Much of my time lately has been occupied by preparing my entry for the Minnesota Center for Book Arts Prize. I’m very excited about this opportunity. Here’s the first part of the description:
The MCBA Prize is the first award in the United States to recognize book art from across disciplines and around the world. As such, it both celebrates the diversity of the art form and recognizes excellence in the field.
And later:
Forms, processes, traditions and approaches are open. Work may include unique book objects, altered books, graphic novels, 'zines, concrete poetry, conceptual, visual and literary works. Processes may include any printing or printmaking methods such as photo-mechanical, hand-worked, analog/digital, relief printmaking, letterpress, intaglio, and screen-printing, as well as hand-lettering. Works may be in edition or unique.
So why is this great, besides the possibility of some prize money? First of all, it’s exciting to see a prize this large ($2000 may not compare to some art prizes, but it’s good, unheard of, for books) specifically for the field. And it is theoretically going to be given out every two years (fingers crossed that their funding keeps up). But even better is what is contained in the above description. “Work may include…etc.” That’s a very broad definition of artists’ books, and it specifically mentions kinds of work that are usually on the margins, like “graphic novels, 'zines, concrete poetry, conceptual, visual and literary works.” It is work that belongs in the discussion but too often is excluded.

And here is another important part, buried in the technical details of how to apply:

“All artists who use the book format as their primary means of expression are eligible to apply.”

That is the first time I’ve seen the words, “artists,” “book format as their primary means of expression,” and “eligible” in the same sentence, even from a Book Arts Center. Which brings me around to my main point, which is about the perpetual marginalization of the field by its own practitioners (an attitude not present for this MCBA prize). Here is some text describing residency programs, first from the New York Center for Book Arts:

Up to four New York-based emerging artists will be offered space, time and support to explore the production and exhibition of artist's books and related work in year-long residencies. The purpose of this program is to promote experimentation in making book art, thus artists from all disciplinary backgrounds are encouraged to apply."

And the San Francisco Center for the Book:

The mission of the artist in residence program is to raise the profile of the artist's book as a genre in contemporary art by offering an established artist the opportunity to produce an edition of books. By encouraging talented artists new to this medium, the program hopes to bring fresh perspectives to the field and at the same time to raise awareness of the genre in the wider art community.

So, essentially, two book arts residencies, both in very great cities to have a residency in, are not open to “artists who use the book format as their primary means of expression” (though in NY it does not specifically exclude book artists) The idea is, when a residency is set up to introduce artists to the book arts, is that this will help the book arts by educating real artists, and in turn the public, about the field. But it does not in fact help the field, because it perpetuates an attitude (first evident in the book arts’ sister field of printmaking, to a certain degree in other “craft arts”) that a) the field will be instantly legitimated once the right person, or enough people, pays attention to it, and b) it will take the work of a “real” artist to accomplish this. This is the same attitude that led the Southern Graphics Council, (a printmaking group, the largest artists’ group in the country) to give a Lifetime Achievement Award to the painter Chuck Close. Because those big, technically groundbreaking prints could only have been done by an artist of the stature of Chuck Close…? With the funding of Chuck Close?

This plan, this attitude, will never work, because it constantly marginalizes the actual practitioners in the field. Bookmakers, printmakers, do not need “real” artists to do the work that will finally legitimate them. Bookmakers, printmakers, need to figure out how their work fits into the discourse of contemporary art, and then they need to fit it in by making their work relevant and bending the discourse towards that work. Books & prints are already at a severe economic disadvantage to the rest of the art world. We can affect the market, but not control it. What we can control, though, is the content and conceptual components of our own work. First, we have to believe and acknowledge that we have something to say that is worth listening to. Then we need to honestly assess what we’re saying currently. Then we need to say something worth the time of saying and listening, loudly and repeatedly.

1 comment:

Center for Book Arts said...


Thank you for bringing up an important point:
"Bookmakers, printmakers, need to figure out how their work fits into the discourse of contemporary art, and then they need to fit it in by making their work relevant and bending the discourse towards that work."

I run the studio programs here at the Center for Book Arts in NYC, including the residency program you describe here. The reason we began that program was to bring in artists from outside the discipline and introduce them to the artists already working in our studios. In this way we can encourage an exchange across disciplines, which in my experience over the past several years has encouraged book artists working here towards a better understanding of how their work relates to the larger contemporary art world, as well as helped artists new to the field to incorporate bookmaking into their practice. There's a healthy back and forth in this program that discourages the insularity that can happen when everyone already knows the same kinds of people, things, ideas. Artists work in multiple mediums; limiting our programming to focus very narrowly on one medium won’t make for an interesting program or a healthy studio environment.

What this residency program isn't, of course, is the kind of residency you often see in non-profits, which bring in 'name' artists in to "collaborate" with a master artisan, resulting in a product which then has a higher market value than it would otherwise, because of the attachment of the name to the project. I think this is what you're referring to when you mention Chuck Close. This is not what we do. We encourage artists working in multiple genres to try working in books, and we give them the tools and knowledge to help them make their own work.

What we also do, and what you don't mention here, is offer a studio residency specifically for book artists, called the Stein Scholarship for Advanced Studies in the Book Arts, which gives unlimited studio access, education and teaching opportunities to emerging book artists. This program is specifically an opportunity for younger artists already working in the field to develop their careers. We’re still working on funding sources for this program, so the stipend isn’t where I’d like it to be, but I think it should be mentioned as well to give a more accurate picture of opportunities here.

Sarah Nicholls
Program Manager
The Center for Book Arts.