One of the thirteen original co-founders, and now the Directing Curator, Marshall Weber, recently spoke to Greenpointers about artists’ books, New York in the ’90s, and how the Internet forever changed the art world.
On the ‘90s art scene in America:
Painting was still king, coming out of the heady eighties, and money was starting to build up into the art world. People were doing big, flashy installations and giant paintings. The San Francisco Mission scene, the figurative drawing thing, and the Back to Paper Movement were just starting, but galleries weren’t really digging it yet.
On the early beginnings:
I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin in the early nineties, and one of my students was a guy named Christopher Wilde. He was doing artists’ and unique books through The Artichoke Yink Press. Christopher and a friend, Shon Schooler, would put a bunch of artists’ books into a little trailer called the Bookmobile and drive around the country to show the books to librarians. It was direct selling of artists’ books, and it was pretty informal and exciting.
Wisconsin had a really great print department in through the eighties and nineties, but at a certain point, the mid-west kind of collapsed. Tommy Thompson became governor of Wisconsin and pulled all the arts funding, which made all the regional organizations pull their funding from Wisconsin. The art scene in Wisconsin took a big hit, and a lot of people started leaving for Chicago and for the coasts.
On the late ‘90s in New York City:
Around 1997, a bunch of us all ended up in New York for one reason or another. We started to meet every Tuesday night at a salon at Christopher’s loft space in what is commonly known as the Box Street building at 70 Commercial Street in Greenpoint. It was a big warehouse space of artists that now has loft law protection.
The salon had some people who had a gallery representing them, but galleries just weren’t showing their college, artists’ books, or works on paper. There were a lot of people from Wisconsin. This decade long exodus of artists from the Midwest sometimes referred to as the “Madison Mafia”, was made up of all these print people from different generations of artists, teachers and students associated with the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was mostly younger people at that time, and it distilled down to thirteen of us. From there, Artichoke Yink Press, Wilde’s imprint and Bookmobile project morphed into this proto-Booklyn salon.
This idea for forming a non-profit percolated to the surface, and we started to help each other edition books. The Artichoke Yink Press bookmobile that Christopher was running morphed into the bookmobile that Christopher and the salon were running. The thing started to formalize. One days, Christopher, Stacey Wakefield, and Kurt Allerselv were driving across the Williamsburg Bridge when Christopher looked up at the sign and [misreading it] said, “Oh, look, it says, ‘Welcome to Booklyn. That’s really funny.’” So, we said, “Oh, Booklyn. Let’s make a store named Booklyn. No, let’s just use Booklyn for the name of Artichoke Yink Press projects, that salon, and the bookmobile.”
On taking Booklyn to the next level:
We decided that we wanted to be a non-profit, and that we wanted Booklyn to really go up the ladder—kind of this Robin Hood model—where we would work with larger and larger institutions and help artists get entrée into the art world, promote artists’ books as a medium, along with works on paper and political work. We also wanted to promote other art organizations and other public social justice organizations. We had all these ideas then, but we didn’t articulate them as well as we do now. And it just blew up. Everyone wanted artists’ books since there was no other particular point of entrance to the art, publishing, or library world.
Private dealers did most of the book dealing at the time, and it was very much a patronage system. Often, there were standing orders and you had preferred vendors. It was very much an “Old Boy Network.” People didn’t tell artists where their books were or anything like that, and artists were not being told that they were having exhibits at major institutions or that their work was being sold to major collectors. Collectors had very particular interests and those were a secret. Or, institutions had curators that were really interested in artists’ books and that was a really big secret. It was kind of like the art dealer thing, where there’s a lot of paranoia and a lot of control of the market.
On the Internet changing the art world:
Now the cat is out of the bag. With the rise of the Internet, libraries and museums started to put their catalogs online. We would do research and find out that like, “Oh, this dealer had sold one of our founder’s books to the Getty [Center in Los Angeles] when he was an undergraduate, and didn’t tell him.” We started publishing things on our website like, “Mark Wagner’s books are at all these institutions,” with the implication of, “How did they get there?” When we first started, people were pretty pissy about Booklyn.
