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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 30, No. 2, Jun 2007

Marshall Weber In Chicago: A Conversation About Booklyn

Marshall is with Booklyn in Brooklyn. He is a performance artist, a bookmaker, a seller, a dynamic lecturer. This conversation was held in Chicago during the Action/Interaction Conference in June.

MW: I have many years of experience forming non-profits and artists’ organizations and Booklyn as a specific project, having been involved in the project and previously with other artists’ organizations. I was first involved in artist-television access in San Francisco in the 80s, and there is an interesting correlation because that was an gallery-arts organization that formed for video artists who had not gallery representation and did not have access to production facilities, and so that was a somewhat similar project where there was an audience, but no network or organization to interface the artists with the institutions. Artists Television Access (ATA) is still going today in the Bay Area, having started in 1983–another correlation, first Martini Weber Gallery was a private company before it turned into a non-profit.

Booklyn was very similar in that it was mid-90s and a group of artists that had met in Madison, WI where I was teaching at the Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison. I was teaching new genre work in a collection next to Walter Hamady’s classroom, and shared some students. I had always done independent publications and had always done performance and text-image artworks, and I remember one of my students, Christopher Wilde , and he said, “Oh, so you make artist books, ” and I had no idea what he was talking about, and this was about 1995. And he said,“I am studying making artist books with Walter Hamady, and I have a press called Artichoke Ink Press, and I’d like to publish some of your work”. So I met Walter, some of the other people on campus, especially Bill Bunce, fabulous librarian, and Bill toured me through his collection and met some of the other people. Chris was working with, namely Mark Wagner, Shon Schooler, Kurt Allerslev, Sarah Parkel, Felicia Tebbe, and this was all in Madison and Christopher Wilde’s Artichoke Ink Press. Christopher, an incredibly generous person, started the Bookmobile, because he was publishing other people’s work, but he always felt too self-conscious to go into a collection to show his own work, so he always brought some other friends’ work. And he kind of realized that this was assisting him in selling work and getting them into collections. So Booklyn, as a concept, came off Christopher Wilde’s bookmobile. He and Shon Schooler got into a car with a trailer and drove around the U.S. in 1997 to various collections. Later in 1997, everyone ends up in New York City. I had followed my wife who had graduated from Univ of Wisconsin, Madison with a Ph.D. in education, and she had started to work for NYU the year before, Christopher had decided to go to New York for his art career, and soon after, Mark Wagner followed, and then Shon Schooler. Slowly but surely, people started pouring into Brooklyn, such as Sarah Parkel. Not knowing what else to do, Artichoke Ink continued to do its distribution of books, but every Tuesday night, the bunch of us started to meet about 1998-1999, at Mark Wagner’s, Shon Schooler’s and Christopher Wilde’s studio at 70 Commercial St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn and it was just a Tuesday Night Salon.

It was really an artists’ salon, and everyone was working in artist books and prints, and collage work, and it was very interesting, we are all in New York, what will we do? Mostly, Christopher was talking about collections, talking about art. Things started to coalesce, and Stacy Wakefield, who runs Evil Twin Publications with her sister, who really is her twin, is very smart designer, art director for Artforum, Bomb, etc. said that why don’t we get a storefront and we’ll open a little gallery and bookstore and sell our own stuff. And they came up with the name, Booklyn. The storefront never happened. What happened is that Kurt and Christopher took the Booklyn name to our Tuesday night session, and said, let’s formalize; what we are doing and make a company, because Christopher had really more and more clients, what we figured out is that this will be a hard row to hoe. This will be slow-crawling institution, but we found out that there is a huge demand for the work. One institution immediately sent us to another institution–you would go to Pratt and they would send you to Parsons. Parsons would send you to the New York Public Library, and NYPL would give you a name at the Met, and the Met would give you a name at MOMA. And people were very responsive. Far from talking people into stuff, the stuff was flying off the shelves.

Umbrella: Do you know that Don Russell at VSW drove a Bookmobile?

