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Art Book Publishing in Canada Takes a Hit

What’s the future of Canadian art catalogues in the wake of Black Dog Publishing’s recent bankruptcy?

Printed matter accompanying an exhibition or illuminating an artist’s practice still defines the machinery of the art world. With digital archives seeming increasingly unstable, paper continues to play a vital role in contributing to the record of how art is remembered and indeed made. But, in 2018, book publishing in particular is not getting any easier—particularly the publication of big, scholarly, well-designed and well-printed monographs.

In light of the recent bankruptcy of a publisher whose demise has left no less than eight Canadian art galleries in legal and financial limbo, one might even ask: are art books worth publishing any more in Canada?

The publisher in question is Black Dog; they were actually UK-based. But in recent years—thanks to its promises of low printing costs and high access to European distribution—Black Dog had become known in Canada for actively seeking out, and then publishing, art books for such major institutions as the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Musée des beaux-arts de Montreal, the Dunlop Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Ryerson Image Centre, among others.

“We would regard them [Black Dog] as a colleague,” says Susanne Alexander, publisher at Goose Lane, Canada’s oldest independent press and an occasional publisher of art books. “I feel sad for them because I think they were very ambitious in publishing highly illustrated books, and they had a very active Canadian list.”

Other Canadians express less pity, and more anger, over Black Dog’s final years, alleging that right up until the end, they were signing contracts and taking money from our nation’s art institutions to fund old printers’ bills. One thing is certain: key problems and potentials remain in terms of discussing the future of art-book publishing in Canada.

“I absolutely don’t think that [Black Dog’s] collapse indicates art catalogues are not viable or worth producing,” says Jonathan Middleton, a curator who of late has co-founded the art, design and publishing service Information Office in Vancouver. “I don’t think we’d make the same observation about a failed art gallery. Maybe the lessons here are that art catalogues are not always viable in the conventional book trade. Much like art, they’re an odd economy unto themselves.”

While Middleton and his Information Office colleagues work on a variety of art-publishing projects, from websites to vinyl LPs, he says books are a “time-tested” and “future-proof” technology that still offers many advantages in building “criticism and art history in the long term.” Other curators and art-world figures agree with him, even some of those who have been affected by the Black Dog bankruptcy.

“There is still a commitment to make the books happen from our side,” says Nigel Prince, director of the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. “There is something about a physical publication that operates at a completely different timescale to an event or exhibition,” he notes, and “there is something very importantly to do with scholarly activity” as well as offering exhibited artists “the main monographic publication” they might ever have.

The CAG has two book projects affected by the Black Dog bankruptcy: one on Julia Dault and the other on Kevin Schmidt. Both were partnerships with other Canadian galleries (the Power Plant and the Kamloops Art Gallery, respectively) and both were at the final stages of publication, with all printer proofs approved and signed off in late 2017. Prince was waiting for the books to be delivered when the Black Dog bankruptcy was announced in mid-January.

“We are not particularly hopeful to get any monies back,” says Prince of the Black Dog insolvency. “What we are trying to do is receive the design files … whereby we could just go to print here in Canada.”

“There remains interest in art books,” says Robin Metcalfe, president of the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization and director of Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax. Metcalfe points to the popularity of events like the New York Art Book Fair, and the growth of related fairs in Canada and beyond. He compares “the often proclaimed death of the art book” to “the death of painting and the death of photography—various things that have been claimed to die without actually dying.”

On a related note, art book fairs, along with online sales and bookstores that specialize in art publications, may be “a far more effective way or reaching a specialized readership, and I think that bodes well for diversity in art publishing,” says Middleton. Given the steep printing, permissions, purchasing and distribution costs associated with traditionally big, full-colour art catalogues, “some of the functions of the art book in the past are better done through e-documents and online presences Metcalfe claims, especially “simple provisioning of exhibition information and certain kinds of documentation.”

