March 2013

Leah Triplett


Surviving and Thriving

I couldnít be in New York to attend last monthís ďThe Future of Art Book PublishingĒ talk at the New York Public Library, but I have it on good authority that the room was so crowded at ten minutes till that security was stationed outside, turning people away. Yes, thatís right. A paneled discussion on how art books (not publishing in general, not trade books, not novels, but plain-old art books) will survive and thrive in the wild new digital world, held on a dreary Tuesday night in February, drew such crowd that actual guards were needed. Granted this talk was in New York, during the same week as the College Art Associationís Annual Conference, Tools of Change and THATCamp CAA, but still.

The talk, hosted by NYPL and moderated by Arezoo Moseni, Senior Art Librarian, was paneled by Margaret Chace, Associate Publisher at Skira-Rizzoli, Paul Chan, an artist who founded Badlands Unlimted, Sharon Gallagher, President and Publisher of ARTBOOK|D.A.P., and Chul Kim, Associate Publisher at the Museum of Modern Art. Over the course of their almost two-hour conversation (which, thankfully, is available online in full), all four panelists touched on the causes for concern in art book publishing. No doubt anxieties about how the art book will function in the digital future were the eveningís big draw, but the panelists also elucidated the very rational reasons for hope.

Cumulatively, the panelists supposed that the answer to the art book problem will be found with technological innovation within digital formats, and that the force of those advancements will be audience.

Chace was the first to present, and she works within the most traditional publishing setting. She began work in the field with Abramís in 1983, when books were physically made, and when, as she points out, Jansenís didnít include a single woman artist. Still, she feels her time at Abramís was during the ďglory days of art book publishing.Ē Chaceís career spans the old and new world, but in her talk, Rizzoli came off as doggedly in the past. Rizzoli sales of art books are strong, but thereís concern for the future. The market for digital art books is unproven, she said, and an audience for those books is hard to find and reach. The illustrated books that Rizzoli has released in digital formats -- books on Frank Lloyd Wright and Paris Style -- have done alright, but not great. People care about and want physical art books, because they feel valuable, they need their heft. While I agree with Chace that physical art books wonít disappear just because there are ebooks, I think her examples of the ebookís failure at Rizzoli is indicative of an unwillingness to embrace what digital art books can be, and what kind of content they can deliver.

Itís fitting then that Chace was followed by Paul Chan, who apparently started Badlands Unlimited because he was bored with making art work and because digital formats allowed him to produce books for cheap. Heíd always wanted to start a press, he explained, but it was only with the advent of ereaders, and his fatigue of making art work, that he was able to publish books. The books that Chan publishes, most recently the much anticipated Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews by Calvin Tomkins, seem to develop out of his relationships with other artists and writers (Chan met Tomkins because the he was the subject of one of Tomkinsís celebrated New Yorker profiles). In his talk, Chan notes the venerable tradition of artistís publications in New York, but explains that that art publishing sphere lacked an imprint devoted solely to books. ďBeing an artist and having worked with institutionsÖI understood how to make a book like an artistís catalogue or some sort of publication that goes along with the show, but I didnít understand the true nature of the social life of a book,Ē said Chan. Whatís remarkable here is that he wanted to know how people interact with books, individually and socially, as an artist. He knew how art books were made, how they were consumed, but he didnít know how art books really functioned in the world.

To me, this one of the most interesting parts of the whole art book debate, ebook or otherwise: how do artists use books, and how will those processes of art making change with the digital age? Thatís a different issue than how digital formats will make art more accessible to people, or how digital will affect art history.

Art books are different from artistís books, Gallagher pointedly emphasized in her talk. Lumping the two together is dangerous, as consuming the two require different ways of thinking. ďArt books need to give artist books space,Ē she said, after thoughtfully delineating why art books are best suited to physical formats. Gallagherís comments registered as some of the most cerebral and agreeable of the evening, and she argued that weíre still trying to understand what we want out of art book publishing, and what art historians want out of digital publishing. Gallagher explained why reproductions of art works just donít work in ebooks, as for decades technology has strove to produce better images for print, not digital. ďIf the digital is good at zooming in, itís not good at zooming out,Ē she notes, describing how illustration in ebooks donít allow readers to get a feel of the scale of the actual art work theyíre describing. Furthermore, digital formats for illustrations are poor. Gallagherís most lucid commentary comes when she voices the need for pages in digital books, as they help us navigate and comprehend digital art book content. Digital technology for ebook reproduction lags behind, and, as Gallagher says. We really donít know what digital art books can be.

But, as Chul R. Kim points out, they can offer radical new ways of looking at art. Describing at typical day around the MoMA Publications, Kim discussed one of their newest projects, a digital Picasso monograph that will hopefully include images of both the versions of Guitar that MoMA has in their collection. Whatís so innovative about this inclusion is that readers will be able to manipulate these images so they can indeed zoom in and closely inspect theses works; they will also be able to flip the images over (so to speak) so that they can see the reverse and the sides of the image. You canít have that experience at MoMA when you see a Guitar in the flesh -- guards would stop you from getting too close, as they certainly would if you took it off the wall for examination. Thus this MoMA publication will permit people to see objects as only specialists, such as curators or conservators, can now. Thatís crazy, and I for one canít wait for digital art books like this. Whatís more is that to produce publications like this, Kim said that MoMAís various departments -- be they editorial, curatorial, education, PR or conservation -- are collaborating like they never have before, which, one hopes, will allow for new ways of thinking how a museum can serve its collections and public.

The gatekeepers are changing, say these panelists. The concept of the art book, be it print or digital, is being revised so to include not only new content, but fresh ways that we can think about that content. Itís thrilling to think about what novel strategies of seeing, interpreting and viewing art will emerge in light of collaborative digital publishing. That said, Iíd like to see panels and conversations like these consider how artists -- contemporary or otherwise -- work with books, from a historical and critical perspective. As long as there be artists, there will be art books; even if artists and art books are distinct from one another, the first will always beget the former.