What makes a great exhibition catalogue?

What makes a great exhibition book? Is it the quality of the reproductions, the research the book presents, the look and feel of the book or the ability of the book to communicate its ideas engagingly? Three industry experts have their say:

Our thanks to them all for their thoughts and time.

Matt Page, Art History student at The Courtauld Institute of Art and Editor of The Courtauldian

Matt Page

One thing that always surprises me when sat in the library of my university is the number of exhibition catalogues that there are. I do not necessarily mean this in the sense that our library has lots—although it certainly does—but in recognition of the volume of exhibition catalogues that exist. The publication of catalogues seems inexorable, and, in a single month, a new slew of catalogues will arrive, adding to the teeming shelves which hold decades of books. 

Each of these books holds an opportunity. Between the covers of each catalogue is the chance to discover an artist that I have not heard of, works that I have not seen, and essays which contain new ideas about an artist’s work.

But with countless exhibitions over the world being accompanied by exhibition catalogues, there are some features which make certain catalogues better than others. For me, the best catalogues are those that contain large, vibrant reproductions of an artist’s work. Good images can allow access to artworks which may be inaccessible in person or not documented online, and being able to get an impression of these works is vital, as, after all, how can you learn about art without being about to see it? 

Lucy Myers, Managing Director, Lund Humphries

Lucy Myers

An exhibition publication, like any other, needs to justify its existence by responding to a real appetite for the subject, or by covering previously un-trod ground. From the commercial publisher’s perspective, the great exhibition catalogues are those which sell well at the exhibition and continue to sell long after the exhibition has closed. To do that, a publication should both respond to the exhibition (supplementing the visitor’s experience of the works of art with stimulating critical and contextualising writing and a wider range of images than could be displayed) and have validity as a reference book independently of the exhibition.

We favour exhibition publications which are more inherently book-like: ie, they have coherent narrative texts by single authors (rather than a series of multi-authored essays), illustrations which are integrated with the text (rather than being in separate plates sections) and a checklist of exhibited works which is hidden away at the back, or printed separately for visitors to the exhibition. We have in fact occasionally turned around the traditional exhibition-publishing model and commissioned the book first, then worked with a museum to organise an exhibition around the publication of the book. That works very well for both partners! 

Jean Marie Carey, PhD, art historian and author of germanmoderism.org

Jean Marie Carey

Naturally, I am biased but for me, the best exhibition catalogues are driven by the depth and commitment the art historians bring to the respective entries. I say art historians because while there is some great curatorial writing, I am much more interested in reading illuminating visual analysis and historical contextualisation because the art, over and above the short life of an exhibition and whatever may have driven its creation, is what lasts.

When you have a collaborative group of writers and editors who work together to bring a depth of understanding for readers to the works assembled for a show…this is a situation that can yield exceptional prose that transcends prolix academic-style writing. This is particularly the case when the writers are “superfans” of the artist’s oeuvre and not just hired guns.

My favourite recent example of this kind of alchemy was the catalogue for August Macke and Franz Marc: An Artist Friendship at Munich’s Lenbachhaus. There was a Blade Runner 2049-level of expectation about this book with since so many people both adore and know a lot about both artists. But the assembled scholars didn’t disappoint, letting both their own affection for Marc and Macke reflect on the relationship between the painters.