Most of PEM’s offerings are visible and accessible as you move through the galleries and interactive spaces. One area rarely seen by museum-goers is where PEM’s books are made. Producing a lavishly illustrated, handsomely designed, well-articulated publication takes at least 18 months, and the process is never straightforward.
It involves months of pre-planning, followed by collecting text from numerous contributors, processing their contracts and payments, gathering high-quality photography and permissions, working with designers, editors, photographers, collectors, curators, other museums, co-publishers and printers. Due dates often slip by unmet, but somehow the ultimate deadline is achieved, and shiny new books attract the eye the night of the exhibition opening.
I’ve found in my editorial career that the people who make books are a self-selected breed and not large in number. Art book publishers are a subset of these bibliophiles, and are so finite in population that most of them know each other. Art book publishers not only love books and learning, but early on in life were struck by a Cupid’s arrow for art, design and typography.
PEM has always published, but since 2012 it has had a publishing department. As the program expands to include digital works and collection-based volumes, those who value books have asked: What is the future of art books? Is the genre robust or an endangered species? Jennifer Norman of Scala Arts Publishers, a leading collaborator with museums, shared her insights with us:
“Though the digital book phenomenon has revolutionized the academic and even fiction and non-fiction book publishing industries, art book publications still seem largely unaffected. Customers appear to still want the joy of the ‘object d’art’ in their hands, to see and feel the paper and admire the color in person rather than on screen. E-book versions of exhibition catalogs have sold, but at a much slower pace than the printed books for the same show. Some cases show only double digit or very low triple digit sales of e-books, while their hard copy equivalents sell well into the thousands. Even museum guidebooks still sell at a much faster rate than their e-book equivalents, sometimes at 10 percent or less of the print run of the books. Happily, the printed art book is alive and well.”
Here follows a glimpse of PEM’s most recent books, along with reflections by those who helped bring them to print.
PEM’s recent books and much of its backlist are available in the museum shop, a great place to browse in person or on the web.
2014—available in PEM’s shop:
“Working on this book was an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience. I will forever appreciate the unique opportunity to work closely with and learn from the experts, both in the study of furniture and in book production. After two years of devoting the majority of my professional time to this project, I almost feel as if I know Nathaniel Gould and will never look at my Salem neighborhood, the furniture in my home, or the books on my shelves the same way again! More behind the scenes on the Gould project, can be found here on the blog.”
–Nicole Pearson, assistant curator
“To bring this book to print, we worked with a diverse group of authors, which was challenging and exhilarating. As curators we sometimes can be a bit stuck in our approach to art history, but including different perspectives has added such a dimension to this publication that makes it feel completely refreshing. American Epics rediscovers Thomas Hart Benton by probing the connections between his art and the movies through essays by a dynamic combination of art historians, film scholars, television writers and cultural critics.”
– Janet Blyberg, research assistant
“Working on The Art of Wood book made me so aware of how wood is all around us. Its ubiquitous presence and myriad utilitarian uses can make it unexpected as an artistic medium. We often pass by trees with little notice in backyards, lining city streets, in urban parks or remote forests. Similarly, wood permeates our daily lives in homes and buildings, as furniture and in a vast array of functional objects from telephone poles to toothpicks. This publication draws attention to the astonishing potential of wood as an artistic medium in the hands of innovative and imaginative artists. This exhibition and book demonstrate the visual power of wood as abstract and representational sculpture, conceptual and narrative artwork, and its beauty in natural and experimental forms and surfaces.”
– Paula Richter, curator for Exhibitions and Research
Native Fashion Now—in progress, stay tuned!
“Native Fashion Now is a unique show that will give us a chance to combine the best qualities of arts and fashion publications. We want to create an exhibition catalog that evokes the glamour of the pieces these designers create, while still being a fitting representation of Native culture.
To achieve the contemporary, luxe look we want for the catalog, I’ll be planning several fashion shoots around the country. Fashion pieces (and accessories) always look better on a real live model. After all, they were designed to be worn. It will take a lot of work, logistical planning and careful art direction to achieve shots as good as the one above from designer Orlando Dugi’s Desert Heat series. In the end, Native Fashion Now will be a gorgeous publication, worthy of a high end fashion magazine.”
– Claire Blechman, digital asset manager
Asia in Amsterdam—in progress, stay tuned!
“PEM is creating this book in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, with Dutch and English editions. The project has required assiduous teamwork on both sides of the Atlantic to manage multiple contributors, English and Dutch translations and simultaneous editing of the two volumes. The exhibition opens at the Rijksmuseum in October 2015, moving on to PEM in Feburary 2016. More than two years are needed for the planning, production and shipping.”
– Kathy Fredrickson, director of Exhibition, Research and Publications
PEM’s recent backlist
“Shapeshifting was the first major exhibition and publication I ever worked on, and I was fortunate to be involved with every step of the process — including writing for the catalog. When I think about the number of hours and steps required to make this gorgeous and important book a reality, I almost can’t believe we pulled it off! Typically deserted on weekends during the holiday season, Karen [Kramer, exhibition curator] and I would be running around the cold office building in our winter coats and hats, yelling notes to one another and racing to meet deadlines. It was incredibly intense, terrifying…and so much fun.”
– Maddie Kropa, assistant curator
“This lovely book sold out its print-run of 6,500 copies during the course of its tour from PEM to London to Australia with the exhibition. PEM’s shop still has a few copies on the shelf — it’s become a rare item.”
– Kathy Fredrickson, director of Exhibition, Research and Publications
Detail, Willem Claesz. Heda, Still life with Glasses and Tobacco, 1633, © 2010 Peabody Essex Museum, photo by Michael Tropea, Chicago.