I had an interesting but dispiriting conversation recently with a curator arranging an exhibition for a hot artist. The curator was trying to work some edgy writing from a young author into the catalog to give it intellectual flair, but the artist and the dealer kept insisting on corralling bigger names “ i.e. people who write for the right magazines. At first I encouraged the curator to fight for that text’s inclusion. But then I broke down and said, “Maybe it’s better to choose another battle. Because in the end most people will just judge the catalog on the names of the writers anyway – they’re not going to read the essays.” The curator agreed, albeit with a bitter laugh.Bouncy Castle Midi Ferme
What purpose does a catalog serve today? In the old days, as I understand it, catalogs were the way in which those who missed the show could get some sense for it. But today it’s hardly the best way of transmitting such information. No, that would be an exhibition-specific website, with 1) its unlimited potential for showing images (and video, and multiple views of objects or installations), 2) the possibility of allowing virtual visits through the space so you can “see” how the works resonate with each other, 3) the option to add ancillary material such as reviews and articles discussing the show and, 4) instantaneous, eternal and inexpensive global distribution.
I’m not arguing against art publications. But too many catalogs today seem totally formulaic: As many glossy photos as the producers can afford; a meandering Q & A with the artist; and, of course, one or more tangentially related essays by the aforementioned big names.
Those essays often don’t seem written to be actually read, but rather to function as part of some elaborate validation ritual. Too often today, it appears to me, the catalog serves most as a metric for demonstrating the degree of gallery/institutional support for a show. That’s why you so often see the phrase “solo show (with catalog/publication)” in an artist’s bio. And that’s why galleries often have hundreds of unloved catalogs littering their back rooms. I get at least one unsolicited catalog a week in the mail – the wasted paper and postage involved in this exercise is pretty unconscionable. Also, frankly, I’m probably not as impressed by the fact of a catalog’s existence as I’m meant to be. Sure, it could mean the artist has reached a critical new stage of their work. Or it could merely mean that someone is trying to pump up their profile.
So here are the questions to the panel: Are these just fetish objects? Is it time to rethink the catalog in terms of how today’s Artworld actually works? Would art be better-served by being documented in a medium that’s more in line with the globalized reality of our lives? Or is the problem less in the medium than in the execution?
Customarily, when painter Ben Aronson's work is exhibited in a gallery, a catalogue is published filled with images of artworks in the show and an appreciative essay by a critic. However, when Karen Jenkins-Johnson had a show at her San Francisco gallery in 2008, there was a catalogue, but it didn't have an essay. "People -- clients -- aren't reading essays," she said. "They just want to see the images and a C.V." -- the artist's version of a resume, which she has included. Essays are also expensive, costing several thousand dollars, "and I have to recoup that by selling another painting, or maybe half or quarter of a painting." Every penny counts these days, in a world of ever-rising rents and intense competition for sales. The one- to three-dollar-per-word essay may be the most expendable luxury.
Emily Mason is another artist whose solo gallery exhibits are accompanied by catalogues with both words and pictures, but the catalogue for her March 2011 show at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art in New York City has images but no critical essay. The reason, gallery director Louis Newman noted, is that Mason has "a large and loyal clientele who just want to see the images, to see what she's doing now. Her clients think they know more than any writer. They don't need some 30-year-old telling them why they should like her work."
Many gallery exhibition catalogues continue to include essays, offering biographical, art historical and technical insights about the artists, but a trend is emerging: the catalogue essay is slowly fading away, replaced sometimes by a dealer's penned tribute or a brief question-and-answer page with the artist or by nothing at all. "The word has become just a lot less important in these days when everyone has computers and iPods," said art critic Dore Ashton, who used to write catalogue essays frequently for gallery shows but now only for exhibitions that take place in Europe. "No one here reads that much." Or, more properly, visitors to galleries may not read exhibition catalogue essays as much as they once might have done. Both Newman and Jenkins-Johnson stated that they have received blank stares when mentioning to prospective buyers an idea written up in the catalogue essay. "Most times, no one notices if an essay isn't included," Andrew Arnot, director of Manhattan's Tibor de Nagy gallery, said. The essay is rarely a part of conversations he has with collectors, and it does not appear to be a factor in a collector's decision if or what to buy. As a result, the Tibor de Nagy gallery also has foregone catalogue essays, at least some of the time.
Not every dealer takes this view. New York gallery owner June Kelly stated that "I have essays in every catalogue, and I always have," claiming that part of her role is educator. "I see the general public needing information. I want to give people a sense of what the work is about, a point of reference." She added that essays are helpful to visitors to the gallery who are not collectors -- yet -- and simply need a way to understand what they are seeing. Still, the connection between the information essay and actual sales is tenuous, and their continued inclusion is based on the belief that it is the right thing to do rather than it is a proven marketing tool.
There may be no way of knowing who, if anyone, reads these essays. "Art critics read them," said Kim Levin, an art critic and past president of the International Association of Art Critics, adding that what critics write is influenced by what others have written. She added that exhibitions come and go, and it is the ideas about the art found in the written essays that may have a longer resonance than the memory of the images. For many professional critics, writing catalogue essays form a substantial portion of their income; catalogue essays indicate, among other things, who's hiring.
The artists themselves read them. George Schectman, owner of New York's Gallery Henoch, stated that the essays "are more important to the artists than to the gallery." When the choice is made to hire a writer, which is frequently an economic decision (at many galleries, artists contribute to the cost of exhibitions), the critic is approved by the artist in advance (sometimes, the artist proposes an essayist), and the essay also must be OK'ed by the artists before being published. However, Schectman said, "artists are much more critical about the color reproductions in the catalogue than about the essay."
The artists are probably onto something, since most gallery owners claim that buyers are sold on the images, rather than what is said about them and who is saying it. Emily Mason claimed that she prefers "not to have an essay, as it takes up space that could be used for reproductions. Essays take time that could better be spent looking at the art." Stuart Shils, whose paintings are currently being exhibited at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, stated that he doesn't regret the lack of an essay in the exhibition catalogue, since "I have read some pretty vacuous, self serving stuff in their catalogs" in the past. He added that the absence of an essay seemed a bit jarring at first, but "maybe, it is just a matter of something to get used to."
In general, according to San Francisco gallery owner John Pence, "the vast majority of collectors go straight to the pictures," adding that "museums and libraries are more likely to be interested in the essays." The usual print run for an exhibit at his gallery is 4,500, and only 10 percent of that group -- 150 to members of the press, 150 to schools and 150 to libraries -- may focus on the text.