This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Public Galleries and their publications

Below is a slightly provacative email I sent last year to the director of National Gallery of Australia, in which I provide a few unsolicited thoughts on what a mad book collector would prefer to see on the shelves of the Gallery's giftshop. I live in Canberra, so the NGA is practically in my backyard. The criticisms I make of some previous exhibition catalogues by the NGA can, I believe, apply to many other public galleries (but there are some obvious exceptions from that generalisation - like the wonderful Metropolitan Museum of Art for starters!).

In a way this letter is a bit of a manifesto-cum-wishlist for what I seek from an art book publisher, so I figure this letter is apt for one of my first postings on this blog. The NGA has quite a dynamic new director and he wrote a nice reply indicating sympathy for some of this thinking (hopefully not just humouring), so I much look forward to future developments in the gallery's publishing program.

Book buyers have a couple of ways of sending market signals on what we want - for the most part we let our dollars do the talking. But there can be a time and place for consumers sending more detailed messages ...

"Dear Mr Radford

I am writing as a regular to the Gallery and would like to pass on my thoughts concerning the publications put out as catalogues for your exhibitions. First however I'd like to convey my appreciation for the steps you've taken to clarify the collecting focus of the Gallery and to give that vision life, through new acquisitions, sensible loan arrangements with state galleries, the addition of the permanent exhibition space for Asian and Indian art, as well as very fitting exhibitions (eg: Crescent Moon).

I'm writing because I believe that there is further scope to build upon the vision you've mapped out and enhance the NGA's reputation by lifting the standards of the NGA's publishing operations to a world class level.

While the NGA has invested in some nice catalogues over the years, they have often had certain flaws that are typical of the exhibition catalogues published by some other public art galleries. I make my observations as someone who has invested a bit collecting art history books over many years and as someone who has, in the usual narky manner of a collector become more discerning and fussy with time.

Good scholarship is something that is obviously a given with any public gallery catalogue, be it a catalogue rasionne, a survey an art movement etc. Unfortunately the good scholarship tends to have a "crowding-out" effect, that means that reproductions of artworks are often pinched down to unflattering sizes, as the page space is forfetied to the write-ups. It is sadly quite common for public galleries here and abroad to fall for the old self-defeating economic vice of favouring the interests of the producers over the preferences of consumers. Yes the good staff research should get recognition in print, but there's no need to blow the centrepiece artworks into the margins of the catalogues. I do believe that the lay public usually buy art books for the artwork foremost, and the scholarship is a secondary consideration. It is unfortunate when the former is sacrificed for the latter (and many of us would be happy to have books that deliver both!). I suspect this preference for decent sized reproductions would be common to the avid art book collector, the student, the retiree and most other types of art book buyer. The most successful art publishing houses that flourish without public subsidy are well aware of this consumer preference and they do very well at delivering books that never skimp on the visual treat - eg: Thames & Hudson, Taschen, Phaidon, Abbeville, Harry N Abrams, Skira (just to name more obvious operations with English language print runs).

There are a couple of conflicting forces in art publishing these days. On one hand improved printing technology has made it far more affordable to publish a book with outstanding production values. On the other hand a book that contains a couple of hundred images can be prohibitively costly for the commercial publisher where they wish to reproduce works that are held in public collections and have to cough up fees levied by public galleries to photograph works. It's a fact of life that Governments will expect such fees to be in place to deliver some non-subsidy income ("return on capital" etc etc). Such charges however are not such a hurdle when it's the public gallery which is acting as publisher. Clearly public galleries are negotiating among friends over such fixed costs and they can photograph without restraint from their own collections.

To get to my conclusion, I have the following pleas for your future publishing efforts. Please consider enhancing the size of the books (or at least give us more full page plates, more close-up crops etc) and please give us decent binding. Some astoundingly beautiful exhibitions have passed through the NGA doors these last couple of decades and it is such a pity that they have mostly been celebrated with softcover/flexibind books that are little more robust than a set of Women's Weekly magazines. I would suggest that if the economics of stern binding do not stack up for an entire print run, then please consider trying a smaller second print run for cloth-bound hardcover catalogues (with premium pricing). Two tier print runs are something that the commercial houses have done to good effect and they've managed to make the numbers work to the satisfaction of their operating ledgers. Surely among the thousands of visitors and friends of the gallery there will be an eager corp who would pay extra for a collector's edition of a catalogue.

I'm conscious that, thanks to concern about risk and insurance, it's been getting harder in recent years to persuade overseas institutions to loan works to Australia. If the NGA built a reputation for producing top calibre books that did justice to the works that were loaned, then this might help leverage the argument for loans to support future exhibitions. A great art book publisher is one that can build a market not only in their own country, but also abroad.

The NGA is a fine institution where, as in other fields of endeavour, Australia punches above its weight. It would be fitting if the legacy of each of your great exhibitions can live on in the form of books which are treasures in own right and which are built to last.

Sorry to toss you some unsolicited thoughts, from an crass consumer point of view. I do wish you very well and look forward to following your good works with continuing interest.

Yours in appreciation"

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