As a result, Metcalfe and some of his colleagues have been “experimenting with forms that move away from the art catalogue into something more like an artist bookwork… a parallel project to the exhibition. I think that’s a kind of logical move in response to the current circumstances of publication.” In parallel with Mathew Reichertz’s exhibition “Garbage” at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, which took the form of a graphic narrative installed on the walls, Metcalfe worked with Conundrum Press and Carleton University Art Gallery to publish a $20 graphic-novel version. It ended up being nominated for best experimental, unconventional or avant-garde comic at the Toronto Comic Arts Fair, reaching quite a different audience than just curators or gallery administrators.

Montreal’s Anteism has adapted to the constraints of today’s market similarly, by doing smaller-dimension books, smaller print runs, and even owning their own smaller printing shops. They recently published a book by Solange. Print on demand, at least for black-and-white books (tricky, still, for high-quality colour printing) is also an option Nigel Prince is looking at for the CAG.

Smaller enterprises like Middleton’s Information Office are venturing into distribution, long a challenge for Canadian catalogues. This longtime distribution issue is multifold: Canada is a large country, so shipping costs are high even domestically. Mainstream book distributors best service big retailers like Indigo, which are less likely to promote and showcase Canadian art catalogues. And, as in the case of Black Dog, the lure of international distribution, and the desire to use a catalogue as an international calling card, can lead some Canadians into detrimental arrangements.

While Metcalfe asserts that art catalogues are more “service to the public” than “a commercial venture,” one thing commercial publishers and art-world representatives agree on is that Canadian government support for art-related publishing is sorely lacking. “The profit margins are so small that without public funding it’s not feasible,” says Anne Bertrand, director of the Conference of Collectives and Artist-Run Centres of Canada. Yet “most art publishing projects don’t meet the criteria of the Canada Book Fund,” says Bertrand. And when she studied the Canada Council’s art publishing program, she found “less and less projects were eligible for that funding because the criteria were way too rigid.”

Indeed, “there are few publications that make it through the jury process” for art-book-specific funding, agrees Goose Lane’s Susanne Alexander. “We are constantly being told, ‘Your project is highly deserving, but there is no budget.’” The crux of the issue, says Alexander, is that art catalogues, still, “are not really designed to be commercial objects… they are caught between gallery publication and book. It’s a difficult territory to occupy.”

And it is particularly difficult territory, Middleton points out, when government might recognize the need for kicking in for some of the costs of contemporary art performances or contemporary art exhibitions, but not contemporary art publications.

Ultimately, there’s some hope this Black Dog bankruptcy can be a wake-up call for more sustainable art-publishing models in Canada. “Perhaps … this collapse, while painful and costly in the short term, may actually strengthen art publishing in Canada in the long term,” says Middleton. “Black Dog did many things right, but a lot of things wrong. I personally wasn’t happy with the quality of printing they were doing, and I think their books suffered in other ways by their rapid growth in this country. I think it’s far healthier for Canada to support a range of different publishers and producers and that publishing will be stronger for it.”

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Robert Ballantyne says:

When independent bookstores began to disappear in the 2000s art books as saleable “books” became more and more difficult. At the same time gallery shops were no longer primarily bookstores. Gifts have higher margins and easier sales. Chapters/Indigo failed to create an art book section of any merit. The Canadian Independent publishers that did continue to succeed did so through large corporate purchases. Instead of working on new collaborative publishing models with Canadian owned publishers, Canadian galleries jumped on the Black Dog band wagon.

Leah Sandals says:

Thanks for sharing these insights, Robert. I was thinking about the transformation of gallery shops away from books and towards gift items as a contributing factor too, but it didn’t make it into the article. Sad for the art-book trade, indeed.

MaryAnn Camilleri says:

Despite the news of the bankruptcy of U.K.-based Black Dog Publishing, I would like to point out that the arts-publishing industry in Canada is, in fact, demonstrating huge growth. As Director of The Magenta Foundation, Canada’s non-profit arts publisher, I see this first-hand.