MW: And there is the Mobil-Livres. too.

Did you find just because you had a the live book in front of their faces, they saw what they really wanted because they saw it live?

What was going on was a simple service principle. If they saw Christopher, they didn’t have to see 12 other artists, because he had their work. The other angle: this was all new work by younger artists and it was introducing these artists to the collection. And we didn’t know it at the time but the work was very inexpensive compared to other work, and we didn’t know it because we were all emerging into that area.

The third thing: this is just at the cusp when many collections were expanding their curatorial perogative away from fine press into new media, unique books, handmade books, and there was a generational shift in actual personnel but also in collection policies.

So the mission changed.

So some librarians said, Oh, thank goodness you’re here, you’re using color Xerox, that’s fascinating; oh, you’re carrying zines, that’s great. We also realized that we were providing the service for some older artists who were no longer on the road for six months out of the year. So Walter let us carry some of his books, which were from Perishable Press. Bill Bunce gave us the list of collections and what those collections would want.

The Hamady connection cannot be underestimated, because many of the artists had studied with Walter, and something we also hadn’t realized until later, that these collections were collecting this stuff because they are collecting the work of Hamady’s students. So with all these things in gear, Booklyn quickly expanded from a Tuesday night Salon with Christopher doing his distribution thing, to a partnership that Kurt Allerslev formed in 1999, to a non-profit founded in 2000, which was the Booklyn Artists Alliance which became the non-profit.

Some really crucial moments were the Boys Club changed to a larger organization. Sarah Parkel and then second-generation people, Emily Larned and Scott Teplin, joined. Emily said we need to diversify because we’ll be a better organization if we’re serving different spheres. And Emily was the main advocate for educational programs. As a non-profit, we need to have educational programs for eventual potential funding, but it’s also to grow future audiences. There was back-and-forth of what Booklyn’s focus would be, and ultimately as Bridget Elmer and a whole generation of younger people and women and a bit more diversity, that’s when departments formed in 2001. You had the Bookmobile (collection development, distribution)–90% of Booklyn’s clients are universities and public libraries, 5% are museums and 5% are private collectors. The education department started on a fairly solid basis, developing training programs for teachers and going into schools. The exhibitions program: where we were doing exhibitions in the library of Parsons, touring exhibition program, and in 2001 where the Parallel Botany show where we paired antique books with our contemporary artist books, with botany as the theme. Beyond the exhibitions and collection development, the publications department was publishing Booklyn’s own books, the idea was that Booklyn should have a definitive imprint, not just distributing others’ books. Booklyn’s imprint was collaborative projects where many people were involved. Christopher Wilde was doing his Assembling Project. So Booklyn could support individual artists’ work, collaborative pieces, but Mark Wagner became head of publications, and very often he would just say, “That’s a great book, let’s make an edition.” And he is our primary editorial person for publications, an award-winning AIGA designer. And so Booklyn at this point has become a fairly large corporation, representing more than 60 artists, serving about 150 institutions, and a lot of it had to do with direct marketing. (80% are direct marketing, 10% are internet, and 10% are orders).

And now we’re looking toward to the future–Booklyn wants to get a much larger space, a gallery, classroom.

Are you still in harmony with your partners?

The main controversy was when we decided to become a full-serve non-profit. And have different departments. Once it was understood that that was the healthiest solution, then it solidified the mission.

And do you have a Business Manager?

Jamie Munkatchy–she comes from a history of chemical engineering, a labor activist in Texas, and she concretized fair labor equity policies, health insurance, subsidies for employees, and we gave her even partial maternity leave. We hope that the structure of the company reflects the books that we’re publishing.

And a business plan?

Kurt Alleslav, a brilliant plant chemist, had a lot of experience of paralegal experience with the squatter movement. Mark Wagner is a partner in the financial management of Booklyn, so I can sell the art and book exhibitions, and Mark financially manages, and Kurt keeps it all legal.

