For "Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins," which opened this summer, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gathered about 60 paintings, drawings, photographs and a sculpture portraying not only the artist's familiar subjects of rowing and swimming, but also wrestling, boxing, sailing, hunting, fencing, bicycling, and carriage-racing. "No show has ever been devoted to the varied array of sporting images Eakins depicted," LACMA notes. It has proved a revelation, especially because Eakins is rarely shown on the West coast.
But something was missing at the show: an exhibition catalogue.
Because Eakins is the subject of plenty of catalogues already, the curator, Ilene Susan Fort, proposed instead that LACMA publish an anthology of writings about the works drawn from other exhibition catalogues, journals, and books. Even then, when LACMA approached academic and trade publishers, "there were no takers," says Nola Butler, Director of Publications at the museum. "So we decided to do it as a print-on-demand book."
"Manly Pursuits: Writings on the Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins, 1868-2005," is paperbound book, priced around $30 range, and also an ebook. The images, about 30 all told, will be in black-and-white.
Times are changing for the traditional exhibition catalogue, those weighty tomes with four-color images of the works, newly commissioned scholarly essays, a list of lenders, and all the other usual components. In the last few years, a confluence of several factors – including budget cuts necessitated by the recession, the high cost of producing catalogues, low demand for them, advances in technology, and the shaky publishing environment – has caused many U.S. museums to rethink their catalogue programs and to forego some altogether.
"We used to do a catalogue for almost every show we organized," says Butler, "and now we examine each exhibition case-by-case. Then, if the answer is 'yes,' we ask what kind of catalogue – traditional, printed, online, print-on-demand?"
Similarly, the Brooklyn Museum recently decided to dispense with a catalogue for "Kiki Smith: Sojourn" because the site-specific exhibition has had three European incarnations, accompanied by "Kiki Smith: Her Home" – a book, not a traditional catalogue, in German and English. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, printed only a color brochure for "Object, Image, Collector: African and Oceanic Art in Focus" because the contents of a new catalogue would have overlapped considerably with two permanent collection catalogues. The Philadelphia Museum of Art produced no catalogue for its recent "Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris," initially thinking it would publish one online, but later deciding to post a "gallery guide" allowing online visitors to "walk through" the exhibition remotely. It could not be printed as a whole without opening each object link and printing each individual label.
Even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, director Thomas P. Campbell admits to a change: "All of our big exhibitions will have catalogues, and we are committed to producing beautiful books, but some of the exhibition catalogues we are planning are somewhat scaled down from the past," he says. "Our exhibitions are scholarly endeavors, and many curators would write 600-page essays if they could. So we have to look at what goes in carefully. People buying the books won't see any differences. But they may be 450 pages instead of 550 pages."
Exhibition catalogues rarely make sense economically. Production costs – paper, ink, printing, binding and so on – for 10,000 copies of a 250-300 page book typically range from $150,000 to $250,000. Add in the time spent by curators on research, writing and editing, the fees paid to outside authors, reproduction rights for dozens of images, design costs, distribution, and so on, and the actual cost per book can reach into three-figures. Most are heavily subsidized by donors or endowed publications funds or are simply considered money-losers in the museum budget.
Yet as few as 2% of people visiting an exhibition actually buy the catalogue. When 5% buy, that's not a bad seller. Paradoxically, the more popular an exhibition is, and the more familiar the artist is, the lower the sell-through rate. That's because popular shows draw wider audiences, composed of regular museum-goers who may feel they know the artist and occasional visitors whose interest in art is less serious; apparently, neither category wants to shell out, say, $30 to $60 for a catalogue. On the other hand, lesser-known artists often attract enthusiasts who will pay the price.
What appears – anecdotally, as statistics are hard to come by -- to be a decline in the number of published exhibition catalogues is also a result of changes in museums' programs. Hit by budget cutbacks, many museums are fielding fewer big, jointly-organized projects that require the cooperation of many lenders; instead, they are drawing heavily on their permanent collections to create shows. Recently, for example, the Met showed "Five Thousand Years of Japanese Art: Treasures from the Packard Collection," which celebrates the 35th anniversary of the gift-and-purchase of more than four hundred works from collector Harry G. C. Packard. It has no separate catalogue with new research; the works are described in the permanent collection database.