Canadian publishers are enjoying real success working with Canadian galleries and international artists on publishing projects big and small, catalogue or monograph. Magenta joined forced with Division Gallery two years ago to create the /edition Toronto art book fair in partnership with Art Toronto. It encourages more people to publish their work, helping to build a bigger and better community of visual artists and their supporters.

Since the Black Dog insolvency announcement, Magenta has been reaching out to the Canadian arts community at large, offering to take the reins of abandoned projects. While we can’t recover any funds, we can regenerate the momentum of any dashed plans and move books forward.

The unfortunate circumstances at Black Dog are a clear indication that we need to look within and not abroad to achieve our publishing goals. The arts community doesn’t need to assume the worst when evaluating the news of a U.K. bankruptcy or shelve any plans. Canadian arts organizations of all stripes need to support one another. Publishing is a very worthwhile endeavour here in Canada, one that we all need to continue to champion.

Yves Trépanier says:

Ms. Camilleri’s response to the news of Black Dog’s recent bankruptcy presents a welcome change in attitude toward helping to find solutions to the problems of the Canadian art book publishing industry in Canada. Innovative and non traditional partnerships such as the one recently forged between the Magenta Foundation and Division Gallery represent new models for the art book publishing Canada and its related distribution networks. The sharing and consolidation of capital within the context of a well thought out and realistic business plan is one of the keys to success and for longer-term sustainability for any publishing company today, something Black Dog Press never quite understood.

Ms. Camilleri is correct in her assertion that there is “huge growth in the arts publishing industry.” In addition to the work of the Magenta Foundation, organizations like the Art Canada Institute and its online Canadian Art Book project led by Sara Angel have – since 2013 – led the way in online publishing and the distribution of online art books that are also available in hard copy on demand. The Art Canada Institute publishes 6 books a year available in French and English. And let’s not forget the book publishing department at the National Gallery of Canada, with recent publications on Jack Bush, the National Gallery of Canada collection, and Chris Cran, whose book won 17 national and international awards in 2017 and 2018. Even our own modest enterprise, TrépanierBaer gallery, has published numerous exhibition catalogues over the years, most recently Evan Penny: Ask Your Body in co-operation with the publishing house SKIRA. 2,500 books were printed and distributed worldwide through our own efforts, SKIRA’s distribution network, and Amazon. No government funding was involved. Where there’s a will, there’s away.

At a time when the Canadian art community is flourishing with several generations of artists who have attained critical and commercial success – both at home and abroad – this is not the time to fall back on tired models and holler for more government funding, but rather to look forward to new models for developing a thriving and sustainable art books publishing industry: one that can enthusiastically celebrate our history, and support the achievements of our living artists.

Yves Trépanier
TrépanierBaer Gallery

Leah Sandals says:

Hi Yves,

Thanks for taking time to comment—I know you have a lot of expertise to share in this area. And I would be quite happy if the art-book trade in Canada was to grow in the years to come. And I salute you on the successes you were able to achieve with Evan Penny’s Venice exhibition and book.

I wonder if there is still a place for both models, or for hybrid public-private models, as you point out—certainly the National Gallery of Canada, which you point to, depends on a lot of public funding to create its exhibitions and publications, no? The ACI, which does amazing and much-needed work, yes, is also a charity, so issues tax receipts for donations—many other publishers, art-book and otherwise, do not have the ability or privilege to do this in raising private capital. (Canadian Art itself does too, through its charitable foundation—and I personally feel we are fortunate for that, especially in today’s magazine-publishing landscape.)

I wonder: If Canadian Heritage is interested in increasing the reach of Canadian artists abroad, whether supporting publishing art books, online, in print, or both, would be seen as a means of furthering that? I guess I wonder how the government’s aims for distributing Canadian artists’ work abroad, and at home, could dovetail better with publishing endeavours of many different kinds. Open to your further thoughts.

