Art book publishing is in the doldrums, and if your book is “serious”, unless you get one of the university presses to publish it, it is likely to remain a virtual reality.
The exception to this rule is the exhibition catalogue, which has something of a captive market in the exhibition visitor, and whose costs conveniently get muddled into the vast expense of doing any exhibition.
Catalogues often contain the most advanced research on a subject, which is good; but they must also be fit for their purpose, which is to record and explain the exhibition to the public.
Yet exhibition catalogues rarely get reviewed, even by the specialist press (an exception this year was Richard Dorment’s scathing demolition in The Daily Telegraph of the Gainsborough catalogue produced by Tate Britain).
That is why The Art Newspaper and the insurance company, AXA Art, have set up a prize for the best exhibition catalogue produced in the previous year in the British Isles. While we will not condemn, we can at least reward what we consider to be best practice.
In 2002, the first year of this award, the judges thought The American Sublime, the catalogue of the exhibition of 19th-century landscape painting at Tate Britain, to be outstanding for the clarity of the writing, the comprehensive and original interpretation of the whole subject and the classic simplicity and fine printing of the book itself.
This year’s shortlist has now been chosen for the prizes, which are £5,000 to the winning institution, which must have originated the exhibition; a full page in The Art Newspaper for the runner up and a quarter page each to the next three finalists with which to publicise an exhibition or project.
The winners will be announced by Lord Rothschild at a reception in the Courtauld Gallery on 14 October.
The judges are Charles Saumarez-Smith, director of the National Gallery, Richard Calvocoressi, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Giles Waterfield, former director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, curator and novelist, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London, Razia Iqbal, broadcaster and journalist, Anna Somers Cocks, former editor of The Art Newspaper and editorial director general of Umberto Allemandi e C. Publishing, and Clare Pardy of the insurance company, AXA Art.
The shortlisted catalogues and their institutions
British Museum, London Albrecht Dürer and his legacy; Dulwich Picture Gallery, London Arthur Rackham; Dulwich Picture Gallery John Piper in the 1930s; Fan Museum, London A fanfare for the Sun King; Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Wonder; Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow Whistler: beauty and the butterfly/copper into gold; Iniva Fault lines: contemporary African Art and shifting landscapes; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin Jules Breton: painter of peasant life; National Gallery, London Art in the making: underdrawing in Renaissance paintings; National Gallery, London Ron Mueck: making sculpture at the National Gallery; National Maritime Museum, London Elizabeth; National Museum and Galleries of Wales, Cardiff Thomas Jones (1742-1803): an artist rediscovered; National Trust Turner at Petworth; New Art Gallery, Walsall Copper jubilee: Gavin Turk; Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery Flower power: the meaning of flowers in art; Photographers' Gallery, London Reality check; Royal Academy, London Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: the Dresden and Berlin years; Royal Collection Leonardo da Vinci: the divine and the grotesque; Serpentine Gallery, London John Currin; Sir John Soane's Museum, London John Flaxman 1755-1826: master of the purest line; Tate Liverpool Paul Nash: Modern artist, ancient landscape; Tate Liverpool Shopping: a century of art and consumer culture; Tate Britain Constable to Delacroix: British art and the French Romantics 1820-40; Victoria & Albert Museum, London Art Deco 1910-39; Whitechapel Art Gallery, London Rodney Graham; Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere The unfortunate tourist of Helvellyn and his faithful dog.