One Great Reader, Series 3, No. 8: Sharon Helgason Gallagher
If, over the past 30 years, you've purchased from a US bookstore a cool, serious and/or important art, photography, or design book by a foreign publisher, chances are high that it got to the States (and ultimately to you) via Distributed Art Publishers, aka D.A.P. Since its founding in 1990 the company has selected, catalogued, publicized, and distributed more than 25,000 different titles on art, photography, architecture, design, and visual culture from the world's most respected museums and international publishers. It's what they bring in from the international publishers that has always most captured my attention—frankly I think they're the only book distributor in America that matters and they play a most significant role in expanding the horizons of US readers.
ARTBOOK is the retail arm of D.A.P. and their attractive, dense seasonal catalogs are essential knowledge and awareness resources. Truly, don't miss them, they're in print and online. That's ARTBOOK who handles the shops at MOMA P.S.1 and at Hauser & Wirth in LA, which is why both always have such compelling inventory. Two pro tips regarding ARTBOOK and their website: In the upper right hand corner of the site there is a square box that says "SPECIAL OFFER | MoMA PS1 | SAVE 25% TODAY." (During the holidays it goes up to 40%...) Use it, use it often! You also get free shipping, so use it, use it often! On the left hand side of the site there is a long smart list of curated art libraries. Consult it the next time you want or need to buy something for someone you like.
Overseeing all this from day one right up to the present is Sharon Helgason Gallagher, who is the President and Executive Director of ARTBOOK and D.A.P. Music and sports have their Halls of Fame, Hollywood has its Walk. For some stupid reason US publishing doesn't do the same. If they did, I find it without question that its inaugural class would have to include Sharon. -Wes Del Val
WDV: Who is publishing books who makes everything they do, from the content to design to marketing, etc, always seem highly relevant to the “right now” when the book is released?
SHG: Although they are not in the illustrated or art area, I’d like to salute the New Press in this regard. They are razor focused on the content and let everything else (from design to marketing) flow from the purposeful meaning of the book through to execution on the commercial front.
I’m pleased you chose to mention a non-art book publisher. Are there any others? I’m especially intrigued since you are in the same business but deal in such different, specific genres.
Again, looking beyond D.A.P.'s focus on arts and visual culture, I'll also give a shout-out to Haymarket Books, The Feminist Press, M.I.T., and, of course, to Semiotexte. All of these houses are laser-focused on a mission and have the wisdom to stay disciplined.
One of the insights I had early on in the history of D.A.P. was the importance of saying "no" to a good book or imprint that was outside of our mission. As I've said many times at staff meetings, especially as new people have joined the team, companies can ruin themselves by taking on that one successful title outside of their field: it can end up creating a slippery slope. So many American art book publishers "slid down that slippery slope" in the 1980s and ended up as lifestyle imprints.
What are books you were a page or two from abandoning but ended up becoming very rewarding reads?
Jill Lepore’s These Truth: A History of the United States. I picked this up when it first came out largely because I actually never took a class in US history (having grown up partly abroad). Little did I know that these past two years would have become a lesson in American History in their own right!
They certainly did!
If you didn’t take a formal US history class growing up—to which I say good, why should foreign students have to study our history, we soon enough shove ourselves down your throats as adults anyway—what were influential things you read that made you want to come to America?
Oh, let me clarify: I was born in Pittsburgh, PA, and went to elementary school in Washington D.C. When I was ten years old, my father came home one night and said we were moving to Germany for his business. So, at ten, I ended up in a German school—without knowing a word of the language. We came back to the States when I was in high school, but I left a year early and never took that standard 12th grade American History class! I benefited enormously from my time abroad, but I will admit that it left odd gaps in both my formal education and in my ability to grasp late 1960s and early 1970s American pop culture references!
Ah I see, thank you for clarifying! Luckily plenty of books have been written about American pop culture from those years for you to fill any of those gaps.
What are the sections you’d have in your dream bookstore?
I’d love a section called something like “Print Culture” displaying books on the history of book making, design and publishing; print journalism; magazine design; artist’s books, etc. What makes efforts at eclectic shelves like this tricky is that it is not easy to shelve books in two different areas of the store (both administratively and in terms of budget). But you said “dream bookstore”! (This could also lead us to a discussion of the role that industry BISAC and B.I.C. categories play in the way readers discover books, but that is a topic in its own rights.)
I hint you have issues with BISAC/BIC codes—and I don’t blame you—so can we discuss more? For people who don’t know they are category classification codes used within publishing to identify the genre of a title being published, and form part of the book’s metadata.
