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Do Exhibition Catalogues Have A Future? What Is It?

“Times are changing for the traditional exhibition catalogue,” I write in the September issue of The Art Newspaper. It’s a subject I’ve pondered before, but for the recently published feature, I dug much deeper, prying some rule-of-thumb numbers from sources and discovering  several worthy experiments.

EakinsSculls.jpgThe Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for example, is offering a print-on-demand anthology of articles for its Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins exhibition, rather than a traditional catalogue. (His The Champion Single Sculls is at left.)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art produced no catalogue for its recent Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris, initially thinking it would publish one online, but later deciding to post a “gallery guide” allowing online visitors to “walk through” the exhibition remotely.

And, since 2002, the Brooklyn Museum has produced “mini-catalogues” for smaller exhibitions whose content and budget don’t allow a traditional catalogue. These “grand brochures” are generally 6- by 9-inches, hard-bound, fewer than 100 pages, and printed on the museum’s onsite four-color press.

Behind those experiments are factors like these:

  • Production costs – paper, ink, printing, binding and so on – for 10,000 copies of a 250-300 page book typically range from $150,000 to $250,000.
  • Add in the time spent by curators on research, writing and editing, the fees paid to outside authors, reproduction rights for dozens of images, design costs, distribution, and so on, and the actual cost per book can reach into three-figures. So they are all money-losers. 
  • As few as 2% of people visiting an exhibition usually buy the catalogue. 5% is a big deal.
  • The more popular an exhibition is, and the more familiar the artist is, the lower the sell-through rate. That’s because popular shows draw wider audiences, composed of regular museum-goers who may feel they know the artist and occasional visitors whose interest in art is less serious; apparently, neither category wants to shell out, say, $30 to $60 for a catalogue.

It’s pretty clear that museums would like to dispense with these big catalogues, possibly in favor of e-books. They can’t for two reasons — lenders to a big traveling show want a catalogue and reproduction rights for pictures online catalogues are more difficult to obtain.

What’s emerging may be a hybrid, with a printed catalogue where some elements — like the checklist — are left out and available only online.

Or, back at LACMA, for California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, beginning in October, 2011, a curator’s wish to include a directory of designers and manufacturers in the catalogue led to a different solution: a stand-alone, print-on-demand book, possibly with pictures of artists in their studios, not of objects in the exhibition, is in the offing.

Read the whole article on my website. All of this, seems to me, is good.

Photo Credit: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art


  1. Eric Berman says:

    It will be a shame for these catalogs to go the way of the dodo–they (the catalogs, not the birds) are invaluable reference works, their essays and high-quality images often the only access to the material we people out in the boondocks have. Online photos and online reading just don’t stack up to expertly printed versions. And as I often tell my history students, the catalogs themselves become historical documents pointing to attitudes, limits of knowledge, prevailing theories of a given time and place.

  2. Daniel Grant says:

    Nice article. Catalogues are but one type of “didactic” that museums use — lengthy artwork and wall labels, as well as brochures and audiotapes are the others — and it seems that hiring critics or historians to write publishable essays is the mark of a show that is to be taken seriously. For those writers, they may well want the hardcopy catalogues for their own files. Additionally, I have noticed from time to time that reviewers at the New York Times appear to review the catalogue essay more than the actual exhibition. Those catalogues (or the essays from them) are probably sent to the reviewers in advance of their coming to the exhibition, which

  3. Michael Black says:

    Exhibitions are sometimes devoted to second-tier artists, whose oeuvre may not be properly covered in up to date monographs. Often the organizing institution is situated in the provincial birthplaces of artists, or backwaters where they later spent much time. The economics of these exhibitions usually relies on local government funding and corporate sponsorship within the immediate community. The shows deserve to be called “monographic” not just because they concentrate on the work of a single artist; they are also often accompanied by serious monographic catalogues. As a rule, these books would be economically unfeasible if they were published without the subsidies and the audience created by exhibitions. In this way, local community pride has enriched the art historical literature over the years. It would be a shame if slipshod online publishing where to end this tradition.

  4. Jeanne C. Fuchs says:

    I love the catalogues but the prices nowadays are way too steep I have a couple from the past that are treasures – de Kooning, Vermeer, Van Gogh – but that’s all. It would be better for the public, if not the donors/lenders, if the museum were to publish instead a comprehensive leaflet listing the works, a bit about them, a MAP of the exhibition space (usually sadly lacking) People might pay a couple dollars, like $5, for such. Don’t forget one has already paid a considerable sum to see one of these blockbusters. Why continue to publish a loser?

  5. Yes, most catalogs are money-losers, just as symphony orchestras, nonprofit theatres, museums, and universities are “money-losers”. They require subsidy, because they are worth doing, regardless of profit considerations.
    Catalogs are often the closest I can come to experiencing an exhibition I missed; I often order them from museums. Also, catalogs are a way of revisiting much-loved exhibitions from the past.

  6. I agree; I was simply cataloguing some changes… perhaps the best way to ensure that museums are able to continue publishing them is a separate endowment fund to subsidize the publication of catalogues.

  7. Clif Tinker says:

    I agree that catalogues should be subsidized, like public school, roads, ballet companies, and symphonies. Websites, and their content, are ephemeral. They come and go with the click of a button, a virus attack, or they can disappear if an institution is experiencing financial stress and decides to stop paying for a website. Librarians still counsel students that information on the internet isn’t necessarily reliable source material.

  8. I agree that on-demand and online catalogues are a trend and E-catalogues likely to become the new normal. But I agree, partly, with a great sense of loss and sadness.
    Although, as you write, many exhibition catalogues are conceived in a format and written in a style that eliminates the general museum goer who isn’t prepared to spend the time or the effort to wade through essays that can put off even those of us that know the artists, this past summer I found myself stunned and, frankly, enraged, to find no catalogue for the fabulous “Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris” show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was there with limited time and was looking forward to reading the text and revisiting the images in well reproduced form. Likewise with Kiki Smith’s show at the Brooklyn museum. Would that one had the time to go back to both these shows for a second viewing. But much like all the books I’ve planned on rereading one day, this opportunity to do this rarely happens.
    My point being, that printing out E-books, apart from using a lot of one’s paper supply, doesn’t offer the reproduction quality– the quality, in general — that one looks for in a good reference book. And even if it’s a general reader, these expense-conscious version in a subtle way,suggest a lessening of the kind of quality we associate with works of art. It reminds me of students who think they’ve seen a work of art because you’ve shown them a slide of the piece. I realize that there is no way to stem the tide of online and Ebooks no more than one will be able to divert the tweeting and Face Book onslaught, but I would love to see more people indoctrinated to the touch and smell of a fresh art catalogue, the high-res reproductions and, of course, writing that really communicates.

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