One morning last spring Julia Joern and Todd Bradway were sitting in a Manhattan townhouse discussing David Zwirner Books. The year-old enterprise is the latest addition to Zwirner’s fast-growing gallery, which now encompasses 80,000 square feet of space in New York (twice what it was before Zwirner added a five-story gallery on West 20th Street), an expanding roster of high-profile artists (Sherrie Levine just joined up), and a tony London branch.
“David is sort of an empire builder in his own way,” said Joern, Zwirner’s longtime head of public relations, who has a hand in the new imprint. Bradway is its director of publishing. “It doesn’t mean he wants to have galleries all over the world,” Joern added, “but he wanted to build something else after he finished the building on 20th Street and the gallery in London.” And so now he is building a book company.
Depending on how you look at it, the art-book industry is either in precarious straits or the midst of a golden age. Brick-and-mortar bookstores specializing in art books continue to close, giving way to online purveyors like Amazon, which don’t do so well with pricy art tomes. And traditional trade publishers have cut back on funding art titles. Meanwhile, blue-chip galleries, flush with cash in a booming art market, have picked up the slack with increasingly ambitious publishing programs. At the world’s wealthier galleries, an in-house imprint has become an essential part of business, as common as a front desk, PR team, and exhibition checklist.
Like other major gallerists, Zwirner had published his artists’ books through commercial publishers for years; his decision to do more of the work in-house follows the trend at the upper end of the art market. Last year Joern gave Zwirner a copy of Hothouse, Boris Kachka’s history of the storied publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. For Zwirner, who turned to art dealing after a stint in the music business, a publishing arm seemed like an interesting challenge. “David read it and he was like, ‘I can do this!’ ” Joern said.
“I think he was also inspired by the history of family-run publishing companies—like the König model,” she added, referring to the German family of dealers and curators, which includes Walther König, a Cologne-based bookseller and publisher, curator Kasper König, and Kasper’s dealer sons Johann and Leo, who operate respectively in Berlin and New York. Zwirner’s son Lucas, fresh out of Yale, is joining his imprint this fall. “There is an act of a publisher or an editor that’s similar to being a representative for an artist,” Joern said.
But beyond historical inspiration and family considerations, running an imprint can also make sense as a financial calculation for galleries—at least well-capitalized ones—who want to see books of their artists’ work and their exhibitions in print.
“Publishers are under more and more financial strain because there are fewer outlets to sell books now; I think they’re asking more and more of galleries,” said Craig Garrett, the editorial director of Matthew Marks Gallery, in a telephone interview from his office in the gallery’s Los Angeles branch. “[They’re] expecting galleries not just to give $10,000 toward the printing, but also to commission the essay and pay the writer and maybe even design the book. I think that’s why a lot of galleries have been saying, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this ourselves, completely? In the end it might even be cheaper.”
Bradway, at David Zwirner Books, concurred. “Those partnership deals, for galleries—on a book perspective—aren’t necessarily economically viable,” he said, referring to arrangements that often require galleries to foot part of the bill for the book’s production up front.
Which is not to say that the mega-galleries’ publishing arms are raking in cash—or are even meant to. Gagosian Gallery’s publishing department is “not a profit-making thing,” said its head of publications, Alison McDonald. “I like to think that it’s something that we can offer the artists.”
And artists have come to expect it. Since it opened 30 years ago, Gagosian has published or co-published 419 books. Pace Gallery, over the course of its 53 years, has been involved in releasing some 450 catalogues for its shows and artists. Like the other mega-galleries, but on a larger scale, Gagosian’s publishing efforts have tracked with its physical expansion and ballooning artist roster. In 2000, when Gagosian operated four branches worldwide, the gallery put out 10 books. It now runs 15 branches globally, and 2015 will see 36 books produced; for the past several years, it has averaged around 30 books a year, with print runs topping out at around 10,000. Hauser & Wirth, another multi-branch gallery in business since 1992, has published or co-published a grand total of just over 100 books, recently putting out about 10 volumes annually under its own publications department, run by former gallery director Michaela Unterdörfer. Marks puts out five or six books a year; Zwirner published 12 in 2014 and 14 are on tap for 2015.
