Art Kunkin is an American journalist, political organizer, machinist and New Age esotericist best known as the founding publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Free Press. Born Arthur Glick Kunkin in New York City in 1928, he attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science and the New School for Social Research, eventually becoming a tool and die maker and joining the Trotskyite movement as an organizer for the Socialist Workers Party, where he was business manager of the SWP paper, The Militant.
Beginning in the late 1940s Kunkin was associated with C.L.R. James and the radical Marxist Johnson-Forest Tendency. During the 1950s he was Los Angeles editor of their journals Correspondence and News & Letters, while working as a master machinist and tool and die maker for Ford and General Motors. During this period a number of theoreticians and organizers of the Johnson-Forest trend (including Raya Dunayevskaya, Martin Glaberman, Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs) were concentrated in the auto industry in Detroit, where they worked to recruit black workers and gain influence inside the auto workers' unions.
In 1962 Kunkin left General Motors to go back to college and work toward a graduate degree. Soon afterward he had his first experience with a local newspaper on the staff of a Mexican-American paper in Los Angeles called the East L.A. Almanac. "For the first time in my life I was writing about garbage collection and all kinds of community problems," he later recalled. Meanwhile he was also doing political radio commentaries for KPFK Pacifica Radio while serving as the Southern California district leader of the Socialist Party.
In May 1964 he produced the first trial issue of the LA Free Press as a one-shot distributed at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire and May Market, a fund-raising event for KPFK. The response was favorable enough for Kunkin to start publishing the Freep (as it came to be called) on a regular basis starting in July. The core group of volunteers and supporters who got involved in the paper included people from KPFK, the bohemian crowd that hung out at the Papa Bach bookstore, and The Fifth Estate, a Sunset Strip coffee house which provided office space for the Freep in its basement. The paper soon became a nerve center of the burgeoning hippie scene. The atmosphere at the Freep was described by a reporter for Esquire: "Kids, dogs, cats, barefoot waifs, teeny-boppers in see-through blouses, assorted losers, strangers, Indian chiefs wander in and out, while somewhere a radio plays endless rock music and people are loudly paged over an intercom system. It's all very friendly and rather charming and ferociously informal."
Launched on a shoestring budget, the Free Press struggled for years. By 1969 circulation had exploded to 100,000 copies, but legal problems stemming from publication of a list of names of undercover drug agents put the Freep in a precarious financial position just as it was expanding its operations to include a printing plant, a typesetting firm and a small chain of bookstores. Underpaid staff members left in two waves of defections to form the competing newspapers Tuesday's Child and The Staff. By 1972 Kunkin and the paper were deep in debt to the very pornographers whose advertising had been the source of the paper's profits, and Kunkin lost control of the paper and was fired, rehired, and fired again, as the paper spiraled slowly into oblivion, paralleling the nationwide decline of the underground press.
Kunkin's post-Free Press career began with a stint as a professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, followed by several years as president of the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, an esoteric mystical group founded by Manly Palmer Hall. This was followed by an apprenticeship in alchemy at the Paracelsus Research Society in Salt Lake City, where he edited their journal Essentia. He later became a lecturer in alchemy and other New Age topics at the Institute for Mentalphysics retreat center near Joshua Tree, and a columnist for the Desert Valley Star.
- Smoking Typewriters by John McMillian (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 37-41. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2011.
- Stewart, Sean. On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Underground Press (PM Press, 2011).
- Uncovering the Sixties by Abe Peck (Pantheon Books, 1985), p. 22.
- "Notes of a California Bohemian: Cafe Au L.A." Lionel Rolfe, dabelly.com. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2011.
- A Companion to Los Angeles (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), p. 329. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2011.
- Previews of Coming Attractions by William Murray (World, 1970), p. 281.
- The Paper Revolutionaries by Laurence Leamer (Simon & Schuster, 1972), p. 56.
- An Interview with Art Kunkin Christopher Farmer, Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Tradition (Summer 1988). Retrieved Feb. 22, 2011.
- "The Last Alchemist" Fortean Times, June 2008. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2011.
- "Notes of a California Bohemian: Art Kunkin: Mystic in Paradise" Lionel Rolfe, dabelly.com. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2011.