An Exhibition of Optimism
In the months following the Sept. 11 attacks, museum admissions declined sharply, exhibitions were cancelled, and in the turbulence, administrators began examining whether they could continue to publish books as a result.
Today, “there is generally a very optimistic feeling, which is not to say it’s easy. It’s still very difficult, but it’s an exciting time, and I feel really good about our future,” says Yale University Press Publisher Patricia Fidler. “No one was saying that a few years ago.”
Currently, her art and architecture division publishes 120 books annually, of which roughly 60 percent stem from Yale’s museum partners.
Stephanie Medlock, associate director of professional studies at the University of Chicago’s Graham School of General Studies, says enrollment in her department’s museum publishing seminar increases annually, especially among smaller or new museums. These attendees tend to evaluate future publications on how well they fulfill a mission, whether that is a souvenir to bring folks back, highlight a permanent collection, or perhaps engage children to build future traffic.
“We all had to think very carefully about how we do things in order to continue,” Fidler says. “And sometimes the answers are not what we wanted, but we had to look at the reality to get equilibrium back.”
New Days, New Ways
Old-fashioned, solid business decisions now drive many museums’ production output. For starters, kiss goodbye the automatic assumption that an exhibition equals a book. A majority of officials now question that knee-jerk reaction—could they be more effective offering an extensive brochure instead?
“Museums are more receptive to the idea of conceiving and structuring a book as something that can stand alone without an exhibition,” says Fidler.
True, the cost of production standards weigh heavily into the go or no-go decision process, but cutbacks don’t mean the death of quality in this segment.
“Certainly they’re interested in hearing about efficiencies, but at the end of the day, they won’t sacrifice their standards,” Fidler says.
Take, for instance Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, the husband and wife team that handles publishing for New Orleans’ The Museum of the American Cocktail. They take advantage of printing technologies to run much smaller quantities than in the past, Brown notes, simply because print-on-demand allows them to run at a bare fraction of publishing’s old cost structure.
That’s not a realistic option, however, for Susan Rossen. As executive director of publications at the Art Institute of Chicago, she stands vigilant guard over color reproduction quality and claims print-on-demand hasn’t caught up yet. “But they will, and that will make a new economy,” she says.
Already, digitizing everything from photography to the printing process has been a positive experience, according to Rossen.
“We are getting better and better color as a result,” she says.
“Museums like ours still insist on high standards for reproductions,” Rossen adds. “The trade publishers do, too, but they’re under a mandate to make money, and we’re under a mandate not to lose money.”
Of course, business-driven decision making is in its infancy, and far easier said than done, professionals in this niche say. Behind closed doors, publishers still face an uphill battle convincing curators and authors to stay on the cost-saving deadlines they’ve set, and internal political egos mean they don’t always get the option to reject subpar manuscripts or nix 750 color separations in the finished piece.
In this respect, newer museums hold a competitive advantage because they aren’t as bound by the old pecking orders.
“I’ve seen museums where publications are on par with the curatorial staff, and the group decides whether to do an exhibit and a book,” Medlock says. Canadian museums have begun thinking even farther out of the box, hiring credentialed authors to handle particular titles.
“Just because someone is a really good researcher doesn’t mean he is an engaging writer, and that can drag down readership,” she says.
Many newer museums also appear to have greater freedom to pen timely, trendy pieces that engage the public. Brown and Miller, for example, arrived at The Museum of the American Cocktail with a string of consumer titles, including “Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini,” “Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail,” and magazine articles in Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, under their belts alongside Random House Inc. credentials. As a result, the duo is crafting a philosophy that reaches more of the reading public.
“Yes, there will be people who discuss the finite measures of making drinks in 1887, but we also have to counterbalance that with some 31-year-old guy and his insights on creating an entire beverage program for a cruise line,” she says. “You have to be broad-minded about who really needs the education and in what form. Sometimes there is a desire to become academic without becoming fruitfully educative, and that’s a problem with me.”
In this decade, Rossen has noticed an evolving relationship with the gift shop crew at the Art Institute.
“In the old days, we would give them what we thought should sell,” she says. Now that model has all but flipped. The store buys the exhibition catalogs outright from her department, but sells scholarly publications on a consignment basis.
Medlock sees this situation cropping up often across the country: If the museum store manager can come up with convincing evidence books don’t sell as well as other merchandise, back to the storage room they go.
That’s undoubtedly a driving force behind the increasing stream of requests Fidler fields from museums looking to strike deals with Yale University Press, which maintains 13 exclusive partnerships with institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, Paul Mellon Centre, the Jewish Museum, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago. Lured by the sweet thought of more sales channels, including bookstores that still buy personally from house representatives, Amazon.com and large Web sites, Yale and other distributed art publishers have become the Holy Grail for museum publishing divisions.
“It’s a credibility issue, and museums see the value of that, “ says Fidler. “It seems to be a better business decision to have one publisher representing them to the world.” While she’s open to partnering on specific projects with groups outside this circle, “we expect them to demonstrate to us the book’s scholarship and that there needs to be more on this topic,” she adds. In others words, museums need to sell it to her.
The Internet Impact
But Yale and its competitors could soon face stiff competition from the Internet. Jared Brown views the Web as the solution to breaking through geographic restrictions to reach people based purely on interest. Almost 40 percent of the folks who bought his last book were British, he says. And approximately 95 percent of The Museum of the American Cocktail’s book sales stem from its Internet site.
Traffic and sales are up at the Yale University Press shopping portal as well, despite the fact that it charges full retail price, and Amazon.com often carries the same titles for less. (Note that those discounts come out of the retailer’s pocket—Yale earns the same profit margin either way.)
Ann Karlstrom, director of publications and graphic design at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, says she has noticed a spike in online sales near the end of an exhibition, despite the museum’s limited online presence. She lacks the staff to keep the Web site dynamic, and the list of available publications is not up to date. She chalks up the sales to the fact folks figure they’re running out of time to commit to the book they flipped through during their visit to the museum shop.
Yet what fires Miller’s excitement is the fact the Internet offers a medium that ensures museum publishing doesn’t itself become historic.
“The ability to update history is a very important detail because history doesn’t stop,” she says. “It constantly has innuendoes and new discoveries that change our assumptions.”
Miller, a former archeology student, says she wishes “people could have delivered rapid-fire information to my hands while I was digging over something. It’s finally come to that exciting opportunity where we can do that …,” she says
She envisions The Museum of the American Cocktail soon offering catalogs and book updates to members via a password portal.
Karlstrom says it sounds wonderful in theory, but she doesn’t anticipate the mid-sized Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco will jump on that bandwagon anytime soon.
For a majority of museum publishers, the Internet could be its savior, in Medlock’s estimation, simply because it appeals to youth.
“Think of the larger democratic, sociological issues,” she says. “We have more and more books published in the United States every year. But there is not any evidence that people are reading more. Museum Web pages offer searchable aspects that are incredible. You can relate different works, do a virtual tour and have students compare and contrast. It’s like getting people to your museum without actually having them there.”
And where there’s an interest, there’s also a consumer full of surprises. Certainly Karlstrom knew Egyptian subject matter would sell, but she didn’t predict the strong book sales and tag-along DVD orders for a quilt exhibition. Nor did she predict the catalog on a local Japanese-American artist’s retrospective show would sell out, but it did. “It’s not a predictable science any more than regular book publishing,” she says. BB
Julie Sturgeon is an award-winning journalist who specializes in business writing. She is based in Indianapolis.