It's much harder to skip the catalogue for traveling loan shows – or to put them online – though the topic has been discussed among museum directors, curators and scholars for many years, according to Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. "Scholars are not satisfied with online publications for their important contributions, and lenders are reluctant to allow a work to leave for an exhibition that is not documented with a permanent bound publication," he says.
As e-books grow more popular, some publishing experts believe those problems will fade. But online catalogues face another barrier: permission to use images, while expensive for a book, is far more difficult to obtain for online publication. "The copyright holders for images are reluctant to give permission for digital publishing," says Eve Sinaiko, a publishing consultant and a former director of publications at the College Art Association. "The concern is that high-resolution images in a digital book will be pirated, and with low-res images, the reproductions are poor. Sometimes they will give permission for three years, or five years or even 10 years – but that's not a book."
As a result, publishing a catalogue online may not solve the economic problems. What is saved in production costs is likely to be offset by added image permission costs and, unless museums devise a way to charge for an e-catalogue, the loss of revenues from the sale of the books.
Nevertheless, Sinaiko believes that the shift to digital will happen. "The serious scholarly research that museums have always done will logically and naturally be put online once the copyright issue is solved," she says. "The opportunities in digital publishing are spectacular – you can really zoom in and examine tiny cracks on objects." Current technology also allows readers to turn pages, just as with real books. Auction houses and galleries are increasingly switching to digital catalogues.
At MFA-Boston, Mark Polizzotti, the head of publications, says he is looking at online catalogues, and adds, "We will create e-versions of some of our books."
In the meantime, he says, "if it's a major exhibit, it's going to have a catalogue, and in some cases smaller shows will, too." But Polizzotti also wants to make sure there is room for other types of books among the dozen MFA publishes each year. A prime example: "Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of A Painting," which curator Erica E. Hirshler proposed as a monograph on "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." The idea evolved into a 260-page book that sold out its first 5,000-copy printing in six weeks, and is now in its third printing.
Polizzotti is applying the same principle – "scholarly grounding but also popular appeal" – to exhibition catalogues. "I don't see the point of the old model," he says. "A lot of them are full of excess. Sometimes, they are a solipsistic exercise of essays written for five colleagues. The old feeling was that if you've got enough footnotes, you've done your job. But one can take the same knowledge and the same intelligence and create excitement."
As an example, he cites MFA's "Edward Hopper," whose catalogue went through "several printings" and is still selling in Boston bookstores nearly three years after the exhibit closed. Conceptually, Polizzotti says, the attractively designed book was driven by narrative rather than objects, with the writings meant to read as sequential chapters, rather than independent essays.
Since 2002, Brooklyn has also been using a different model: "mini-catalogues" for smaller exhibitions whose content and budget don't allow a traditional catalogue. These "grand brochures" are generally 6- by 9-inches, hard-bound, fewer than 100 pages, and printed on the museum's onsite four-color press. The sixth and most recent accompanied "From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith."
The Philadelphia Museum plans to build on its gallery-guide experiment, especially when the majority of the works in a special exhibition come from its own collection, as they did with the Picasso show (it incorporates some loans from private collectors). Through its "Digital Age Initiative," the museum is making digital records of every work in its collection that will allow the entries to be easily transformed into guides that are downloadable onto ipods, cell phones, and other handheld devices, as audio tours and online podcasts, and visual online guides.
What is also emerging is a kind of hybrid, where some elements may be left out of a published volume and made available online, cutting the size and cost of the printed book. Campbell says the Met considered doing that with the checklist for its current "Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art" exhibit, drawn completely from its permanent collection. "In the end, we decided on a traditional format," he says. "We think people want it all in one place."
But others are feeling more experimental. Butler says LACMA may put checklists, which often need updating until the very end, and object entries online. For "California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way," set for October, 2011, Butler says the curator wanted to include a directory of designers and manufacturers in the catalogue. "But it would add a lot of pages, and we thought that would be right for a print-on-demand book," she says. "It'll be a stand-alone book. It may have pictures, but probably of artists in their studios, not of objects in the exhibition."
"We are still experimenting," Butler says, adding that the current climate is "pushing us all to be more disciplined and thoughtful about what we do – and that's good."