This democratization of information is positive and it’s what makes Booklyn possible. The patronage structure has been almost completely dismantled, especially as the generational switch happened because people on the other side of the digital divide came into the art, library, and publishing worlds. If you want to know what the University of Wisconsin is collecting, just go online and look at their collection. If you want to meet a curator, you just go online and find him. First you start with Google, and then you keep on digging. We’re also noticing that even all the libraries, when they update and renovate, are putting in their own art galleries. All these special collections and libraries now have art galleries, which makes things even more public.
Since we focus on universities and public museums, it’s been great for us and for our artists and audiences. At a certain point, we were trying to figure out what is the real Booklyn audience, in terms of what impact we’ve had, and we’ve distributed probably 10 million dollars worth of books and probably thousands of books all over the world. Those books are in public institutions where they’re being used and programmed all the time. We can’t even tell how much our audience has grown since so many of our points of contact are secondary and tertiary. There’s also the fact that artists’ books are really the hot topic in the art world right now, so you see them being exhibited in these art shows.
On Booklyn’s relationship with artists:
The way that we acquire new artists is multifaceted. There’s through the social network, people contacting us, or people seeing us at the fairs. I’m always looking for stuff, and I follow all references. I hope that I have a reputation of answering every e-mail. So much of the art world has this corporate veneer, which I find really distasteful, so we don’t want to be that. The culture here is that we want to be as accessible as possible, and we really strive towards transparency and a certain diversity. We feel like that’s necessary, if not actually mandated by our non-profit status and just by the general ethics of living in New York City.
One of the advantages of being a non-profit and an open organization is that we have a whole spectrum of commitments to artists. There are some artists that are Booklyn artists and we’ve represented them for a long time. But, even those artists, if you look at some of our most well known artists or artists who have had a lot of impact—people like Stephen Dupont or Candice Hicks—they’re artists who also have another gallery, exhibition, or activist career. They’re identified as Booklyn artists, but we don’t have exclusives so it’s not like a gallery situation.
We also still function to be like a stepping-stone. Artists will come into Booklyn and then move on to someplace else. That’s a goal for us. Not every artist should show here for the rest of their life, although, we have lifelong relationships with a lot of artists. For the artist whose work we feel is important or underrepresented, and also fulfills our agenda, we’ll focus on that artist. We can also do things like, “Oh we really like that one piece, and we can represent that.” So we’re flexible, and we can go from that gallery world to the zine world.
On Booklyn today:
We’ve gone through various different focuses. There’s always been an education and direct distribution program. There’s development, artist services, and publishing, and we do exhibitions both in the gallery and also curate for other institutions around the world.
Right now, we’re doing a lot of work with social justice organizations. We help them publish and co-produce, as well as edit, design, and distribute their projects. We’ll also raise money for the groups and provide educational materials around the issues that the groups are committed to. I think Booklyn’s reputation, in terms of art and publishing, is that we will deal with difficult material, political material, and materially difficult stuff. For instance, we’re working with Tom Burntonwood, who has printed the world’s first 3D printed book. We’re also working with a lot of people who are making unique books: really limited edition, hand-made books. At this point, we’ve also branched out to do international art and presentations, and have artists from about eight or nine different countries.
Our newest program over the past four years or so has been our archives program, which is an artist and organizational social security program. We’re helping artists and organizations organize their archives, get them ready for market distribution, and sell them to different institutions so that they have funds to use. A lot of the artists and organizations that we deal with are not sweetheart high art organizations. They’re artists who haven’t worked with commercial galleries by choice and organizations that are more committed to social justice than commercial success. About half of the books in Booklyn’s life have been actively involved in vets and anti-war—or what we call ‘pro-peace’—movements, and so that’s where we end up today.
(This interview has been edited and condensed)
Booklyn Artists Alliance is located at 37 Greenpoint Avenue. The next opening reception is on Saturday, May 9th from 7pm to 10pm for Kelie Bowman‘s solo show “Rise.” When Marshall Weber is not at Booklyn, he’s likely to be up the street at Brouwerij Lane.