Should Artists Publish Their Own Catalogues?

For some time, the ground has been shifting, moving the line between what is and is not considered acceptable for artists to pay for. Are catalogues?
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Artists are told regularly that they must take an active role in the development of their careers, that they must invest their time and energy in this endeavor, rather than waiting for someone else (dealer? patron? MacArthur Foundation?) to do it for them. Many of these opportunities involve artists spending their own money, which brings up the question of whether or not self-pay garners the same art world esteem as when someone else is the underwriter. (I can say, for example, that what you are reading is a great article, but it is probably more meaningful for readers that this magazine chose to publish it.) For some time, the ground has been shifting, moving the line between what is and is not considered acceptable for artists to pay for. Renting out a gallery in order to show one's artwork still may be viewed as a vanity exhibition, for instance, but increasingly it is common for artists to split the costs of shows with gallery owners -- even galleries that exclusively represent these artists -- such as advertising and promotion, an opening reception and even repainting gallery walls. That split may be heavily weighted against the artist, but critics don't ask or seem to care about where the money came from before they review an exhibit, nor potential collectors when they visit the gallery; a review and sales far outweigh older concerns about breaking traditional rules about the roles of artists and dealers. Being the subject of a coffee table art book is another great benchmark in an artist's career, but the publishers of these books regularly are subsidized by the galleries of the artists and/or by the artists themselves ("One of the factors in the decision to produce a book is whether the artist is willing to contribute to the costs of publishing," said Carol Morgan, publicity director for Harry N. Abrams, the art book publisher). The means of financing these books are not revealed publicly, and readers don't inquire: They simply assume that the artist must be a big deal in order to merit the book, which is what the artist and dealer wanted in the first place. Throwing a veil over how the operations of the art world are actually paid for may help maintain older (needed?) illusions for collectors, critics and artists, but even what used to be called blatant self-promotion does not seem as out-of-bounds as it once had.

A growing number of artists have taken to self-publishing catalogues of their work, complete with high quality reproductions of their work and essays by noted critics, that look for all intents and purposes just like those created by galleries and museums.

"Artists are looking for grants, new galleries, museum shows," said West Palm Beach, Florida artist Bruce Helander, "and they need professional evidence to show that they've not just another artist in a sea of wannabes." He has produced catalogues three times to accompany shows (twice at galleries, once at a museum), claiming that the costs of creating them -- averaging $12,000 -- were more than made up for by increased sales that the catalogues generated. "A catalogue gets more reviews from critics and more attention from collectors," he said. "The basis of a catalogue is to transmit visual information to a consumer with a high level of design and quality. Readers then put two and two together and are more likely to form a more favorable opinion about the artist."

The first catalogue Helander published was in 1995 for his first one-person exhibition at New York City's Marisa del Rey gallery, which had no promotional plans beyond printing and mailing a postcard. He hired a designer to create an attractive presentation and commissioned Henry Geldzahler, former curator of 20th century at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to write a 1,000-word essay about his work. (Part of that expense included round-trip air fare to his studio for Geldzahler.) For its part, the Marisa del Rey gallery kicked in $2,500, which went toward mailing the catalogue to collectors, critics and other people on the gallery's mailing list. Sales were strong, and "by the end of the opening, the catalogue had paid for itself," Helander said.

The link between increased sales and a catalogue is not always direct or clear -- might (some of) these sales be attributable to the prestige of the gallery itself or other behind-the-scenes work done by the dealer? -- and artists may have to take on faith that the catalogues they produce is money well spent.

In 2001, Manhattan artist Barbara Rachko self-published 5,000 copies of a 16-page catalogue of her pastel paintings, which she used as promotional material, sending out the catalogues around the country to museums, curators, galleries exhibiting contemporary art, "any single person who had ever expressed interest in my work" and art consultants and critics (names and addressed purchased from mailing lists). The costs broke down to $14,000 to produce the catalogue ($1,000 apiece to two designers, $1,000 apiece to two critics who wrote essays and $10,000 for printing), $4,500 for an assistant who typed mailing addressed and stuffed catalogues into manila envelopes along with cover letters, $150 for mailing lists and several thousand dollars for postage.

Her catalogue did produce results: Several galleries took on Rachko's work, and 10 others have scheduled exhibits. The new galleries have generated a few sales which, considering prices for her artwork -- $7,500 for smaller pieces and $24,000 for larger ones -- indicated to the artist that "I've already couped the costs. The value of my paintings justified the cost." However, Rachko has not had a larger quantity of sales overall since publishing the catalogue than in preceding years, which she attributed to "the economy, which has been horrible." The catalogue may have helped offset a downturn in sales, or she might have generated those same additional sales through a less costly form of promotion: Who knows? "It's very difficult to quantify the dollar value of your efforts," she said. "Welcome to the art world."

Any artist who self-publishes a catalogue trusts that there will be benefits seen at some point in the future. "You do a project like this, and you don't get results in the first six months or a year, that doesn't mean it's a flop," she said, noting that "a curator or gallery owner may contact you a year or so later. You never know." Helander claimed that he does know, however: In August, 2003, he met a senior curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, who bought one of the artist's collages for the institution's permanent collection, "and on that curator's desk was a stack of material about me, and on top of that stack was my catalogue of the Marisa del Rey show."