Both Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth have gone beyond books, and now publish quarterly magazines as well. Gagosian has a twice-yearly newspaper with a circulation of 30,000. Gagosian’s six-year-old retail venue on the ground floor of its New York headquarters sells its books alongside posters, prints, and magazines, and limited edition works by gallery artists. Hauser & Wirth plans to incorporate what it calls “publications labs” into its Zurich, London and New York operations, and also into its Los Angeles branch, which is set to open next year; in L.A. the lab will host exhibitions related to the gallery’s publications, according to Hauser & Wirth’s co-founder, Iwan Wirth. The gallery’s new New York building on 22nd Street, slated for completion in 2018, will feature a bookstore; its space in Somerset, England already has one.
Much has been written about the inequality in the art business in recent years—the fact that the richest five or six dealers continue to grow while smaller ones find it increasingly hard to compete—and art books are an aspect of that story.
“The reality is that there are things that we can absorb,” Joern said when I asked about the financials. The goal is for Zwirner’s publishing unit to break even in its second year. For smaller outfits, though, ones that cannot afford to subsidize the production of gargantuan tomes, shelling out five figures to get a book into print can be a risky undertaking. And if those galleries can’t promote their artists through books, they risk seeing those artists jump ship for a bigger gallery or be passed over by influential curators and collectors.
But new models are sprouting up that work creatively with more modest finances. “We try to keep our books inexpensive,” said Brendan Dugan, who runs the New York–based Karma imprint. “You’re basically never going to make money publishing books. That’s kind of my philosophy. If it’s not going to make money anyway, you should try to make sure that people can get it. We offset that in various other ways.”
Karma sometimes has artists make special editions of their books, which it can sell for higher prices. (Dugan has also gotten into the art-dealing business, organizing solo and group shows out of his stores in Manhattan and Amagansett, New York.) Stanley Whitney made spare, handsome drawings on a handful of copies of his recent book, a 500-page survey of his career, and Julian Schnabel spray-painted a few of the covers of his 2014 book.
And a number of artists have bypassed the system entirely, incorporating publishing into their practice. Wade Guyton and Seth Price have the Leopard Press, which releases publications of their work and that of their friends. Paul Chan has Badlands Unlimited, working with a team to put out slim volumes on a range of topics, including erotic fiction, criticism, and ancient philosophy. And Urs Fischer has established Kiito-San, which releases books by him, as well as artist colleagues like Darren Bader, Marianne Vitale, and Spencer Sweeney. Earlier this year Kiito-San released a cookbook by Mina Stone, a chef who cooks lunch at Fischer’s studio. Fabiola Alondra, an alumnus of Richard Prince’s Fulton Ryder book business, took her expertise to New York’s 303 gallery, where she is now heading up 303 in Print, a new publishing arm of the gallery that recently released a record by Kim Gordon. “Art and books should always coexist,” said Alondra.
So where do traditional publishers—names like Phaidon, Taschen, and Rizzoli—fit in now? Many continue to work with galleries, even those that have their own publishing programs. D.A.P. and Thames & Hudson, for instance, handle distribution for Zwirner titles. Rizzoli’s gallery clients for distribution include Gagosian.
Often the traditional publishers will share the workload—and the production expense—for an art book with the artist’s gallery. “I do quite a lot with Rizzoli and I do quite a lot with Taschen,” said the New York dealer Paul Kasmin. He’s worked with them and Assouline on books for the Lalannes and Brancusi, among others. “For the publishing house to know that I’m doing the book with them means that they have less financial exposure and they have a good title,” he said. “And they have quite a lot of the work—at least half the work—done for them. And the galleries enjoy the idea—I don’t know if it’s true or not—that they have good distribution. It makes sense for both sides.”
