Saturday, February 13, 2010

College Art 2010

In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos- the Modern, the Met, the Louvre.

- Patti Smith, Just Kids

Maybe Patti Smith’s excellent but somewhat jaded memoir wasn’t the best reading to get me psyched for my first College Art show. Then again, I kept returning to her words in the course of a rather surreal day at the Chicago Hyatt.

“College Art”- short for College Art Association- is an annual gathering of the academic art tribes that has been going on for nearly a century. The three components are 1) a diverse, sometimes bewildering roster of panels and discussions on every imaginable topic in art history and critique; 2) a trade show of sorts, where art book publishers and supply dealers show off and sell their wares; 3) a kind of job fair. (I guess a fourth might be colleges looking for students for their proliferating low-res programs.)

Reps do not normally attend these shows, and both MIT and Yale have dedicated events staff who are genius at working the display logistics. But editors attend for the chance to network, meet with authors, and sometimes make presentations.

Because the show was in Chicago this time, and because MIT art and architecture editor Roger Conover was thoughtful enough to ask, I was able to carve out a day to take it in.

The east coast blizzard added a bit of drama- for a time it looked like nobody from Cambridge and New Haven would make their flights, and I would be able to swoop in, unpack the boxes, and save the day. But most everyone from the east coast arrived, so this was not to be. Luckily so, since I would have quickly been defeated by having to calculate the Chicago sales tax (10.5%!) while factoring in the discount. I probably would have just given he books away.

Fresh off the train from Milwaukee at 9:30, my first impression of the 5,000 attendees was that many of them looked familiar. But then I realized that I didn’t actually know anyone, it’s just that hundreds of people were sporting the same art academic uniform.

The MIT booth, under the supervision of John and Allison, was a thing of beauty. As I spend much of my working life trying to interest people in these titles, to see swarms of people poring through the books with intense interest- well, it made my heart skip a beat. I’ve also never seen the MIT art titles displayed in such quantities. One copy on a bookstore shelf looks forlorn and lost. But ten copies! Memo to self: push harder for stacks.

I stood at the booth and tried to be helpful, although there were so many people I felt a little redundant at times.

High point: meeting veteran MIT author Maud Lavin, (Clean New World: Culture, Politics & Graphic Design) who told me about her forthcoming title from MIT on the fall 2010 list. She hypnotized me to sell vast quantities of it with her beautiful magic ring. (true!)

Low point: someone asked whether we had a particular title, and, knowing it’s an April book, I said “oh no, not yet.” A few moments later I notice the man leafing through the very book. Oops.

It gets worse: I notice his name tag, he’s the author. But I make a little joke of it and he seems fine, and will hopefully not take my little mistake for a sign of how well we will handle his book. (Actually, after this, I will double my efforts to atone).

On to other faux pas at the Yale booth, which is the largest and most dramatic space on the floor. After chatting with art editors Patricia and Michelle, and Met museum book doyenne Marilyn, and exhibits manager Ellen, someone mentioned that Gillian was in the house.

Gillian Malpass is the UK art and architecture publisher responsible for many of the most lavish and interesting books that Yale produces. I see her too rarely, and around her I feel like a schoolboy with a crush, all awkward and incoherent.

Thinking to bolster my confidence with food, I tore into a bag of cinnamon rugalach from Corner Bakery. Just as my mouth was too full to speak, there was Gillian coming at me with her beautiful smile and warm greeting. We euro-kissed, and I noticed I’d left a few crumbs on her cheek. I was mortified but she either didn’t notice or kindly chose not to. Would it have been gallant to brush the crumbs away? I will never know.

Feeling redundant now at the Yale booth, which was crowded and amply staffed, I wandered into the meeting room area of this grim hotel basement to see whether there might be some sessions worth dipping into. My badge guaranteed entry into everything, so it seemed a waste not to sample.

I’d made a list of a few sessions that interested me:

- Textile as propaganda in the middle ages;
- A Case for Letterpress
- How is Queer Art Relational?
- Autofictions, Avatars and Alter Egos: Fabricating Artists
- How to Draw a Bunny: Reconsidering Mail Art

But none of these were on offer at the moment. And some of the topics that were available sounded like fodder for the philistine ignoramuses on Fox News.

As I wandered back toward the trade show floor, I passed through a sea of empty tables in a massive room. A few of the desks were occupied, and these were apparently job interviews in progress. A crowd of anxious interviewees awaited their time slots.

Actually, the entire conference seemed to be infused with relentless networking. Or, as my plain-speaking friend Jennifer described it, “desperation.” (Jennifer was there to act as Discussant for a forum called “Design & the Rhetoric of Democratization,” which involved both Canada and IKEA, so I immediately added it to the list of workshops I wish I could attend.)

By the time I left at the end of the day, it felt like time well spent. I had a bag full of gorgeous catalogs from other art publishers. I’d made a few contacts. I’d seen finished copies of many of the spring titles I’m still selling, as well as some very beautiful works from other presses.

There were many gloomy conversations about the state of the business, but handling all these richly textured, tactile objects gave me some hope that if physical books are doomed, art books will be the last ones standing.

I boarded the train back to Milwaukee in an optimistic frame of mind, which lasted until I heard the college student behind me describing a prospective date to someone over the phone. “He’s a history major or some lame shit like that,” she remarked.

For a minute I held her responsible for all that is wrong with academia, and maybe life in general. Then it passed and I just wished I’d saved a few rugalach for the road.

1 comment:

  1. I laughed, I laughed, I laughed my way through this post...which, I probably shouldn't have, seeing that my amusement is at the expense of your experiences...though I have no shame for laughing at the ridiculous woman who has anything negative to say about a history major -- they are nearly always fascinating, intelligent sorts.