Exhibition catalogs: Time for a rethink?

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?

8 thoughts on “Exhibition catalogs: Time for a rethink?”

  1. I’m writing this as a big fan of catalogues and have been collecting them for some time now. These days I tend to be much more discreet, and I do make it a point to seriously sit down and look through one before accepting it from a friend or buying one from a store. (A little digression here: perhaps I’m also obsessed about walking over to some of my favorite art bookshops and buying something, anything… but I guess that’s a story for another posting… eeeks).

    I guess Marc has pretty much hit the nail on the head about catalogues, about the fact that it has somehow fallen behind the website when it comes to communicating an impression about a certain exhibition. I recently had a meeting with a curator in a cafe and as all young artists do, eagerly whipped out my latest tree-killing heart stopping chunk of texts and she gave a small “oh” and requested me to write down my website address instead in her little book. A situation I completely understand (speaking also as an indie curator); over-weight baggage, shelves in office require major re-cataloguing, and most of all, no time to read… while a website’s interactive, and you can always invite your Japanese sound artist pal to crank out a few original bars of music to go with the viewing experience while the flash animations zoom through the installations and allow you to look up, down, in, around… and sometimes… you even get to buy a thing or 2 from the site!

    But while the book as a vessel of information has its obvious limitations and in many ways is an obsolete means of transmission as compared to the electronic frontier, I recall numerous examples when I have this thing in my hand, and my eyes lighting up to a new world as my fingers run through the pages, and yes, I guess you can park this sensation under myfetish or mymagicmoment, but when it happens, it’s really amazing and I can’t help feel that we’ve not seen the last of words and images on paper.

    p.s. My favorite catalogue from an exhibition contains NO images. It’s “The Forgotten Kingdom” by Mike Nelson, published by the ICA London in 2002. Really wicked.

  2. There’s definitely something afoot with regards to fewer people reading lengthy essays, the only real value of a catalog over a website, IMO. (I don’t like to read lengthy texts online…I prefer a print version).

    So the question for me is not whether print catalogs are becoming obsolete (images on line are infinitely better), but whether the accompanying essays still have have an audience that makes publishing the catalogs worth while.

    More and more I hear they’re not (i.e., folks are not reading even the lengthy reviews in Artforum let alone anything more thoughtful).

    It might simply be that with so many images online and in print in the advertisements, (have you seen how fat Artforum is these days? it ain’t due to longer articles), there simply are not enough hours in the days to view them and read texts as well. If the market turned down a bit and advertising became a luxury galleries couldn’t afford, I think you’d see fewer ads, and perhaps then more of Artforum‘s subscribers would read the texts. Then again, maybe the entire species is developing a self-defense version of ADHD, given how much information we’re being bombarded with, and images are about all we can take in.

    To get back to your question though, I think essays aren’t being read, images are better online, and so yes, catalogs are fading in importance.

  3. These days the key use of paper catalogues (especially those of major galleries and museums) seems to be to support the value of work prominently featured. They are cited by the auctions at a subsequent sale. They are referred to when people talk about the history of a piece. And I have often seen them at friends homes discreetly placed on a table near a work they have purchased; especially if it is on the cover.

    Paper still seems to have more weight, in more ways than one, than transient web references.

  4. “Don’t read the review, just measure it,” the old adage runs. Publications in the art world, whether reviews or catalogs, have a ritual function that supersedes their utility. In the end, whether a review is “good” or “bad” is secondary (most reviews are wishy-washy anyway). What matters is that the article is there, and maybe even with a picture. Ditto for the catalog. It’s a bouquet thrown to the artist. And the thicker and more visibly glittering with marquee names (i.e. expensive to get and requiring the calling in of major favors), the better.

    It was not always thus. Blame reduced production costs, access to technology, and lots of money in the market. Go back fifteen years and gallery catalogs were few and far between. You really had to be at Pace to expect one. But the question is: If everyone gets a medal, does a medal mean anything anymore? Apart from being a kind of Keynsian tool for keeping the growing masses of art writers gainfully employed (thank you), what use do such symbolic distinctions have if every artist is eligible for the distinction?

  5. It’s interesting to me that an artist and a gallerist are conceding that catalogs are in some regards becoming obsolete. I thought those would be the two types of artworld actors most likely to defend them.

    And I think Ed has an excellent point in saying, “The question for me is not whether print catalogs are becoming obsolete (images on line are infinitely better), but whether the accompanying essays still have have an audience that makes publishing the catalogs worth while.” That’s the issue that launched this post to start with: the texts, not the books. Although I think it’s too easy to say that no one reads anything anymore. If you put interesting things in front of them, they read them (online, or on paper.) Rather, I think that these often-flaccid, phoned-in texts reflect the fact that writer knows that what he’s being paid for is more his willingness to lend his good name to this exercise than the text itself.