Self-published catalogues serve various purposes for artists. Topping that list are expanding an audience and generating sales; as much as increasing their visibility in the art world, potentially leading to exhibition opportunities, artists need to recover their costs through sales. As a result, artists need to move slowly into this realm, developing an idea of how much a catalogue will cost, how much they have to spend and how they will distribute the catalogues (and pay for that distribution). The total costs were more than twice what Rachko had budgeted, largely because she began to produce her catalogue and "learned what it was really going to cost me along the way."

Susan Hall, a landscape painter in Point Reyes Station, California, self-published 2,000 copies of a hardbound book of her artwork in the beginning of 2003, which cost $30,000 ("I didn't start out with a budget," she said, "and found out what it would cost along the way"). Her plan has been to sell copies of the book -- at $45 apiece -- through local bookstores (she and her husband both went to store owners to convince them to carry the book) and mail order (based on brochures about the book sent out to a mailing list). Her paintings sell for between $1,000 and $6,000, and Hall hoped that the book was "a way for people who can't afford my work to have something of mine." For long-time collectors, the book presents a career overview, while for those new to her art it offers "a way for people to be introduced to my work."

Almost one-quarter of the books have been sold and, perhaps, more importantly, the number of her paintings sold since publication of the book has increased by 30 percent, Hall noted. As with Rachko and Helander, the exact link between book and painting sales is difficult to identify, but Hall claimed that the book "starts a process," with the end result being the sale of original art. At the current rate of sales, the book's publication costs will be recouped "within two years; it could even be sooner."

Among the decisions that need to be made are whether or not to tie a catalogue to a particular exhibition and who should write an essay (or if one should be written at all). It is obvious to anyone reading a catalogue that the essays in it will be positive, even laudatory. Some artists just include their own comments -- an Artist Statement, for instance -- and otherwise let the artwork speak for itself. The usefulness of an essay written by the artist or by someone else is to provide whomever is looking at the catalogue with some essential facts or interpretation that may be quickly gleaned. "The main people who read catalogue essays are critics on deadline," quipped Phyllis Tuchman, an art critic for Town & Country magazine and the author of numerous artist catalogue essays. While an artist's own say-so may be valuable in understanding the creative process, an outside observer as essayist is more likely to lend greater authority and credibility to the work -- it's not just the artist who appreciates it. Carey Lovelace, a critic and co-president of the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics, however, stated that a catalogue essay is "not just validating the work for the viewer. It's not just like Consumer Reports. Art is about ideas, and the critic looks to find the idea that is important. That creates a bridge to the work for the reader."

Hiring a noted critic or curator also may be seen as elevating the stature of the artwork being discussed -- "it adds what I call the Pope's nod," said Bruce Helander. A known critic's essay may be more likely read than that of an unknown writer, according to a number of critics who write and read these commentaries. "I guess I'd perk up if an essay is by someone I know," said Eleanor Heartney, a critic for Art in America and the other co-president of the International Association of Art Critics. She added that artists may also "go for the big name, because they'll assume they'll get a quality essay."

Critics, museum curators and art historians regularly are approached by artists to write catalogue essays; for some of them, it is a lucrative sideline, since the going rate is one or two dollars per word and essayists often require a minimum of 1,000 words (critic Peter Frank claimed that also may be "an extra charge if the writing needs to be turned around quickly"). The New York City-based artist career development company, Katharine T. Carter & Associates, has formalized his process, placing on retainer a number of New York area art critics who for two dollars per word, 600 words minimum, will write catalogue essays. "It has been helpful in my career have written these essays," said Karen Chambers, one of Katharine T. Carter's critics-for-hire who separately wrote an essay for one of Bruce Helander's catalogues. "It gets my name out. People see that I've written about artists, and they want me to write about them." In fact, it was after Helander had read Chambers' essay in a self-published book by Seattle, Washington glass artist Dale Chihuly that he contacted her to write about his collages.

Artists need to keep their hopes and expectations in check, when hiring a noted critic. Just because Richard Vine, the managing editor of Art in America and another of Katharine T. Carter's critics, wrote about a given artist does not mean that artist has any "in" with the magazine -- in fact, none of the artists he has written up as part of his association with Katharine T. Carter has ever been reviewed or profiled in Art in America. "You have to realize that you haven't bought this person body and soul for the price of an essay," Eleanor Heartney said, adding that "all of us who write these catalogue essays are trading on our reputations."
Both Barbara Rachko and Susan Hall produced their catalogue and book independent of any specific exhibition, which makes them less time-bound but also removes a potential marketing event in which excitement and sales may build. Both women have needed to create all the momentum on their own, lengthening the process of generating sales. Helander, on the other hand, produced his three catalogues at the time of particular exhibitions, even placing a gallery's logo, address and telephone number of the catalogues as though to suggest the dealers published them. Had he produced his catalogues with no exhibition taking place and no gallery to list on the back, the publication would lack "cache. It would be too much of a commercial venture," he said, "just a naked piece of promotion," produced by "a poor artist that no gallery or museum wants." He added that "it's no one's business how an artist is trying to market his work." Perhaps, the real issue is whether an artist may look in control of his or her marketing and sales or if some veil over the actual operations of the art world is still needed in order to appeal to older sensibilities.

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