The first time Steve Martin encountered the work of Lawren Harris, the pioneering Group of Seven artist, it wasn’t in a gallery or museum. Browsing through an art book, Martin was immediately drawn to Harris’s bold interpretations of Canadian landscapes. Intrigued, the Hollywood comedian and musician began searching for more information about the iconic painter, who died in 1970. Martin even wrote a letter to Toronto billionaire Ken Thomson, a pre-eminent Harris collector, who gave Martin a private tour of his personal collection. Years later, Martin turned his passion into a job curating a three-city exhibition of Harris’s work, which opened this Canada Day at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.
Martin isn’t the first person to have discovered an artist’s work via the pages of a book. Even those who have never braved the crowds at the Louvre or the Uffizi Gallery no doubt have encountered images of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s statue of David. More than just gift-shop staples or coffee-table decoration, art books and catalogues serve multiple purposes for those who produce them. They are important educational tools; they extend the revenue from temporary exhibitions; and they provide a way for curators and art historians to explore ideas too complex to include on gallery walls. Greg Clarke, director of the international art book fair Edition Toronto, which took place in October, suggests that publications can also help galleries attract artistic talent. “If the artist can say that a book was produced about their work, that just adds some credibility to their practice,” Clarke says. “So galleries that can offer that to their artists – it’s an incentive for the artist to be at that gallery.”
A decade so or ago, most of the luxurious full-colour books found in Canadian museums were published by large European and American companies, such as Abrams, Prestel, Phaidon, and Rizolli, all of which have the deep pockets required to produce such expensive titles. But a few Canadian publishers have managed to carve out a niche working in collaboration with galleries and museums. It’s not a business for the faint of heart: art books demand a significant commitment and flexibility, coupled with a willingness to work co-operatively with institutional partners with varying budgets. Susanne Alexander, publisher at Goose Lane Editions, has actively cultivated relationships with various cultural institutions; as a result, art books have become a growing area of focus for the Fredericton publisher. Over the years, Goose Lane has partnered with the AGO, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Despite the success, Alexander is still very selective about the projects the company choses to undertake.
“It’s a considerable investment in time and in resources, both in terms of the editorial work … and the design, and also the printing,” she says. “It’s probably a two- to three-year project, and it lives with us for a long time just in the production phase, and then beyond, and certainly into the sales and marketing phase as well.”
Books that support a touring exhibition draw broader audiences and tend to be more lucrative. Popular artists also mean more sales outside of galleries. Alexander often looks for projects where “there’s a very strong public interest in having a book produced on that particular subject matter, or that particular artist, beyond the gallery in which the exhibition is going to be initially shown.” This will no doubt be the case with Goose Lane’s new release, Ken Danby: Beyond the Crease, the first major publication in two decades of the realist painter’s work, set to coincide with a touring exhibition hosted by the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
This isn’t the first time Goose Lane has worked on a book about one of the country’s best-known artists. In 2014, the publisher worked on an accompanying catalogue for the AGO’s exhibition of Alex Colville paintings and prints. It’s a formidable book, surveying more than 100 works by the late Nova Scotia artist alongside interpretations by various contemporary artists. According to Alexander, the title was a big success, cutting across several demographics (not just the usual 40+ museum-going crowd), and selling well outside the AGO.
Jim Shedden, the AGO’s manager of publications, says that before starting a new project he often contacts several publishers to find the right fit, initially assessing whether he thinks their brand is aligned in some way with the artist’s work. (The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris was published by Prestel through its partner institution, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.) In the case of the Colville book, he says, “We knew Goose Lane were the right people because they were so enthusiastic. There was the Maritime factor in that case, too.”
If Goose Lane has a “Maritime factor” working for it, Figure 1 Publishing has a West Coast advantage. Figure 1 was established in 2013 by former D&M Publishers executives Chris Labonté, Peter Cocking, and Richard Nadeau after the Vancouver publisher went bankrupt. From the onset, Labonté says, the Figure 1 co-founders “wanted to establish ourselves as Canada’s leading publisher of beautiful illustrated books. So certainly art, architecture, photography, design – all those categories were central to our plan from the very beginning. Usually the large institutions in the U.S. and Europe, they have the wherewithal to do big, very expensive books, but we want to make sure that our Canadian artists and institutions have access to that high quality, too.”
Figure 1’s business model is based on partner relationships with galleries and museums, such as the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C., and other creative-minded organizations. In some situations, the company provides basic sales, marketing, and distribution support, but more often it is involved from initial concept development, design, and editing right through to market. Labonté jokes that the biggest challenge in producing art books is that it doesn’t matter if the manuscript is late, or images need to be re-shot: exhibition openings are immoveable deadlines. But he also says diminishing resources for underfunded cultural institutions means fewer publications and smaller budgets. It also means publishers must be willing to adapt to various roles within the process.
Historically, galleries relied on their partner publishers for printing support and distribution networks. When the AGO and Goose Lane collaborated in 2011 on books about painter Jack Chambers and conceptual artist Iain Baxter&, the two teamed up as traditional co-publishers, with Goose Lane spearheading design, production, and press runs. Sheddon, who often acts as a managing editor, says that for the Colville book, he wanted to handle more of the process internally. So the AGO contracted the initial print run of the book, and Goose Lane purchased its copies from the museum. As the title continued to do well, each party arranged for its own print runs, depending upon immediate need. Sheddon says he is investigating various online production models, such as print-on-demand and direct distribution through companies like Amazon, which could reduce external publisher involvement for smaller titles, though he says it won’t eliminate the need for partners to produce deluxe art books to accompany their blockbuster shows.
The onset of digital publishing and demands for more interactive exhibitions are also shaping the future of relationships between art-book publishers and their clients. Twenty years ago, expectations for art books were not as high as they are today. Often they were published in black and white, with a few signature colour pieces. Then came cheaper printing methods, which created demands for full-colour representation.
“In the age of Web, this is not the most interesting thing that we can do,” says Sheddon. “Complete catalogues of an artist’s work are things that, frankly, I think are much better suited to being online.” Andrew Hunter, the AGO’s curator of Canadian art – whose own personal art practice has involved bookmaking – concurs. “We’re a cultural institution and we should be a creative organization,” he says. “Therefore what we produce through exhibitions or publishing or online or whatever should project a contemporary perspective and that we are a creative entity. We’re not just regurgitating history, we’re actually immersed in it.”
The content and production methods may shift to reflect tech-minded museum audiences, but don’t expect art books to disappear off the shelves. Reflecting on the success of the Edition Toronto fair, Clarke speculates that art books will continue to have an audience because “they are a way for people to own [art], even if they can’t afford to actually buy the artist’s work.”
Goose Lane’s Alexander also remains confident in the future of print. The publisher has developed digital art books using various interactive technologies, but Alexander observes that readers weren’t interested in using the content as anything more than photos for their Pinterest boards. The online environment, she says, does not offer “the same kind of immersive experience that a book actually provides – that kind of deep thinking experience. It’s a continuing experience that people can refer back to over and over again. I think it’s probably the most concrete and enduring form of experience that you can provide people