The remaining 30% is divided amongst the staff based on the number of days each person worked. Everyone gets exactly the same day rate—whether the publisher, the copy editor or the social media curator. Ultimately everything works on an honesty system. We let the artists choose if they would get paid or not, and the staff keeps track of their own time. No one is making a fortune, but we aim to pay considerably better than most editorial jobs do these days.

You also offer a sliding scale for customers—tell us about that, and how you landed on the price options?

Given the mission of the magazine is to support out-of-work creatives, we wanted to be as inclusive as possible with customers too. We know a lot of people who love magazines don’t have a huge amount of discretionary income right now. But we also wanted to make something really premium, and to allow people who are treating it as a way to give back to the creative world to give as generously as they can. So we created a “community pricing” model—also based on an honesty system—in which customers choose their own price: £9 for students and those out-of-world, a £14 cover price, and £19 for those who want to give more. It’s amazing to see customers embrace it. Everyday we’re selling copies at each price point.

There’s a strong sense of community behind the scenes and visible on the page here. Can you tell us a little about that—do you feel that the creative community is growing stronger and more supportive through 2020 or has it always been this way?

Everything about LIMBO is a testament to the solidarity and sense of community that’s at work in the creative world right now. I think that spirit has always been there, but people have become so accustomed to the institutional way things work, and the sense that you have to play the game.

We need to teach audiences to value creative work again, not to expect everything for free

What this crisis has quickly revealed is that system is broken. Creative people can’t go on working for free, making a pittance for editorial contributions, and flooding instagram with free ideas in exchange for the hope that a brand will at some point pay them to flog a handbag. We need to teach audiences to value creative work again, not to expect everything for free. What’s exciting about LIMBO is it demonstrates that both artists and readers want to get behind that. Partners and advertisers do too. Gucci and Carhartt WIP backed us early, and the project wouldn’t have been possible without our amazing publishing partners at WePresent, which is the editorial arm of WeTransfer. They helped us underwrite production and are publishing pieces online in support while we focus on print. No one is doing this for traditional commercial gain. It’s all about supporting the community and believing that this has longterm value.

Issue 1 of LIMBO magazine—with the choice of four different covers—is available for purchase online now.

Images courtesy of LIMBO