Sarah Hromack / Writing / It’s Complicated: The Institution as Publisher
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It’s Complicated: The Institution as Publisher

An op-ed on the politics that govern institutional publishing, written by invitation on the occasion of "Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age" at the Walker Art Center

What does it mean for a museum to function as a publisher now, in 2015? Publishing is no less complicated an endeavor within an institutional context than it is in the external “real” world, where the presence of a consumer-grade Internet began altering the social production, consumption, and distribution of text some decades ago. In 2015, I no longer argue for or around the validity of the digital publishing as an independent social act, as I once did as an early-era art blogger (which was, for me, more about writing and criticism than technology, per se). Instead, as a cultural worker, I negotiate between the particular set of concerns and logics that define publications in the digital space and those that govern other forms of publication within the museum.

There is a largely unarticulated, yet nevertheless effective class system that governs the kinds of publications institutions produce, and the ways those publications function in public space. While the Internet and the Web began problematizing the publication, conceptually and physically, so many years ago, printed matter still holds its ground within the context of the museum. On its surface, the exhibition catalogue is a historical document. It is the last remaining physical vestige of a show-gone-by: an object, an heirloom, a relic—a conversation piece perched atop book shelves and coffee tables. Whether publishing independently or in collaboration with another institution or publishing house, the museum produces both knowledge and value in the exhibition catalogue, reifying the object-based aesthetics that still govern the physical gallery space while affirming its own desire for cultural, academic, and historical gravitas. The book retains its critical potential: for instance, I still mull over the catalogue-based exhibitions published by curator and gallerist Seth Siegelaub in the 1960s when envisioning digital potentials. Ongoing cross-institutional collaborations—the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, of which the Walker’s Living Collections Catalogue is a participant—seek to produce digital books whose technical functionalities allow readers to replicate common scholarly research methodologies, such as highlighting and annotating texts.

Digital publishing has and likely will continue to challenge the institutional definition of “publication”—as object and as act—in its ability to redistribute power within and beyond the museum’s walls. Various methods of publication—a wiki-based model, for instance, or an internal workflow that unites the efforts of several different departments—may allow a wider variety of people from within an organization to contribute to an online publication, thus broadening its purview and multiplying the institutional “voice,” even while masking it to form a universal we. Publishing workflows may or may not replicate those that govern book production, as the real-time response demanded by social media—a publishing platform in its own collective right—proves asynchronous with that of print.

Whether an online publication will even be read is a real question, in 2015: If YouTube’s seemingly indefatigable popularity is any indication, the consumer demand for video-based experiences has prompted museums to devote more creative resources to an entirely different form of visual narrative. The Walker is legendary for its willingness to embrace the ebb and flow of media as evidenced by its latest initiative, the Moving Images Commissions; Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s MOCAtv is another example, as is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Artist Project. Whitney Stories, a series of shorts produced by filmmaker Matt Wolf, is my home institution’s foray into online storytelling. These kinds of initiatives prompt museums to engage with a broad variety of contributors: writers, editors, filmmakers, designers, composers, and others. The story is a primary document.

While ultimately seeking to articulate and expose the institution’s programming to a broader, ostensibly more diverse audience—the question of audience plagues us here, too!—these initiatives are variously tied to functions of the marketing and press departments. Though commonly considered “operational” in nature, these roles shouldn’t be overlooked when considering publication in the broadest sense of the term: A social media manager, for instance, has the power to publish or post words and images that intractably impact an institution’s public “face” by providing fodder for the critical press corps and would-be visitors alike. To relegate these digitally-based roles to ancillary positions within the organizational structure, however vast, is to effectively underestimate the power of public perception, which is infinite. In fact, social media plays a greater role in articulating institutional narratives than ever before, as more people eschew browser windows for apps and wearable technologies.

Museums need to strive harder to meet public demand for information: to engage with the public on the terms that govern public conversation—not those that govern private interest. Publication is and always has been a political act! I am personally interested in the social affiliations that are made through collaboration, and I relish the strategic gains that can be made, on all sides, when organizations and individuals work together to produce projects that challenge institutionally-ingrained boundaries and definitions. Whether analogue or digital in nature, the publication is a site that has (and will remain, hopefully!) primed for such negotiation.

Updated on November 23, 2016

As a cultural critic, Sarah has written for publications including Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, Red Hook Journal (Bard College), Mousse, Print, Paper Monument, and Rhizome, amongst other websites, blogs, and print publications. First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, her blog, Forward Retreat (2000-2008), was part of the early cohort of American art blogs that bore initial influence on then-emerging digital publishing practices in the arts. Sarah's recent work is supported by a 2016 Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

In Progress: 2018

— A series of essays on the visual culture of motherhood.
— "@Artist: Performing the Digital Self " is an ongoing project awarded support by the 2016 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

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