Last month, the exhibition Paul Thek, Diver: A Retrospective, which I co-curated with Elisabeth Sussman from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, opened at its final venue, the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. When I left LA to return home to Pittsburgh, I said goodbye to the exhibition forever. That’s the way it goes with major shows. You work on them for three to five years, getting relevant first-hand accounts, researching in libraries and museum archives, traveling the world seeing art and negotiating loans. You engage the assistance of almost every museum department in the preparation of the show, and it is over in a few months’ time.
When an exhibition ends, the most important record of its beauty and intellectual significance is the publication that accompanied it. Catalogues make a museum’s achievements visible to the larger world, and preserve them for posterity. They also allow visitors to take home a memento of their experience and to delve as deeply as they wish into the subject at hand.
Catalogues, like exhibitions, have long lead times. Texts are due about fourteen months before an exhibition or collection installation opens; this includes essays, checklists (so that rights can be obtained for images), chronologies, and any other “back matter” (such as appendices). This timing is both a trial and a blessing, limiting flexibility but forcing curators to make decisions and resolve myriad practical issues in a timely and focused way. The editor helps shape the book’s overall content and individual essays. In my experience, an intelligent and sympathetic editor with an ear for your voice, who helps you collect your thoughts and sharpen your ideas, is a gift to any writer.
While the authors are writing, the book’s designer is working with the curator and editor to develop its look, including its shape and dimensions, whether it’s hard- or softbound, the paper and typefaces, and the design motifs. For a text-heavy volume, in addition to being visually and conceptually creative, the designer must have a genuine appreciation for the written word and the subject at hand so that the form of the book reflects its content. At CMA, a team of four not only oversees the creation of our books from inception through production, but also obtains rights for every image the museum reproduces (think about what that means!).
CMA currently has four books in various stages of development, which will accompany shows opening over the next two years: Teenie Harris, Photographer (October 2011); Meanings of Impressionism (May 2012); Inventing the Modern World (October 2012); and White Cube, Green Maze (Fall 2012). But our publication program is not limited to books; the activity and scholarship of the museum is also represented through exhibition texts and brochures, our Web site, and publications such as our annual report (which recently garnered second place in the 2011 American Association of Museums publications design competition for annual reports).
This fall we will launch a new Web site, which will increase our publishing activities, making our accomplishments more accessible to the world outside Pittsburgh. This benefits more than our reputation. The catalogue accompanying Diver, co-published with the Whitney and Yale University Press, recently tied for the Independent Publishers’ Independent Voice Award. Significantly, the “IPPYs” recognize “publishers who exhibit the courage and creativity necessary to take chances, break new ground, and bring about change, not only to the world of publishing, but to our society.” The pursuit and circulation of knowledge is essential to a democracy.
Until next month,