Christopher continues as the concept person. Christopher ended up teaching at Pratt, trained Mark Wagner as a sales person and we used to go out together on sales trips–Chris grasped the possibility of Booklyn; he saw the dream. Kurt provided the corporate and legal structure, Mark provided the editorial and business structure, and Chris and I developed the curatorial vision in terms of the art. Sarah Parkel is head of production, Felice Tebbe finally joined me last year as my partner in collection development, and Chris has gone on to focus on his own art work. Mark has been doing his own art work. Mark is still the president.

We have a fabulous Board and recently, Robbin Ami Silverman has joined.the Board.

Jamie started these Tuesday night open salons–the first Tuesday of every month is the open salon, and every other Tuesday night is the labor exchange program. It was decided early on by Jamie and the rest of the staff that Booklyn should not charge for classes, because other institutions do that. So Booklyn’s classes on site are all free and they are part of the labor exchange program. So people come and study at Booklyn and then work at Booklyn. So many Booklyn publications are actually produced by the labor exchange people. When Jamie went on leave, Cat Glennon now leads the labor exchange and half our new staff are actually from the labor exchange program. That’s been a very interesting way to interface with a very large and diverse community. And Booklyn in terms of outreach has made yearbooks with the Dept. of Education of New York City, because we underbid the commercial yearbook publishers, so there have been at times 50 high school students manufacturing their own yearbook at Booklyn.

Since you sound very busy, all of you, yet you all do your own work–how do you find time to juggle family, your own creativity, and Booklyn?

For myself, I gave all my time to Booklyn, fulfilling my own creative energy for Booklyn, and the good thing of working collaboratively is that you can put as much time as you have and the project reaches culmination. As Booklyn has become more successful, some people have felt that they can leave and go on to other things, others have cut down their time, Chris was secure as a consultant now, and I have taken my 80-hour week to a 40-hour week to devote more time for my own art.

I travel about 4-5 months out of the year. Where Booklyn focuses, we are dealing with unique books, very-limited edition books, we go into the small press area (chapbooks of 500 in number) and they can be sold in retail stores, but I tend to carry the high end work–what has changed from the beginning (and we still bring in younger artists)–so a lot of the artists are in more demand and are more expensive (now that we are nine years old)–or Organik has an international market–American institutions can deal with less expensive books.

One thing that is important that life is expensive, a lot of money is here, and there is a great chance to give artists scope and spectrum–if I sell a book, then the artist can have money to make a living–providing that service for the artist. As Book Arts mature, work takes on a much larger range–the intersection of the art world and the book arts world and the commercial book world . Sometimes I think in the field, it feels a little constrained and complicated, but in actuality it opens up the field. Institutions have this wonderful opportunity to decide which part of the spectrum they want to collect and to support, comparable to Russia when it was just the Soviet Union, it was fairly easy; but then the Soviet Union fell apart and now you have unique books, digital books, hybrid books. Artistbooks expand, just as Women’s Studio Workshop expands.

Do you ever weed the collection?

Curatorial decisions are made for aesthetic, logistic, financial and practical reasons. Artists come in and out. Sometimes an artist decides to take books away or stop making them. With the old guard, they are intrigued with the whole situation. Walter introduced us to Ken Campbell in the UK, and Ken was not someone who deals with dealers. But he dealt with Booklyn for a few years, and then dropped out, and now he’s back and is one of Booklyn’s biggest boosters. And we’re glad to be working with him again. Booklyn doesn’t have any exclusives. So Booklyn artists often have multiple dealers. Others deal only with Booklyn.

We’ll have one book by an artist that we represent–and sometimes we network for them. Booklyn is doing well enough financially so that sometimes I consult for free. If someone shows me a book that I feel Booklyn can’t carry, I’ll tell the artist “go to…”.I know almost every collection in the States. So if you go the Booklyn’s website, go to collection development and you have a direct link to participating institutions.

Have you noticed that the libraries’ budgets have changed, their missions have changed because of technology, or have they been diminished in some of the States?

