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How ‘Cultured’ Magazine’s Sarah Harrelson Is Proving That Print Is Thriving

In an era that’s veering rapidly towards digital advancements, AI and pixels versus pages, Cultured Magazine makes a compelling case for the magic of print.

Launched in 2011 by Sarah Harrelson, the independent magazine is blazing a trail by uniquely owning the intersection of art, fashion, design, and Hollywood. Founder and editor-in-chief Harrelson has built a powerful platform through regularly discovering talent before the subject hits the mainstream — and boasts the capital to impact culture by way of Cultured.

But Cultured doesn’t only define or predict the moment: it is the moment.

“I felt there was a formula of who was covered and how, and I wanted to go against that grain,” Harrelson explains. “I didn’t have a business plan. It was really driven by this urge to fulfill my own creative vision.”

Cultured is so on the pulse of the art, fashion, design, and entertainment scene, that Harrelson has also gained a reputation as a thought leader in the industry.

Harrelson is flipping the script on magazine publishing, dismissing the print playbook and ignoring any naysayers who view print as a fading medium. More importantly: she’s got the data to back it up, as Cultured’s metrics prove that there’s a strong appetite for rich content and design that breaks the rules of conventional magazines.

“Our very first issue didn’t even have a logo, it was simply a typeface,” Harrelson muses.” The inside pages of Cultured have always defied the traditional rules of magazine publishing, in terms of typography and layout.

From 2021 to 2023, Cultured has increased total revenue by 106%. From 2022 to 2023, total revenue is up 58%. (In the same year-over-year analysis, events revenue is up 85%; print revenue is up 18%; and digital revenue is up 22%.)

This is good news for Cultured’s loyal and new readers, who not only pore over its photo essays and curation of artists’ stories, but also appreciate that the publication doubles as a coffee table book, with rich, thick pages and artfully designed covers.

In the case of Cultured, one should judge the issue by its cover.

“The Grimes cover (in Spring 2019) changed the conversation about Cultured,” Harrelson shares. “I think that was us signaling to the world that we’re going to spotlight more than artists from the contemporary art world on the cover.”

Other notable Cultured covers include Chance the Rapper by Theaster Gates, Jane Fonda by Jenny Holzer, and Shygirl (who opened for Beyoncé on her Renaissance stop in London) by Jeremy O. Harris.

“Covers are hard — there’s a lot that goes into picking a cover,” Harrelson shares. “I always say putting together a magazine is like making a cake without all your favorite ingredients. We’re always looking for someone who further defines our universe of culture.”

There’s also daily fresh content on Cultured’s website. “I think print and digital are such different experiences and they’re both so incredibly important. The world has changed. We’ve changed, we’ve grown, and the appetite for content has grown.”

Via Cultured, Harrelson has created a platform for underrepresented voices and telling stories that other people aren’t telling — a big part of the publication’s mission.

“I was first interested in a little bit more of a political and social justice track,” Harrelson shares.

This interest tracks with her education and career background: Harrelson attended NYU, where she earned a BA in political science and government, and minored in journalism.

“My career pivoted into magazines, as well as fashion, design and architecture. I spent many years covering those beats for various publications — and loved it all.”

With a cadence of five issues per year, Cultured is making its mark by way of quality over quantity. And in a time where the success of print magazines is being challenged, Cultured’s numbers are only experiencing an uptick.

“It’s really hard to figure out exactly where we are with magazines. I don’t think that story is fully written yet. We live in this echo chamber, where everyone says, ‘oh, print is dead’. I don’t think print is dead,” Harrelson asserts. “I still believe that print has a very strong place and feel that I’m in great company with lots of really fantastic independent magazines.”

As the publication undergoes unprecedented growth, Harrelson has set her sights on further establishing the Cultured brand identity and elevating the publication beyond its “if you know you know” quality, without jeopardizing the integrity of its content output.

“I was primarily focused on the art world in the beginning,” Harrelson shares. “And now we’re looking at Cultured through a much wider lens, but still with the parameters of ‘what makes this person interesting and this story interesting?’”

Some of the traits that guide Harrelson most and help keep Cultured ahead of the curve? Curiosity (especially about other people) and intuition.

“One of my favorite qualities in a person is someone who talks to everyone they come in contact with, because you never know. Talk to people — you can learn so much from listening.”

Leaning into intuition is also key, especially since Cultured has become known for discovering talent that isn’t necessarily everywhere: “I lead with my gut, with everything.”

Cultured’s most recent issue, the Winter Issue 2023/2024, is the magazine’s largest issue of the year and an annual celebration of the art community. On track to be the best-selling issue to date (it reached this milestone before even hitting newsstands), it features writer, activist, outspoken New York icon, and Martin Scorsese muse Fran Lebowitz as its cover star, with an essay by Nicolaia Rips.

Photographer Daniel Arnold, who recently debuted his first major exhibition in New York at New York Life Gallery, shot Lebowitz in her element in Greenwich Village, cigarette in hand.

The issue also celebrates artists at various career stages, from the eighth annual Young Artists List (this year celebrating 27 diverse talents), to a portfolio of 11 female artists over 75.

Kahlil Robert Irving was announced as the winner of Cultured’s inaugural Young Artist Prize (ahead of Art Basel, in Miami). The Fayetteville, Arkansas and Saint Louis, Missouri-based artist, who turns discarded and found materials into biting social commentary on the experiences of the Black community, was selected from the 27 entrants.

Cultured had a standalone broadsheet issue sponsored by Balenciaga, dedicated to Art Basel. The issue which was distributed at the fairs and events.

(In a bit of a full circle moment, it’s interesting to note that Harrelson’s first foray into journalism was as editor of Miami of South Florida Magazine, a precursor to Ocean Drive magazine.)

In addition to Art Basel’s standalone issue, Harrelson also released two Hamptons Magazine issues, as free distribution.

“The Hamptons has an incredibly rich artistic history,” she explains. “So many famous artists talk about the light in the Hamptons, and it’s truly a place that’s rooted in the arts.”

Also key: go where the audience is.

“There’s a ton of art collectors out there and a lot of galleries that have opened there. And there’s great programming in the Hamptons too. This is also how we landed on this oversized broadsheet format that I love, and we had guest editors — artist Joel Mesler and designer Kelly Behun.”

Her advice for anyone launching a magazine, or even a business:

“It’s so important to have a strong vision. If you’re trying to cater to too many types of people, things get completely muddied and lost. You’re always going to have people who like you and people who don’t.”

This is where having an authentic voice and a point of view is important.

Events are also a key pillar for Cultured, and the team is currently looking towards Spring 2024 for the release of its “CULT100” list: the 100 people who define culture, along with a celebration in New York City.

“It takes a lot of passion. I love meeting artists and feel very privileged — I get to go into artists’ studios and meet people at really critical moments in their career. These young artists give me hope. They are at this moment where they feel like anything is possible. To me, that’s what I’m always looking for — that’s what I felt when I was younger, when I read magazines.”

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