It’s not uncommon for galleries and museums to maintain publishing teams to produce the print catalogs, replete with scholarly analysis, that accompany their exhibitions. But as these institutions seek to reach new audiences and remain relevant, book and magazine publishing have increasingly become important avenues for interdisciplinary conversations. “I think the power of the publishing arm has grown, and its influence has grown,” said Alison McDonald, head of publishing at Gagosian Gallery. “That’s true for the entire industry. There is so much storytelling and information that you can share about an artist’s interests.”
Gagosian, which is based in New York City, temporarily closed all 19 of its bricks-and-mortar locations as pandemic lockdowns took hold around the world in spring 2020. But it pivoted its programming to a virtual format and engaged a new audience.
“We were able to do so much programming online and reach so many people that we actually broadened our reach during Covid,” explained McDonald. None of it would have been possible without the gallery’s publishing operations, which took planned in-person conversations and exhibitions and put them online as editorial content. “We were able to put out new content every week,” she said, such as playlists, scholarly criticism, and Zoom discussions, while Gagosian’s books and magazines served to contextualize featured artists and the stories behind their work.
Gagosian has long had a strong publishing program, and it currently produces approximately 35–40 titles a year, including catalogs, picture books, and monographs. The challenges and measures of success for publishing operations at galleries are different than those for trade publishers, McDonald said. Gagosian is a gallery first, and maintaining the integrity of its artists’ work in print is its top priority—which might mean spending extra on paper stock and color correction.
“That’s money that a trade publisher wouldn’t spend, because they are more concerned that the books sell at a lower price point and reach more people,” McDonald said. “I think it’s hard for trade publishers to make art books work financially.” More museums and galleries entering the publishing business results in more opportunities for lesser-known artists to share their work and reach literary audiences, she added.
Without the pressures to deliver higher profits each quarter that the Big Five trade publishers face, McDonald said Gagosian has been able to use its publishing power to bring new points of view to existing art and highlight new visual artists by pairing them with literary authors. In the gallery’s Gagosian Quarterly, which includes a section for fiction writing, acclaimed writers including Emma Cline and Percival Everett are frequent contributors, responding to recent exhibits with short stories and narratives features. Additionally, Cline conceived and helms Gagosian’s Picture Books imprint, publishing its fourth title this year: Lyrebird by Lydia Millet, a story meant to complement a recent painting by Genieve Figgis titled Eternal Garden.
“The attention to detail and consideration that an arts publisher can offer is extraordinary," said Cline about her publishing partnership with the Gagosian. "It has been immensely gratifying to support the work of brilliant authors like Joy Williams and Percival Everett, among others, and to celebrate these stories and novellas that might struggle to find a home in the contemporary publishing landscape."
Positive feedback from Picture Books writers has underscored the "opportunity to collaborate with artists and reach new audiences," Cline added. "Non-traditional avenues for publishing are very welcome and very needed."
In the winter 2022 issue of Gagosian Quarterly, author and activist Roxane Gay edited a supplement on the Black female figure, with depictions and analysis by Black female visual and literary artists.
“The idea that art is somehow made in a studio with no interference or insight from the outside world is an inaccurate myth that seems to circulate around visual arts,” McDonald said. Interdisciplinary collaboration helps lift the veil, she added, noting that British painter Jenny Saville shared in the magazine that she frequently works while listening to Phillip Glass, prompting Glass to compose a piece in response to her paintings.
“The way artists hang art in an exhibition—it’s like a pedestal,” McDonald said. “And the way that you present their work in a magazine, on social media, is a different pedestal. You have to honor what they are doing each time you present their work, but you can do so many different things in these different contexts, and it just opens it up.”
She added, “Having a really strong editorial team really helps us put it out in a way that feels both interesting and exciting but also solid. There’s something to take away that you didn’t know before. Sometimes it’s a three-minute video, and sometimes it’s a 500-page book.”
Bringing notable figures together to respond to visual art also puts a spotlight on its importance. In The Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick, famous figures—George Condo,Carolina Herrera, and Abbi Jacobson among them—share musings on the works at the Frick Collection in New York City that have inspired them the most. In its second edition in 2021, the book was published by the Frick in association with DelMonico Books; it was edited by Michaelyn Mitchell and has a foreword by Adam Gopnik.
Author Toni Morrison, jazz drummer Max Roach, and artist David Hammons added to the inspiration for the Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept, with Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin curating the works of 63 artists who reflect the challenges and complexity of living in America. The name of the exhibition is a nod to the colloquialism “as quiet as it’s kept,” which is common in some Black communities in the U.S. and was used in Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. The entrance of the exhibit was adorned the symbol ) (—in reference to an N.H. Pritchard poem on display as part of the biennial as a gesture toward openness. Additionally, a third-floor space served as a reading room for Cassandra Press, a publishing enterprise founded by artist Kandis Williams.
At the Met, extending multidisciplinary conversations on art history in the form of books, catalogs, and social media are seen as an opportunity to bring a new generation into the museum. “The Met has of course been publishing for nearly 150 years of its existence,” said publisher and editor-in-chief Mark Polizzotti. “I think this has really ramped up over the past few years—trying to figure out ways of bringing in other voices, other perspectives and recognizing that art is, of course, about the object. But it’s a human story more than anything. And that has to do with politics, race, economics, sociology. These are all things that inform the creation of a work of art, and the reception of a work of art. And, of course, the changing reception of a work of art over time.”
In addition to adding voices outside of the art world to its catalogs and art books by, for example, commissioning prefaces from writer Jonathan Lethem and actor Tom Hanks, the museum has also been looking for ways to reframe conversations around works from its collection in print. “The classicists and impressionists were great, but why should we be looking at the impressionists today?” Polizzotti asked. “What can they still tell us, and is there maybe a new way of looking at them that will bring something out that hasn’t been done before?”
The winter 2022 edition of the Met’s 48-page Quarterly Bulletin for Members highlighted the museum’s Afrofuturism period room, Before Yesterday We Could Fly, with an essay by literary scholar and consulting curator Michelle D. Commander and a commissioned novelette by graphic artist John Jennings.
“Again, you can’t only talk about this from a traditional Met perspective—you’re losing half the story,” Polizzotti said. “One of the things that’s facing pretty much every museum at this point—certainly places like the Met—is how do you in fact remain relevant. The world is changing all the time, but museums haven’t always kept that in mind. And I think that is something that has been much more at the forefront of our thinking and the thinking of other museums and that also applies to the books.”
Polizzotti explained that the museum hopes to produce books that captivate current art enthusiasts and also create new fans. “I am thinking about the person who never goes to the Met but might find themselves interested in a topic,” he said. “We pay a lot of attention to the same kinds of marketability and financial issues that a regular trade publisher does.”
Sales are one marker of success, Polizzotti added, “but it’s really thinking about what is this book trying to say, who is it trying to reach and how do we help it get there.”