Australian art publishing in crisis? Or is crisis just business as usual?

Australian art books

High production costs and a niche market put buying art books out of the reach of many Australians.
Photo by Anita Pisch

Ask any art historian, and they will tell you that it is quite difficult to get books published on art in Australia. Why this should be so in a nation that demonstrates increasing interest in and engagement with the arts is an interesting question, which generates both simple and complex answers.

Anita Pisch briefly examines some of the key issues in contemporary Australian art book publishing, within both a historical and international context.

While it may be tempting to see the difficulty in getting art books published in Australia as simply part of the broader challenges faced by the publishing industry as a whole, both in Australia and internationally, this would be to fail to recognise the distinct features and challenges of the art publishing industry as a niche market for a high-quality product which carries specific symbolic and cultural capital.

Art book publishing comprises only a tiny fraction of the publishing industry as a whole, and differs from other areas of the industry in several ways, including high publication costs, target audience, layout and design, and suitability for digitisation.

Art books essentially fall into two very broad categories: books on the history of art, theory of art, art movements or individual artists, and books that are published as art catalogues relating to specific exhibitions.

 Subsidised monographs and scholarly books

The first category includes art textbooks, scholarly and academic publications,books created for collectors, and monographs that are devoted to the oeuvre of a particular artist or group of artists.

Generally speaking, art books are not expected to turn a profit, and their publication is usually subsidised in some way: by virtue of a philanthropic bequest to the publishing house, through a grant or subsidy awarded to the author, or even by the featured artists contributing to printing and production costs out of their own pocket. Authors are not usually paid and may, or may not, eventually see some financial return out of royalties – although this is often only in the unlikely scenario that the book gets to a second edition.

Publishers may also release numbered special limited editions of art books, accompanied by original drawings and prints, personalised covers and slipcases or other limited edition paraphernalia, to attract collectors as buyers. The profit made on the limited edition helps subsidise the cost of the general print run.

Although art books are not particularly profitable, publishers may decide to publish an art title due to personal interest in the subject matter, because they feel that the work is in the public interest, and/or because of the gains in cultural capital.

Australian art publishing, more so than in Europe or the USA, has been dominated by individual maverick art publishers. If Sydney Ure Smith was a prominent presence between the 1920s and the 1940s, the scene from the 1970s onwards has been dominated by a number of strong individual personalities. These include Nevill Drury at Craftsman House, Jenny Zimmer at Macmillan Art Publishing and now Thames & Hudson, Lou Klepac at Beagle Press and the Grimwades and Miegunyah Press.

Since the 1980s, a number of small specialist art publishers and individual commercial galleries have been regularly publishing art books. These publications should not be confused with art catalogues, but often adopt a monographic character and run to a couple of hundred pages.

Some mainstream international publishers with an Australian arm, including Thames & Hudson, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, have also maintained an art publishing profile here, although in general, under current protectionist policies for Australian publishing, they publish more titles on non-Australian artists than they do on Australian artists.

In general, art books which are not tied to an exhibition suffer from the lack of a precipitating ‘event’ and its attendant publicity, (all of which is costed to the event, rather than the book itself); no ready-made venue from which to sell the book; and no vehicle for attracting outside sponsorship to help cover costs. These books face the following challenges:

  • diminishing bricks-and-mortar venues in which to sell physical books;
  • high production costs;
  • high prices for the end product (particularly when the consumer makes inevitable comparisons against the cost of other books);
  • a niche audience;
  • funding cuts across the arts in general, which diminish the likelihood of attracting a subsidy for publication;
  • high copyright and image permission costs, which must usually be borne by the author and can run into thousands of dollars;
  • diminishing in-house publishing staff, meaning that editing and design must be handed to freelancers, with costs often passed on to the author;
  • a downturn in the art market that sees the great majority of professional artists struggling to make a living and thus unable to find funds to contribute to the production costs of their own monographs.

Catalogues by the major galleries


Fountain Of Life, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Most art books published in Australia are catalogues to accompany exhibition at the major galleries.
Photo by Benjamin9003


In the twenty-first century, most publications on art in Australia come from the publicly funded national and state collecting institutions, with the most proactive publishing occurring at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; and Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Many regional art galleries also have a rigorous art publishing profile.

The art catalogue accounts for a large proportion of current art publishing in Australia and, despite striking similarities to scholarly art books, is distinguished by its relationship with the exhibition subject, the institutional authorship, and the catalogue’s role as exhibition merchandise. Additionally, particularly when it comes to blockbuster exhibitions, the catalogue provides avenues for corporate and other sponsorship, often by companies that gain significant cultural capital by associating their name with a high-class product and who will benefit from being viewed as philanthropically motivated.

Between 1965 and 1985, exhibition catalogues in Australia suddenly changed from being ephemeral brochures and pamphlets, to lengthy autonomous publications which were almost indistinguishable from art books. Jim Berryman ties the sudden massive expansion of the dimensions of the catalogue to the spread of academic art history in the universities in the 1960s and 1970s, and the subsequent rise of professionalism in the curatorial role.

Along with increases in government funding to the arts, which resulted in both increases in acquisitions and in other resources, a pool of funding became available to enable serious scholarship to be published for the benefit of the general public in lavishly illustrated, glossy-paged tomes, which were soon to become too heavy to seriously consider carrying through an exhibition.

What distinguishes Australian art publishing from the rest of the world is the advent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art books. If in the 1970s this was a small trickle with a strong anthropological bent, by the twenty-first century it had grown into a major torrent, with hundreds of glossy art books produced devoted to various aspects of indigenous art. These books are some of the few Australian art publications to find an international market due to the wider global audience for indigenous art.

There may be no crisis in Australian art publishing, or perhaps more accurately, one could describe it as the ongoing crisis that has been a permanent fixture in this country. The audience is relatively small and production costs are hefty. Ebooks and ecatalogues have not made a major inroad in art publishing in this country for a number of reasons. The art book is seen as a luxury item with high production values and essential tactile properties. Despite the ongoing challenges, Australian publishers manage to produce a reasonable number of beautiful, high quality, scholarly art books each year, especially when considered on a per capita basis.

Australian art books

Beautiful art books are still being published in Australia, despite not being particularly profitable.
Photo by Anita Pisch








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