This month, INK shifts from the populist Art21 blog to the specialized Art in Print website (where it complements the journal) and a reassessment is in order. Because AiP’s publication already offers reviews of exhibitions and new publications on prints, as well as critical analysis of artists and movements, the online column will no longer focus exclusively on these topics. Rather, the bi-monthly INK posts will provide broad observations and synthesis of trends and events related to the print world, as well as criticism on specific subjects when appropriate.
It seems apt to begin with an assessment of the state of the print at large. The past five years have been a time of major transformation as the print community grapples to keep pace with larger forces in society and culture. Chief among these is a shift from an analogue to digital, not only in communications, but also in day-to-day life. Likewise, the influence of the ultra-wealthy on the art market has impacted organizations as diverse as galleries, auction houses, art fairs, and museums. In some cases, traditional roles and approaches have shifted and institutional values reprioritized to make way for changes.
Prints and the Wider Art World
Perhaps one of the most intriguing recent developments in the field is the espousal of print-based media by a number of contemporary artists who do not define themselves as printmakers, but feel that it is the most appropriate medium in which to express themselves in today’s media-saturated environment—a context that renders the hand-produced object antiquated and quaint. Wade Guyton’s exhibition at the Whitney last fall is perhaps the most recent and well-publicized example; likewise, mega-artist Gerhard Richter showed only digital prints in his 2012 exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery. The precedent is Warhol’s of course, but it has been building steam in recent years and is likely to blossom further in the near future (see INK, April 2011 for an earlier discussion).
Changes in the Media
In the press, followers of the print now have a variety of both analogue and digital resources from which to choose. Though the folding of Art on Paper in early 2010 left a major void, it was filled in the spring of 2011 by Art in Print, which is more focused, comprehensive, and scholarly than its predecessor. Originally printed only in electronic form, it is now also available in hard copy. Printeresting.org was founded in 2008 and has evolved from a sprightly upstart to a sophisticated conglomerate of commentary on a host of topics related to prints. The founding editors were awarded an Arts Writers Grant from the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation in 2011 (for an interview and further history, see INK, August 2012). Meanwhile, the steadfast scholarly journal Print Quarterly named a new editor for the first time since it was founded in 1984. Rhoda Eitel-Porter, former Curator and Head of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan Library & Museum, replaced founding editor David Landau in 2011.
Demise of the E|AB Fair
Two seismic announcements in May, first by MoMA, then by Susan Inglett, augur a change in the landscape for the print world. The offerings at New York Print Week will likely be severely curtailed this fall, as the Editions|Artists’ Books (E|AB) Fair is set to fizzle, leaving 60-plus exhibitors without a venue in which to present their latest projects. Susan Inglett, who was a founding organizer and the backbone of E|AB announced in late May that she would be stepping down in her role as organizer to focus on her eponymous gallery. The E|AB Fair has provided a feisty counterpoint to the staid IFPDA Print Fair for the past 15 years, and it is unclear whether a successor to Inglett will step up to the plate. Inglett notes “there were not many opportunities for young publishers to exhibit at art fairs or otherwise” when E|AB was founded in 1998, but “today there are many more opportunities…I hope [the fair] has played some role in that change and in a heightened awareness and knowledge of this vital medium” (for further discussion of the history of both fairs, see INK October 2012 and Art in Print Vol 2, No. 3 [Sept.-Oct. 2012]: 45). When reached for comment, Michele Senecal, Executive Director of the International Fine Print Dealers Association, emphasized her admiration for Inglett and stated “it’s hard to imagine a Print Week without the E|AB. It will be a tough act to follow but I think there is enough vitality in the community at large that we will see something rise in its place.”
In early May, MoMA revealed that it will merge the Departments of Drawings and Prints and Illustrated Books into a single Department of Prints and Drawings effective July 1, prompting a number of questions about how the institution will allocate resources under the new structure. As the leading public institution for scholarship on modern and contemporary prints, these changes will have a significant impact. Christophe Cherix, who has headed the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books since October of 2010, is the appointed head of the newly-formed department. Reached via the press office, Cherix indicated that he prefers to postpone commentary on any changes that will result until he has been seated for several months. Still it is likely that, in spite of the loss of the “books” designation in the title, there will be an uptick in attention to that category due to the appointment of David Platzker as a curator in the department, effective May 15. Platzker is a respected expert the area of artists’ publications and ephemera – or what he calls “stuff” – and is well-known for his co-authorship of the Claes Oldenburg graphics catalogue raisonné, his role as former director of Printed Matter, and his project space Specific Object (now closed).
The move is part of a recent trend of appointing officials from the commercial sector to museum positions, notably the controversial role of Jeffrey Deitch as Executive Director of MoCA Los Angeles. The trend reflects a perception that “dealers, in the exhibitions they handily organize, make curators look plodding and unresponsive to the zeitgeist,” according to Amy Cappellazzo, Chairman of Post-war & Contemporary Development for Christie’s. Cappellazzo’s remarks were offered in the context of a roundtable discussion on “Creativity and Commerce” with sculptor Jeanne Silverthorne, critic Michael Brenson, and curator and art school dean Robert Storr published in last month’s Art in America. Elaborating further, Cappellazzo commented that, in the digital era, “all institutional authority stands to be questioned, dissected, and analyzed, museums especially must be careful that their authority doesn’t go the way of the [television] networks’,” noting that the existing museum model is a dinosaur of the Industrial Revolution (Art in America 101, no. 5: 69).
