If you think you don’t know Callaway Arts & Entertainment, you’re wrong. Remember Madonna’s Sex, the 1992 succès de scandale that shook the publishing world? Are you familiar with the Miss Spider books, TV series, and app? Or perhaps you noticed the recent Wall Street Journal review that praised on an odd little book, Theophrastus’ Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior, a fourth-century BCE text by one of Aristotle’s students that’s been newly translated? They are all the brainchildren of Nicholas Callaway, founder and CEO of the company, which celebrates 40 years in 2019 with two major publications and a move to a new office space in a beaux arts building overlooking Bryant Park in Manhattan.
In May, to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, the press will publish Leonardo by Leonardo by Martin Kemp, one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Renaissance genius. September will bring The Sistine Chapel, a two-foot-high, three-volume, 822-page project that uses ultra-resolution photography to digitize the chapel’s frescoes by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and other Renaissance masters.
It seems fitting that, having begun 40 years ago with books, Callaway is, he said, continuing his mission to “try to make the finest books in the world of their kind, and we go to unusual lengths to achieve that.” He added, “We try to infuse a book with real-object quality from the design, editorial, and production standpoint.”
The overarching principle that has allowed Callaway to successfully carom from ancient Greek texts to pop culture is, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For Callaway, the phrase applies to an optimistic mash-up of “the best of traditional craftsmanship and the latest technology,” be it in the form of books, apps, television shows, or toys.
Callaway said that this concoction of beauty plus brains plus tech goes back to his student years, when he was awarded a fellowship from Harvard that sent him to Paris to pursue work as an artist. There, he landed a job at Zabriskie Gallery, and he helped make it one of the first photo galleries to have a bookstore devoted to selling photo-related literature.
The exposure to masters of photography allowed Callaway to see that “there is a wonderful affinity between the printed page, the book, and the photograph,” he said. At the same time, he recognized that so many of even the greatest photographers couldn’t get their work published, though, he added, they aspired “to see their work translated onto the printed page in a very eloquent way.”
That was the seed of Callaway Editions, which opened in 1979 as an artist-driven, design-driven publishing company, launching with a book of photographs by Constantin Brancusi, who is mainly known as a modernist sculptor. This period of the publisher’s focus on photographic books culminated, according to Callaway, with Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs & Writings by Sarah Greenough and Juan Hamilton, published in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art on the eve of a major retrospective of Stieglitz’s works in 1982.
Following that, Callaway branched out into similarly well-produced books in the realms of painting, fashion, sculpture, design, and contemporary culture, and in 2005 he changed the name of the company to Callaway Arts & Entertainment to reflect its broadening focus. “I recognized early on what has become standard now—that there is a real affinity among the audiences of these various arts audiences who are looking for meaningful imagery that are inspiring, highly designed, and with high production values,” he said.
And then came the tech revolution. Callaway said that around 2007, he saw Steve Jobs speak and was stunned by his description of Apple as “a company that lives at the intersection of technology and the humanities.” He also spent time in Silicon Valley, where he said that he was equally surprised to learn that companies worshipped technologists but had “not a clue about content.” He added, “I believe what the great editor Maxwell Perkins said: ‘Nothing is as good as a book can be.’ ” But that has not stopped Callaway’s company from evolving into what he called “a platform-agnostic intellectual property and production company,” and, taking a cue from Jobs, he noted, “We live at the intersection of the arts and technology.”
Callaway said that since the company’s early days, he saw the value in simultaneous worldwide publishing—an essential component of the success of its most ambitious projects. But, he added, a meeting with John Lasseter, the former chief creative director of Pixar, taught him an equally vital lesson. Callaway, along with David Kirk, the toy maker and creator of Miss Spider’s Tea Party (now celebrating its 25th anniversary), sought to convince Pixar to make a movie based on the popular arachnid, but they were told by Lasseter that “Steve Jobs has told us that we’re not going to do anything that we don’t own and control from beginning to end.”
Callaway took this principle to heart, he said, and worked with a Canadian animation company to bring Miss Spider to television, where it aired worldwide on Nick Jr. for 12 years. Then he and Kirk created Sunny Patch, a children’s lifestyle brand that grew out of Miss Spider and that they controlled from beginning to end, from creator to customer—cutting out the licensing, in which “people make products as badly as you allow them to,” he added. At its peak around 2007–2008, Sunny Patch had more than 1,200 products. The brand was sold to toy company Melissa and Doug in 2011.
The publication of Leonardo by Leonardo exemplifies Callaway’s art-cum-technology philosophy and brings the company full circle to its original mission of publishing books that are the best they can be. Priced at $150, the 192 oversize pages feature a gallery of the master’s 27 existing paintings, along with extensive details and preparatory drawings that have been produced using state-of-the-art digital capture technology and the latest innovations in gigapixel photography.
Callaway said he uses available technologies to make all of his products better. Having sold a million copies worldwide since it was published in 1987, one might think that Georgia O’Keefe’s One Hundred Flowers was good enough to be left alone. But to mark its 30th anniversary, Callaway used new digital tools and the original analog transparencies to create a “remastered” edition. Sales have been good, in part due to a special promotion for independent stores. Another incarnation, a smaller-size hardcover edition, is planned for the near future.
Leonardo by Leonardo and The Sistine Chapel are the showpieces of Callaway’s 40th anniversary. The Italian rights to the former have already been sold to Panini, and the book will formally launch at the London Book Fair. Emi Battaglia Public Relations has been brought on to head the publicity campaign. For The Sistine Chapel, Callaway will use a direct-to-consumer group of sales associates, each specializing in a different market sector, from Catholic constituencies to art collectors. And what editorial director Manuela Roosevelt calls a “unique and exciting sales campaign” is forthcoming with distributor Ingram Publisher Services.