So, here's the deal on subject matter classifications in publishing. Over many decades, publishing professionals have volunteered their time to serve on the Book Industry Standards Group's various committees. The subject codes—or BISACs—they have developed over the course of decades are used throughout the publishing and bookseller communities. At D.A.P., we have lobbied to enhance codes for art, photography, architecture, and design. Beyond proposing subgenres, we also successfully introduced the designations "By Artist" and "By Photographer" so that an artist does not end up categorized as the "illustrator" of a monograph on his or her work. (I must admit to fantasizing about a monograph on, say, Gerhard Richter illustrated by him with little drawings of his own works!)
Concerning subject codes, one sees the history of intellectual trends—and fashions—if one looks at how these subject areas have been expanded and reorganized over time. There is a Master's thesis to be written here!
While useful, however, they can also be limiting because most stores will shelve a book based on its primary subject category. Of course, many of the most exciting titles are interesting precisely because they explore and transgress intellectual boundaries.
With online search and the use of keywords, finding books is ever easier.
So, the question is, how can bricks-and-mortar bookstores find new and engaging ways to shelve books that are less subservient to old categories? Physical bookstores could, perhaps, allow themselves to be more playful in grouping books as a way to define the particular viewpoints of their stores. That said, I want to acknowledge how labor-intensive reshelving a store can be! A lot of books to move around…
Thank you for touching upon this essential behind-the-scenes element of publishing which few consumers know or ever think about, but which has a significant effect upon their browsing and finding what they want to read.
You get to read only three books for the rest of 2021. What are they?
My own education failed me when it comes to Black writers. So I have all of the classics there ahead of me (many more than three!). So, I need to start that list with Baldwin and W.E.B. Dubois. But I still have Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century staring down at me from the bookcase—so that will be my #3 on the list.
Can I ask where you’d say your reading education succeeded?
Perhaps because my mother was an English Literature graduate student while I was little, I learned to read with a pencil in hand. This is possibly shocking for an art book person like me to admit, but I am a very physical reader. I see a book as a house that I move into, that is mine to inhabit and move around in. With non-artbooks, I feel personally empowered to crack the spine, turn down pages, underline and make copious annotations. The aim is to think the thoughts. So, that's where I'd say my reading education succeeded: in allowing me to inhabit and move around inside a text. And above all, not to venerate or idolize an author.
That last sentence belongs on bookmarks.
How much do you typically remember of what you read?
To be candid, I am not one of those people whose brains are a cornucopia of extraordinary facts to be drawn on at a moment’s notice. I so wish I were. Instead, what I take with me from a book is the physical experience—the somatic cognitive sensation—of the author’s rhythm of thought.
I love your book-as-house metaphor above and how the various physical elements are essential for quality reading.
Who and what especially causes such somatic cognitive sensations for you?
Perhaps it was the particular age at which I was immersed into the German language—like being dunked into a revival baptismal pond. My first year in Germany happened to coincide with the age at which German students enter the first year of Gymnasium, the more serious, rigid, academic schooling. I was just young enough—six months later might have been too late—but also just old enough—I was not an infant learning a language—to experience grammar and logic as rhythm. And there is no language better than that for German—with meaning held in suspense until the final end of the sentence and multiple dependent clauses. In the English language, my only comparison would be Henry James: each sentence is like a ride of its own on a boat with the dependent clauses lifting and sinking the meaning like little waves.
When in your life have you been the happiest reader?
Certainly during my college years at Yale. My boyfriend would pick me up at the library when it closed at midnight and we’d go to a dive bar and I’d recount where I was in the Phenomenology of Spirit while playing pinball to the rhythm of the dialectic!
With that rigorous mental background what led you to want to get into distributing and publishing art books?
It's a long story (as these things always are), but through happenstance I ended up working at Abbeville Press in the 1980s. I had only intended to take a year off from grad school, but it was in some ways a welcome change from the heated battles of "the analytics vs the continentals" that were raging at the time.
I was lucky to work for Bob Abrams at Abbeville at a time when the company was still very small but growing quickly and was able to get involved in pretty much every aspect of the business from contracts to book making—including making a pop up book for grownups in the early 80s that explained how a personal computer worked.
Two things became clear to me over the years: first, that museums were working with some interesting designers and perhaps didn't need publishers to put together books for them; and second, that the Europeans were by and large making books that were far superior in terms of thoughtful production quality.
Around that time, I had the good fortune to meet Daniel Power and Dieter von Graffenreid of Parkett and the idea for D.A.P. came about. That was now more than 30 years ago!
