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The New York Art Book Fair / Shannon Michael Cane

The curator of Printed Matter's massive art book fair on the origins and goals of the annual multifaceted late summer publishing event.

Interview By Matt Putrino, September 19, 2013

Images courtesy of nyartbookfair.com

For eight years, the venerable nonprofit New York art book store Printed Matter has presented its New York Art Book Fair, part publishing conference, part performance series, and of course part independent publishing market. The fair takes place over the course of three days in the halls and galleries of MoMA’s PS1 outpost in Queens, with a supplementary zine tent called The Schoolyard in the museum’s courtyard. In 2012, the fair featured 283 booksellers, antiquarians, artists, and independent publishers from twenty-six countries, and was attended by more than 25,000 people.

We spoke with Shannon Michael Cane, the curator of this year’s events, about the origins and goals of the fair while he took a short break from loading boxes and tables in advance of this Thursday night’s opening.

I’m interested in the decision to operate the fair and the bookstore as a nonprofit. It seems like a very conscientious choice.
The origins of Printed Matter are all reactionary to the greedy gallery systems of New York City. In 1976, people like Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard were watching all their friends struggle as artists and took the idea of the book as an art object. And were like, Who wants to wait to get a gallery show? Who wants to wait to get representation? Who wants to buy into the boushy world of the art world? Let’s just make artist’s books and use the form as an artist’s expression. We can make a book for five dollars, and give it out to our friends for free. Or sell it for 10 bucks. It’s an exchange of ideas, a whole exchange of what art is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be for everyone.

Can you tell me about putting on the first Art Book Fair?
We had a rocky start. We were affiliated with a bunch of other organizations, and a couple of them weren’t not for profit. It’s not a good story, but we did it for a couple years, and one year they didn’t like the direction we were taking the fair, and we weren’t liking the direction they were taking it. So we had a break up. The next year, [that organization] did a fair, and we started the Art Book Fair. Needless to say, the Editions and Artists’ Book Fair doesn’t exist anymore, and ours gets bigger and better every year. 

The year that we decided to have a split, Max Schumann who has worked at Printed Matter all of his working life, he’s been there for 25 years, said the breaking point was on the opening night when we still shared the fair with these other institutions, they brought in all these rich collectors. We got asked to book the entertainment for the opening night preview. So there are all these rich collectors at the preview, and the entertainment starts and it was Thurston Moore. Who actually interned at Printed Matter way back when he was a young dude. He got asked to do a performance, and he did a crazy noise performance and freaked out all the rich collectors. No one knew what to do, everyone was freaking out, people were leaving. Everyone was looking at us, telling us to turn the volume down and make him stop. The next morning we got an email from the other people involved telling us they didn’t want us to do the fair anymore. It’s Thurston Moore’s fault we branched out and started our own fair.

We just wanted to run it the way we wanted to run it. We wanted to run it as a non profit, we wanted to keep the prices for booths at an appropriate level so everybody can exhibit. If you want a zine booth at the New York Art Book Fair, it’s like $150 for a table for three days. That’s nothing. Some of our booths that we give to, you know, Richard Prince, those booths are quite expensive. But that helps keep the other booths cheap. It’s all offset from each other.

Those zine booths are in The Schoolyard tent outside, right?
Yeah, this year we had to cut back the space a little because on two of the floors [of the museum] they’re installing the Mike Kelley show. This year we only have space for 280 exhibitors and we got nearly 600 applications to exhibit. A lot of them come from people who want the cheap zine booths. That’s our most requested booth, the zine courtyard section.

What do you look for in the application process?
This is the first fair that I’ve curated myself. Previously the fair has been run by AA Bronson, who is our director. He resigned this year. He moved to Berlin and handed the fair off to me. Originally the fair was a curated fair by AA Bronson, so there wasn’t an application process. He was very controlling in how his vision of the fair and who he wanted at the fair. It was pretty much invite only and totally curated by one person. For me, taking over the fair from someone who had run it for 8 years, I just wanted to see who we might be missing out on. So that’s why we opened up an online application. it being my first fair I tried to mix it up a little. I didn’t want just the same people coming back every year. I just wanted to get some new exhibitors in. There’s a lot of long standing relationships with Printed Matter that I invited back, but I tried to slip in as many new exhibitors as I can.

So I guess when I’m looking for exhibitors, you should think of the whole fair as one show. So I’m trying to get the best of everything. We’re trying to incorporate countries that haven’t exhibited at the fair. When we go through the applications it’s like, Oh, here’s an independent publisher from Indonesia that makes cool zines, and they want to come to New York for the weekend. Let’s have a publisher from Indonesia, because when else are you going to see that stuff in New York City.

That’s an awesome opportunity.
I’ve worked at Printed Matter for five years, and one of the best things about Printed Matter is that we have an open submissions policy, so we get submissions from all around the world everyday. That’s the best part about working there. Opening up the mail and seeing a book some kid made somewhere in the world who knows what Printed Matter does. The fair is an extension of that. We want to showcase what’s going on in the world of independent publishing, we want to just show the best of this kind of movement. 

Do you give any advice to first time publishers showing up about how to get the most out of the fair?
Here’s my background, I’m from Australia. In 2006 I was living in Melbourne and I published an art almanac, and I knew what Printed Matter was, and they sold my zine-meets-magazine type thing. AA Bronson invited me to come to the fair, and I flew all the way from Australia to come to New York for the weekend, and I had a booth next to Nieves from Zurich. All these people that I always read about, and one day I’m sitting at an exhibition about artists’ books with all my peers. I’m big fans of all those people. It was super overwhelming, but such an amazing experience to know that people do these projects for love. No one does it for the money, it’s just that you want to create something and you’re a fan of printed materials, so you do it.

I guess my advice for people who exhibit at the fair, people that come to the fair leave with hundreds of dollars of books. It’s a buying market. These are the types of people that are collectors, so they have shelves full of zines, and artist’s books, and monographs. You’ve got to cover your costs somehow, so publish as many things as you can. Bring them to the fair, launch them at the fair. Make a limited edition of your book. If it’s a photography book, do a limited signed and numbered edition of 50. People want to buy. People have started to referring to us as some sort of affordable art fair as well. We specialize in artist’s books, but there are so many kinds of multiples and editions, and original artworks that are related to the production of artist’s books. You can come to the Art Book Fair and pick up a bunch of books, but you can pick up art as well.

We tell people to showcase as much as they can. If they come in from California and their friends can’t get a booth, show your friends’ books. You’re showcasing a whole community of you and your friends. There’s a lot of people that do come here and if their friends don’t get in, or their friends only have one zine, people always bring other people’s publications. That’s the beauty of this fair, it’s a total swap meet of DIY publishers.

What are some of the lectures booked this year?
Genesis P-Orridge is doing a presentation. I always like to see what Gen has to say. We’ve got a Bruno Munari exhibition, and there’s a presentation by an Italian publisher about Bruno Munari books. I really like Erik Kessels from Kesselskramer in Amsterdam, he’s doing a presentation about his publications.

On top of that David Senior, who’s one of the head librarians at the MoMA, he does a thing called The Classroom, which every year blows me away who he gets to come in. If I was a student I would totally come to the fair and just sit in David Senior’s Classroom for the weekend. So many amazing things happen in that space, and David Senior is such an amazing guy, he’s got so much knowledge.

The New York Art Book Fair is free and open to the public from September 19-22. Check out nyartbookfair.com for a full list of exhibitors and events.