#SYPconf15: Through the gift shop and beyond: an introduction to museum publishing

Following the engaging, global-looking keynote address at The Society of Young Publishers’ annual conference (which I have covered in a previous post here), the audience split off to listen to a vast range of industry speakers share their knowledge. We were faced with five different streams: Best Career Foot Forward, Let’s Get Topical, The Innovative Publisher, New Frontiers, and What Next For Our Modern Business?

Drawn by my interest in art and cross-media content, I headed to ‘Publishing in the Arts’ in the New Frontiers track. This talk was opened by Vanessa Garden from Tate Publishing.

Tate Publishing have produced titles covering Alexander McQueen to David Bowie to J. M. W. Turner, and often publish books to coincides with their collections. Museum publishers’ titles frequently feature in the Art Book Bestseller lists, but why do they publish their own books?

  • A museum has a brand and culture and publishing their own titles extends the museum’s mission.
  • They will often commission titles that are linked to collections and special exhibitions (as well as a dedicated range of artist biographies and student study books).matisse_interview_14635_medium
  • They are able to offer a range of titles to cater to all audiences – different levels of interest, knowledge, format and price. E.g. Matisse Cut Outs exhibition: Exclusive Matisse interview book, Cut Outs exhibition catalogue, Tate biography of Matisse, children’s colouring books.
  • They make available current supporting research and scholarship connected to the works.
  • Books contribute to the visitor experience: a physical reminder of intangible experience.
  • To generate a profit.

Whilst museum publishers may be less able to follow trends because of their need to align with the brand, they do have other advantages. Firstly, they have access a dedicated retail channel through the museum itself and are able to work with a range of experts from other departments to produce/promote their content. For example: working with the digital departments to create a multi-channel experience, or creating colour-in placements for the restaurants which direct people back to the shop.

Secondly, museums are part of a network of touring partners (where the agnes_martin_catalogue_16525_mediumexhibition goes next) and Tate will often sell on rights to the Tate catalogues. In these cases it is important to consider cultural differences and accommodate varying artistic and commercial preferences: different dynamics, voices, audience.
In the UK, the Tate chose a photographic cover for Agnes Martin‘s book but the cover differed in Germany where it was thought Martin was new to their audience and therefore required a safer cover that demonstrated her work.

Museum publishing does face it’s own challenges though. Cuts to government funding to arts have meant that many are looking at publishing partnerships, outsourcing their catalogue production to larger publishers. This way the museums still have catalogues, and may even be able to sell more, however, they lose the intellectual property rights to their content.

Another threat is digitalisation. Whilst some of the Tate’s backlist has been digitised and they have created some apps (mainly children’s), illustrated books still struggle in this format and they are looking to work closer with the Tate gallery’s digital projects to counter this.

We then heard from Emily Ardizzone, Digital Fashion Projects at Bloomsbury.

From studying fashion to interning for fashion/textile departments in museums to freelancing in catalogue production, Emily made it very clear that it was her subject knowledge that nailed her this position.

9781472580535.jpgAll books in Bloomsbury’s visual arts department are academic and so the majority of books are bought by libraries, academics and students. Interestingly, a large number of students of visual arts have learning difficulties so all books and products are published with this in mind.

Digital projects are central to Bloomsbury’s production focus (all visual arts academic titles will have a digital project with the next 5-10 years) and this is what Emily focused on in her talk.

The Berg Fashion Library is a huge online, subscription-based fashion museum, which hosts 30,000 images, 90 eBooks, and lesson plans. Through partnerships with museums, Bloomsbury offer a wealth of images, all contextualised with articles, linking back to the original museum website to drive traffic and promote the museum’s collections. This goes to show how collaboration can enhance content.

70,000 slides are being digitized, dating from 1970s-2000s, covering key moments in recent fashion history including McQueen’s graduate collection and the rise of the supermodel. Unlike other collections, these will not be heavily curated and will give a more balanced and insightful view of the clothes and models’ movement and expression. All images are also being tagged with Berg Fashion Library’s own taxonomy to make them discoverable online. Biographies are also included for every designer featured in archive – no matter how small.

The site is regularly updated with new content and new functionalities, and they are currently building an enhanced timeline to give full history of dress by country.

Emily’s advice:

  • Cultural sensitivity is important – some images are inappropriate in certain territories.
  • A basic understanding of copyright is a huge advantage.
  • Work with other departments – if the rights team think the title will not work elsewhere, is it a feasible project?
  • When working with authors: demonstrate a basic subject knowledge, engage, express yourself confidently.
  • Formal digital skills may not be essential but a knowledge of user experience and site design is valuable. You could review websites as practise, or even review the site of a company your applying for.

This session gave a fantastic insight into areas of publishing that many don’t consider. But even if arts publishing isn’t for you, the attitude towards collaboration, innovation and digital can inspire everyone.


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