Depending on how the deal is brokered, a given book may come in three different editions, Kasmin said—one with his name on the binding, one with the publisher’s, and one with both. “It has all become suitably blurred,” Kasmin deadpanned. Speaking of blurred lines, Kasmin has also become a bookseller himself, running a shop in Chelsea for the past few years. It’s been renovated for a reopening this fall with a former Taschen executive in charge, peddling not only books but also prints, editioned sculptures, and other sundries. Meanwhile, Rizzoli reopened its flagship store in Midtown this summer, a big bet on the future of in-person retail.
Like the rest of the publishing industry, mainstream art-book houses face challenges. Garrett joined Marks in 2012 after eight years at Phaidon, where he held the position of commissioning art editor. “When I joined Phaidon at the end of 2004, I think there were about ten people working in the editorial department full-time on contemporary-art titles,” he said, “and when I left eight years later I was the only one. The market for books on art definitely underwent a contraction in the years I was there, and because contemporary art has a much smaller potential audience anyway, it just made a lot of these books really hard to justify from a commercial standpoint.”
In 2012 Phaidon got new billionaire owners in Leon and Debra Black, and a new set of executives has since taken over. “We are focusing on a big effort to look at our backlist and make sure that everything we feel is a staple of Phaidon’s list is available,” said Deborah Aaronson, who is vice president, group publisher at the house, “and to find ways to maximize that backlist, whether by making them more readily available, looking to repackage the books or refresh them in terms of the design, sometimes updating the editorial content.” They’re planning to put out about 15 to 20 art books a year going forward.
I asked Aaronson if she sees a future for art-book publishing at a mainstream level. “I think that book publishing in general is a difficult industry,” she said. “I think that there is a tremendous amount of potential. There is an eager and interested audience, but publishers need to be more inventive about the way that they reach the end consumer. One of the biggest challenges is with the consolidation of the chains, with a lot of independents closed down, with Amazon’s strength. I think that it’s mainly about how you reach that end consumer. If they’re not going to walk into a store and see it, how do you let them know that the book exists?”
One way, of course, is the book fair, and there is tremendous activity on that front. The New York Art Book Fair, held annually in September at MoMA PS1, has grown by leaps and bounds. When the New York nonprofit bookstore Printed Matter started the fair in 2006 there were 41 exhibitors from 10 countries. Last year saw 350 exhibitors from 31 countries, with purveyors ranging from deep-pocketed players like Zwirner and Phaidon to scrappy zine makers like Awkward Ladies Club from California and Sister Sister from Massachusetts. Some 35,000 people attended. The first edition “felt really big at the time,” said Max Schumann, who first joined Printed Matter in 1989 as a book packer and was named director in June. Printed Matter is now planning a move to a larger space.
In January 2013 Printed Matter launched a Los Angeles edition of its book fair. “The remarkable thing about L.A. is that it grew in three years to the scale it took New York nine years to get to,” said Schumann. In 2015 the L.A. Art Book Fair attracted 309 exhibitors, and had attendance on par with New York’s.
Setting aside the mainstream industry and the blue-chip galleries and looking to artists, whose self-published work makes up the vast majority of Printed Matter’s holdings, Schumann said he’s convinced that the market is growing. “New generations are finding that self-publishing really is a form of cultural and political empowerment in a way,” he said. “And, for whatever eBooks and iPhones have to offer, the book, the tactile experience of the book, is still something that cannot be digitally reproduced.” That is true whether you are using a book to market a $10 million Picasso to an oligarch or publishing your art with a photocopier.
“Is this a fad? Is this going to pass away?” Schumann pondered. “Books, like the pencil, will probably outlast the computer. If you go a couple of hundred or thousand years down the road, if there’s anything left, there’s more of a chance there will be pencils and paper than there will be computers.”
Andrew Russeth is co-executive editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “The Renaissance: In Stereo.”