As museums adapt to a digital culture, what role will prints play in the museum model of the future? One positive development is that many institutions now present high-quality information online, from collections-based search engines with digital images to online catalogues raisonné (Gemini G.E.L. at the National Gallery and Louise Bourgeois at MoMA). In related news, a number of museums have joined together to set online imaging standards in an effort to standardize file quality across the field, enabling researchers to compare multiple impressions from the same edition among various collections (see further discussion by guest columnist Julia Vodrey Hendrickson in INK, March 2013). One of the first museums to enact this initiative is the Davison Art Center at Wesleyan University, which has standardized and uploaded images of its first-edition impressions of Francisco Goya’s Caprichos for open access. Likewise, some museums have used technology in the galleries to enhance the viewer’s experience. Among the most effective examples is the scanning of books or portfolios to be presented in an interactive format that allows visitors to virtually “thumb” through each spread. This approach was employed to stunning effect in the 2002 exhibition The Russian Avant-Garde Book: 1910-1934 at MoMA, as well as at numerous exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and throughout Europe since. Hopefully, the new ubiquity of such technology will bring it into the realm of affordability for other museums with limited budgets.
On the downside, institutional resources are frequently diverted away from prints in favor of more “sexy” initiatives, such as showy expansions, as museums compete for limited charitable gifts and vie for the public’s attention in our media-saturated world. At one extreme is eliminating curatorial stewardship of the print collection and staffing minimally for upkeep, effectively downgrading prints to a study collection. Some contemporary art museums, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, have always handled their print collections this way, but encyclopedic museums are now following suit. The precedent was set by the Brooklyn Museum in 2006 when it restructured traditional departmental categories, effectively eliminating several curatorial positions. As a result, the prints collection was left without a dedicated curator. It now functions primarily as a collection to be mined by other curators in the institution whose focus is primarily period-focused, rather than medium-focused.
This model has been adopted by a few other encyclopedic museums in recent years, including the Nelson-Atkins Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), both of which have opted not to fill recent curatorial vacancies in prints (full disclosure: I held the MAM position from 2003-05). George McKenna, who served as print curator at the Nelson-Atkins for over 45 years, died in 2007 and has not been replaced. Likewise, when MAM’s former curator of prints and drawings Mary Weaver Chapin left over a year ago for the Portland Art Museum, the museum’s administration decided not to fill the vacancy. Leaders of Print Forum, a support group of MAM, have contested the decision in meetings with the administration. According to former President Sally Duback, “The reason they gave for not filling the position was that they were following a trend. But, at the end of the meeting…they agreed that it was about money.” Print Forum hopes to raise funds to endow the position. According to Duback, the decision has already caused two potential donors to reconsider giving their collections to the museum. Director Daniel Keegan and Chief Curator Brady Roberts did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
A tempered approach to downsizing has been taken by the MFA Houston, LACMA, and the Blanton Museum of Art at UT-Austin. Although the MFA Houston has not yet replaced the distinguished curator Barry Walker, who retired as Head of the Prints and Drawings Department in August of 2011 (and, sadly, died unexpectedly several months later), the museum has retained Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings Dena Woodall, who held her position when Walker left. With the 2009 appointment of Britt Salvesen, LACMA effectively merged the Curator of Photography and Curator of Prints and Drawings positions into one, though the departments themselves remain distinct. On the other hand, the Blanton, which in 2010 divvied up the responsibilities for works on paper to various curators “according to their specific expertise and research areas,” has reconsidered, reinstating the position of Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings and European Paintings in 2012 with the appointment of Francesca Consagra.
Several major institutions have seen a change of the guard in recent years – due to the gravitational pull of these museums, the new appointees are in a unique position to influence paradigms in scholarship and best practice across the field. Two highly respected scholars of Old Master Prints have retired; Peter Parshall from the National Gallery of Art in 2010 and Antony Griffiths from the British Museum in 2011. The vacancies were filled by Jonathan Bober (formerly of the Blanton), and Hugo Chapman, respectively. As previously noted, when Deborah Wye retired in 2010, Christophe Cherix became The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Chief Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA. The aforementioned vacancy left by Eitel-Porter at the Morgan in 2011 was filled by Linda Wolk-Simon, previously with the department of prints and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the Art Institute of Chicago, two former print curators have recently moved into administrative roles. Douglas Druick, who once headed the prints and drawings department, was named President and Eloise W. Martin Director in 2011 and Martha Tedeschi was promoted to Deputy Director for Art and Research last summer. Victoria Sancho Lobis will assume the position of Prince Trust Associate Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings in her place, effective September 15. Though Tedeschi is still involved in occasional curatorial projects of her own, she is primarily focused on the duties of her new position, which involve facilitating curatorial research projects museum-wide and overseeing the Conservation Department, Publications Department, and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries. Tedeschi will also be stepping down from her role as President of Print Council of America following its annual meeting in Montreal later this month, and will be replaced by Jim Ganz, Curator at the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Shelley Langdale, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and co-curator of Philagrafika 2010, will be the new vice president.
Numerous other changes have come about in recent years, from the establishment of an Editions department at Phillips de Pury in 2008 to the development of a mobile website for the IFPDA Print Fair. Together, these shifts indicate a new direction for the field appropriate to a 21st-century digital and global environment in which art has been transformed into a cultural product that must keep pace with the demands of consumers, for good and ill. While the deterioration of the old-guard scholarly approach in some institutions is lamentable, new developments point to a future in which the corner occupied by print enthusiasts will expand to a wider, and ultimately more lively, forum.