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September 2016

Vol. 158 / No. 1362

Publish or be damned

FOR OVER THIRTY-FIVE years the London office of Yale University Press has been the leading publisher of art history in the English language. When we heard of a new book planned by a leading scholar in the field we expected to learn that Yale had pledged to publish it. When a bright graduate finished their thesis we hoped that Yale would publish it. When we scan our bookshelves no name appears more frequently on the spines than that of Yale. Not Yale University Press, not YUP, but Yale, we note. And the reputation of Yale University has increased in lustre from this satellite across the Atlantic. Surely it owes a considerable debt to the work of the editors whose achievement this has in large part been in the last two decades: Sally Salvesen and Gillian Malpass. It was therefore a shock for academics and curators, the authors of Yale books and their readers, in the United States and beyond, to discover that Salvesen and Malpass have been made redundant.


It is easy to imagine that professional eminence has entailed an autonomy that is inconvenient for a new management structure and there may be many reasons (chiefly, no doubt, the dwindling demand for scholarly books on art or architecture made before 1900) for a drastic change in policy, but when such senior staff depart reluctantly, with settlements conditional on non-disclosure, the suspicion of shabby treatment inevitably arises and statements about the continuing commitment to past values are sure to be greeted with scepticism. How often it is that the expensive and cumbersome machinery of modern HR results in damage to morale within an institution and to a loss of trust beyond it! We hope that Yale does remain active in the field, but priority should now be given to encouraging rival houses. Paul Holberton’s press has long been publishing some of the most valuable of British exhibition catalogues and is taking on an increasing number of scholarly books. The Modern Art Press, established to publish major monographs on twentieth-century British artists, is now extending its remit. We note that it will publish the catalogue of Italian paintings in the Ashmolean Museum. Ashgate also deserves honourable mention.


No less important than the energy, enterprise and ideals of these publishers are the imaginative and generous foundations that have made so many publications possible. The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the supporter of so many publications by Yale, is the first of these that come to mind, and it is alarming to discover that it was not consulted concerning the restructuring of Yale’s London office a mere one hundred yards away. Many smaller charities have also helped. The superb scholarly catalogues of the National Gallery, of which the latest volume (devoted to the sixteenth-century paintings from Bologna and Ferrara) has just appeared have long been funded by a grant from Holly and Arturo Melosi made through the Holly and Arthur MacGill foundation. This brings us to the topic of museums and their publication departments.


No major survey of any subject in the history of art has been more keenly awaited than Antony Griffiths’s book on the history of the print, based on the Slade lectures that he gave in Oxford last year. It is depressing to learn that this will be the last book to be published by the British Museum. Surely there are other volumes, comparable in scope and significance, that can be written by curators, or at least retired curators and academics, on topics that can be perfectly illustrated by the objects in that great Museum – or in the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose publication department now concentrates only on temporary exhibition catalogues. The preference for outsourcing need not entail a narrower commercial outlook but it does seem often to do so. To judge from what the British Museum considered to be a suitable offering to those whose imaginations had been stirred by a major exhibition on Greek and Roman sculpture, the requirement will only be to satisfy an easily measured need for souvenirs and basic introductory information. 


In all accounts of the great changes now occurring in the world of publishing, the role played by online access is invariably cited. Publishers (including Yale) are perplexed and have tended to withdraw from many of the projects that they have tentatively explored. Museums have responded in different ways. Some seem to consider that their tribute to scholarship is adequately made by consigning a miscellany of unedited academic seminar papers to a remote ‘research site’. Bold experiments have been conducted in providing scholarly information on screens near the works of art themselves, and a few of these have beensuccessful both as a way of obtaining further information on the spot and as a foretaste of what can be printed and consulted at home. But many worthy attempts to provide some online substitute for – or supplement to – an exhibition catalogue are simply buried too deeply in websites that give priority to visitor welcome (not only opening times but the obligatory visitor  feedback, however trivial, and the latest benefits for members). Little of the new scholarship available in the National Gallery’s catalogues, for example, percolates into the online information provided for the paintings. Not only does this deprive the general public of its due, but students of art history, who always look first at their screen, tend not even to know that such scholarship exists.


There is of course no need for printed and online scholarship to be thought of as mutually exclusive categories. VISTAS, founded in 2014, has been established to promote scholarly books on Renaissance and Baroque sculpture published by Harvey Miller Publishers, an imprint of Brepols,  but with copious additional photographic illustration available free of charge to us all online. Two major books have been published already. This initiative, worthy of a great university press, is largely due to an individual philanthropist, Hester Diamond. While we wait for an academic institution to recognise the prestige that will accrue should it dare to think in such an uncommercial manner; we must hope that museums recognise that their responsibility is not merely to provide access to works of art, but to describe those works fully and interpret them intelligently, to anticipate and stimulate curiosity as to their origin and meaning. Publication, therefore, in-house or outsourced, online or on paper, is not a marginal concern.