It varies–some of the collections have lost huge amounts of money–others have done amazing jobs fundraising, others have had amazing partnerships, like Florida Atlantic University and Arthur Jaffe’s collection. . Talk about fundraising! Arthur and company just built the first book arts library as part of a state university. At Stanford, Roberto Trujillo has done an amazing job of fundraising and has received great support for networking within the university. And that’s a private school. . You see a whole range of successes.

Then there are collections that close. NYU and its downtown collection no longer collects artist books by local artists. They’re focusing on its literary collection. And that was a curatorial decision based on finances that they had to make.

Do you ever suggest collaborative buying for the more expensive items you have to sell?

We’re not really about selling books; if we have an edition of 10 books, I don’t want all those books in the L.A. area.. I could do it–it could be quite easy–but there’s no access to that book in the East Coast, in the Mid West, in South America. It’s always about collaborations among librarians, about access. It’s very interesting if that discussion of the collaborative system–Otis, Chapman, USC discussing these issues. How much redundancy do we need? Who is going to collect what? Can we do consortium collecting? Can we do collaborative collecting?

It’s also a sign of consolidation to the detriment of what they are collecting.

There are a great deal of regional centers. There is a very definite parallel between library building development and museum construction development. And you’re seeing an expansion in the art world that parallels the expansion of the library world. I would say that a third of my visits to libraries and museums is finding how to get somewhere during construction. There are a lot of libraries being built, there are a lot of museums being built. It’s because populations demand it. and there is new money coming into the system; even budgets are being constrained, because there are a few little key indicators, reminding me of what my wife said years ago: “Every state has a university system; every university system has a flagship school, and there is a 50-50 chance that that school probably has a special collections library. Many times, that department is responsible for the archives of that state–what this does provides them with a parallel budgetary resource that often helps make special library collections fairly large departments with fairly important people in control. These structures reflect the range of political and economic situations, so there could be new buildings, or a budget cut, depending upon how you react to policies.

Special collections oftentime have absorbed department collections, so that your wife is quite prophetic, because the special collections are going to be the “nostalgic” collections, they are going to be the only collection where the book is a major interest as the digital technology predominates. They collect much more, as if they are in the last moments of collecting “the book”. They are in the process of being “educational” rather than “storage”.

Art libraries collect art periodicals, for art department collections, to university and public museum collections, to rare book collections which can also be distinguished from special collections, and special collections that have artist book collections. We see special collections, in general, form artist book collections, and often are taking away from the art libraries those art collections that are not in art libraries.

I think that the next kettle of fish may be a whole generation of artists (no one seems to retire in this field) whose archives are ready to be placed some place. It’s going to be a whole new issue. With fine printers, they are organized and they keep their stuff pretty close to their chest. There is a choice amount of presses’ archives that have to be placed in the next 10 years.

The consciousness raising of that and the understanding of the difference between libraries and archives now has a bridge which is understood. Are you going to keep up your pace?

Yes, I like traveling and my art making involves travel. But I also think that Booklyn is starting into its next generation, so I don’t think that anyone now is going to be there the rest of their lives, but the corporation has its second stage. It’s important to note that Booklyn, while in the beginning, had a renegade, underdog reputation, even that Booklyn was embraced by the mainstream institutions. I just remember that Steve Clay said about 8 years ago–“I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing, because at some point about ten years ago while sitting in the 1,000th asphalt parking lot surrounded by the 1,000th chainlink fence, I realized I just didn’t want to do this traveling salesman thing anymore….” With VSW, Granary, Walter, special collection librarians, all the artists have paved the way before Booklyn, Booklyn has been supported.

There wasn’t just a need for Booklyn, but it was provided by the generosity of so many in the field and we received a whole lot of support. The staff is very committed, because there was a vision for a public non-profit distribution network for artist books and to see it expand into all the arts. There is a larger vision in a world where privatization and capital is seen as inevitable, but we are cheerleaders for an alternative.

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