    As for whether it’s a good idea for the Andras’ “growing masses of art writers” to write for catalogs, I’m of the Jerry Saltz school: “There were fine catalog essays in the past and there are now. But the catalog essay is among the most partial forms of all criticism. The writer acts as a paid gun or apologist, not a critic; what he or she writes must be approved to be published. Perhaps critics’ fees should be printed along with their essays, as artists’ prices are available on gallery checklists. In any event, catalog essays are to the art world as liner notes are to the music industry: You know where they’re coming from.” That’s from his classic essay, “Learning on the Job”, one of those rare texts perhaps even more relevant now than when he wrote it five years ago.)

    Finally, as to Ian’s “Paper still seems to have more weight than transient web references,” I think this may be generational. As Heman notes above, younger curators are not breaking their backs carting catalogs around the world. Personally, I long resisted writing online due to that “transience.” Yet here I am. Why? Because the web offers a reach and pervasiveness that paper simply does not. That logic holds just as true for catalogs as for articles.

  6. There’s a great response to this post here: Modern Kicks: the paperless gallery. An excerpt:

    “The website for the Yale Center for British Art’s Art and Music in Britain: Four Encounters exhibit was a wonderful thing to have if no catalog was to be done (although I’d note again that here we’re talking about a historical, museum show.) One significant disagreement I have, however, is with the “eternal” business. I’d bet on a good catalog, especially one of enough interest to be bought by some libraries, to outlast a website any day. As wonderful as these internets are, preserving digital media, websites, etc., is a real pain if someone is not really paying attention to it–and over time, it’s pretty likely that someone won’t. Not to mention whatever further technological changes come, what that might mean for migrating a site, etc., and you’ve got a whole lot of headaches a bound book will never face…..

    [W]hen I’m considering whether an exhibit would be worth writing seriously about (I mean in a piece that either would be a long, thought-out post here, or published elsewhere), the existence of a catalog is one factor I consider (here I’m mostly talking about museum shows, however.) It’s not the only factor, and not a definite rule, but I’m less likely to think that the organizers of the show feel they’ve put something together of lasting importance if there’s no catalog.”

  7. Janis Goodman, Professor, Corcoran College of Art + Design, USA, emailed us:

    Long after a show closes the written word is often what most people are left with, given that very few buy the art. I have found writings on my work often clarify and even legitimize ideas and practices I am working out in the art. I, too, have a collection of catalogues I have purchased from exhibits that seemed particularly interesting, valuable as a teaching tool and contained just good writing.

    We are still very much a culture of touch and consume. Ebooks never took off, and maybe that is generational but I believe it has more to do with intimacy of an object. I would hate to see the demise of the catalogue. You never know when you will pick it up and read it.

  8. Hammad Nasar, London-based curator and art entrepreneur, emailed us this:

    As someone publishing, contributing to and commissioning content for catalogues (for public and commercial exhibitions) I wanted to add a few points to your discussion.

    For me, the value of catalogues is dependent on the context of their circulation. And as a general rule, I find their value increases manifold as soon as one steps out of the Euro-American artworld. In places like South Asia or the Middle East, where there is a dearth of art-historical scholarship and contemporary art’s infrastructure has not caught up with its roaring prices, catalogues retain their traditional value of adding to the sum of human knowledge. Especially as there are few (if any) local commercial publishers of art books, the public sector plays a limited role and the major international art publishing houses remain uninterested in anything but big surveys. Almost without exception, Indian and Pakistani artists I come across are hungry for new catalogues about exhibitions they haven’t seen and artists they have not read about.

    While I accept the point about the flexibility, ease and possibilities of websites to record the physical exhibition, websites generally suffer from the same problem as digital films. When shooting and editing celluloid was expensive people took care over what they shot. The economy and ease of shooting digital lowers the barriers to entry, and for every undiscovered master there are a hundred thousand no-hopers who can now distribute their product free, raising the cost of filtering out the noise. Printing an average catalogue — one that someone thinks is worth publishing and someone else that it is worth distributing — requires greater commitment, planning, thought and money than publishing an average web site.

    Catalogues also encourage an intimacy of experience that is now near impossible for the big blockbuster exhibitions in the Tate Moderns or MOMAs of the world. For exhibitions where the mind is to be exercised as much (if not more than) the retina, catalogues allow us the luxury of personal contemplation. And you cant take your website with you to read in the loo.

    As a curator, I consider the catalogue to be part of any exhibition I curate. In substance I don’t think its very different from commissioning a site-specific collaborative artwork. Good catalogues add to the exhibition experience, not reproduce it.

    And occasionally I am surprised (pleasantly) by the contribution of a writer (usually not the big names) who brings fresh insight to the reading of a work or an artist I thought I was familiar with. Those moments alone are worth the trawl through the pile of catalogues lying in the corner of the room. But I do agree with you directionally. The ease and quality of average websites should push catalogue publishers to raise their game.

Leave a Reply