Nadine Monem says:

To echo the esteemed Ms Camilleri, the collapse of one company should not cast any shadow on the vibrant and growing Canadian art book sector. As director of common-editions, an art book publisher working in both Canada and the UK, I have been encouraged and inspired by the growth of the Canadian arts publishing community over recent years—from new fair and platforms, such as EDITION and Toronto Art Book Fair, to new ways of publishing and disseminating Canadian books and printed matter. The sector is thriving.

Of course we have had to change the way we publish (and the way we distribute) art books as the book market itself undergoes fundamental changes, but the fact remains that art book publishing is undergoing a new flourishing — not just in Canada but all over the world.

common-editions joins Ms Camilleri in offering support for any institutions who are affected by Black Dog Publishing’s collapse.

Leah Sandals says:

Thanks Nadine and MaryAnne for your comments. I agree that there are many strong instances of arts-based publishers in Canada, and art books in particular (not necessarily art catalogues, though).

Part of my interest in taking on this piece was having chatted with some CDN book publishers about Black Dog’s previous popularity among Canadian galleries, and wondering if there was possibility there for Canadian publishers to step in (this is before the insolvency). These publishers remained quite skeptical about the possibilities for publishing art catalogues in particular in Canada. Under these conditions, it was not a surprise to me that Black Dog managed to engage (however subvertly, in the end) much Canadian business.

I wish you and others well with coming to the aid of galleries affected, and moving forward art books in Canada. I write about the difficulties of this field because I care about its continued success too.

Margaret Chrumka, Kamloops Art Gallery says:

Greatly appreciate the thoughtful nature of this article. It is absolutely wrenching to be so close to supporting an artist with a publication and find that the effort must begin anew and resources found again. Thank you Leah for pulling the voices and insights of Jonathan Middleton, Nigel Prince and Robin Metcalfe together with an emphasis on the importance of the tangible in support of artists and art. As we do, we will persevere.

Chris Labonte, Figure 1 Publishing says:

Thank you for writing this piece, Leah. In truth, as MaryAnn states, the Canadian art book publishing scene is probably more vibrant than it has been in a long time. I encourage Canadian Art to do a full article on the nature of art book publishing in Canada. In the past five years we have gone head-to-head with Black Dog, working with galleries across the country including the National Gallery, MOA, the McMichael, the VAG and the Audain Art Museum. Our mandate is to publish art books of the highest order and to make them available to art book fans here in Canada, and beyond. (Our international distributor is Prestel Publishing in London.) I feel for the galleries and artists who have been left in the lurch because of Black Dog’s insolvency. I also feel there is a much happier story to tell, and I hope that Canadian Art will tell that story.
Let me know how I can help.

Leah Sandals says:

Thanks Chris! I had wanted to include Figure 1 and its upcoming Beau Dick catalogue being produced with the Audain Art Museum, but it wasn’t possible in the end to include. I agree there is much more to plumb here and I hope we can provide more coverage in future.

Vera Frenkel says:

Very glad to see this discussion, and appreciate the positive outcomes that are being proposed now that Black Dog is no longer an option. Not only are major public galleries affected; I learned about the BDP bankruptcy from OPTICA, the Montreal-based artist-run centre caught by the sudden insolvency in the midst of publishing their important “Archi-féministes” catalogue. Sending them the link to this article and responses may reduce the disappointment and suggest alternatives. Thank you!

Leah Sandals says:

Thanks for the update, Vera. I hope the Optica publication somehow moves forward as well. Certainly, there are publishers out there who may be picking up these projects—or if complete PDFs exist, perhaps a printer could be found.

Vera Frenkel says:

Hello Leah, your reply has just appeared. Thank you. I was just surprised that my first comment was apparently still being vetted. Seems there was a timing hiccup. Thanks again for the article. All the best. V.

Vera Frenkel says:

Left a comment over a week ago, and it’s still “awaiting moderation”?

Leah Sandals says:

Hi Vera, sorry to hear you can’t see your comment; it was approved soon after soon after you wrote it. I can see it in my browser and have been able to do so since we approved it. I will forward this concern to our web developer to see if they can pinpoint a problem.

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