Who is writing your favorite criticism, of any kind, today?
Here I am currently without a favorite and welcome recommendations.
Then scratch “favorite.” Surely there are critics you regularly read and enjoy and for which you’d be happy to pass along your enthusiasm to us, no?
I think Science Studies, Legal Studies, and related examinations of the socioeconomic conditions of variable modes of justification and argument—in short, of constituting truth—are of the essence. For anyone who has not yet read Bruno Latour, I suggest starting with one of his earliest books, a slim volume, We Have Never Been Modern.
What’s an annual award that should exist in the art book world?
Perhaps there are too many existing awards! The Wittenborn Award from ARLIS, the Furthermore Foundation’s Alice (for which I’m honored to serve on the jury), the C.A.A.’s Charles Rufus Morey Award, the Schönste Bücher awards from the Stiftung Buchkunst, and then, of course, the various AIGA awards.
Wow, I’ve only heard of the AIGA awards. Can you please tell me a bit about the others? And might there be one, similar to your dream section in a bookstore, you wish existed?
Both ARLIS and C.A.A. principally recognize art historical scholarship. I guess the award I would like to see would be a well-funded annual prize for artists' books. The entire field is gaining recognition but is, as we know, caught in a long-standing series of debates about what exactly an artist's book is. At the same time, mainly through Printed Matter's efforts, artists' books have a much higher level of recognition in the art world than ever before.
You have to give the same books to someone who is 20, someone 40, and someone 60. Which titles would you be confident they’d all three really enjoy?
One can never re-read George Eliot’s Middlemarch enough times! For me, it is the "hinge" novel: while the truly existential dilemma of women vis-à-vis property ownership undergirds many of the great earlier British novels, in Dorothea, we finally have a woman who can, in effect, survive on her own means and consequently can actually attempt to be the author of her own life.
Are you a big re-reader in general?
Not as much a re-reader as I hope to be in my old age! With Covid, my husband Skuta and I have retreated to our house out by the Delaware River and have boxes upon boxes of books still to unpack. I dream of the day when I can sit among my "friends" on the shelves and pull them down to reread and ponder what I might have meant or been thinking in my marginal notes.
What do you most long for now which you never missed reading 10+ years ago?
New Left political economy. But the world has changed so dramatically, and the scale of wealth differentials between the very, very wealthy—the top 1%—is now back to where it was in the 1920s, so movements and texts coming out of the New Left and post 1960s radicalism may no longer fit the bill. I regularly check in on the Review of Radical Political Economics, Dissent, Monthly Review, Naomi Klein in The Intercept, etc. But at this juncture, I am also trying to really see what is going on across the political spectrum and to read some conservative sources on a regular basis as part of my media diet. Finally, as a small business owner, I am on the hunt for a news and opinion site that would address both the challenges and opportunities I have. But to date, I have not found that source.
How many book fairs have you been to in your career and can you share highlights of special times that have occurred at any of them?
Some years ago, I received the Frankfurt Book Fair "cake" and the certificate for 25 years of attendance. And then if you add the artists' book fairs, ABA/BEA, and regional fairs, it is well over 50 for sure.
There are so, so many stories, especially at the Frankfurt fair. Perhaps of dancing on the piano at the old Lippanzer Bar at the Frankfurter Hof after an evening of gambling at Wiesbaden; the night that Claire Thompson of the British distributor Turnaround and I almost got locked into the fair while she was amusing me with her hilarious French literary agent imitation; the sumptuous group dinners we jointly hosted with Robert Violette at the Tigerpalast; or the IAMP (International Association of Museum Publishers) dinners, where the best seat in the house is always directly across from the most fabulous raconteur in the business, Chris Hudson, recently retired from MoMA.
I didn’t know they gave an anniversary cake! I have to ask, just in case you’ll share, what are some of the best deals you made in Frankfurt?
I'd love to also tell you about deals made, but as a distributor, I treat my clients' confidence as an absolute trust. So I will honor that trust with absolute silence!
But I will say that even before COVID, email relationships over the course of the year have changed what it means to go to Frankfurt—publishers are now in touch with each other throughout the year, sending pdfs and price quotes back and forth.
All of this used to happen in one-on-one meetings at publishers' stands at the fair or in hotel suites nearby. But seeing an entire imprint's worth of books in context at a booth is still informative in a way that pdfs and websites will never quite match. Even more importantly, renewing relationships that are professional, economic, and—over the years—personal remains a cornerstone of the industry.
And we’re back to what the physical does for heightening the experience of books in your life, a fitting way to end. Thanks Sharon!