What We’re Reading: Exhibition Catalogs

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

Lauren's bookcase in her at-home library.
Lauren Wolfer’s at home art library. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

As long as I can remember, my mom has taken my brother and me to art museums. Growing up, we frequently took trips to see the Monet’s and Rembrandt’s at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). I’m pretty sure my brother cried when my mom wouldn’t buy him a Monet umbrella from the gift shop. It was there that I got my first museum catalog. I remember being so excited and flipping through it non-stop. Since then, I’ve picked up collection books or exhibition highlights from almost all of the museums I’ve visited—most of the time they are from those too far away to visit frequently. It’s a way for me to remember what artworks I enjoyed and often helps me to discover new artists. I find myself searching though the FWMoA’s collection, most of our collection was acquired before my time, and other museums to compare our artworks and artists.

One of Lauren's favorites, an exhibition catalog featuring works by artist Edward Hopper.
One of Lauren’s favorites, an exhibition catalog featuring works by artist Edward Hopper. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

Throughout my schooling, at both Concordia Lutheran High School and Indiana University Bloomington, my books gave me inspiration for my art assignments. If I ever felt stuck, I looked to my favorite masters for some ideas, particularly in the Art Institute of Chicago collection book and an Edward Hopper exhibition catalog. I still have tabs of paper stuck throughout books marking the works that inspired me! Many museums will sell books on museum highlights which are simply books of artworks that are included in their collection, some displayed and others behind closed doors. Collections are constantly changing because museums continue to purchase or acquire donations of artwork valuable to the collection. The museum book I have from the AIC isn’t even produced anymore because the collection has changed so much that they reissued new ones! The FWMoA currently does not have a collection highlight book but we are offering exhibition catalogs for our current exhibition Full Spectrum: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of Julian Stanczak; Wood and Stone Sculptures of Barbra Stanczak.

You can find these books in the Paradigm Gallery here at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

Now as an associate curator who plans exhibits and figures out what artworks will tell the best story, these books still help me. Sometimes the story is strictly visual. In this case, works flow through the gallery because there is a similar technique, medium, or color palette. Other times the story is based on a historic art period. If you read the blog post about Ninth Street Women, as discussed by Alyssa Dumire, and had the chance to walk through the exhibit Stone Truths back in the spring, a lot of the names would have looked familiar. Several of the works were made in a similar art period by artists who knew each other’s work. Purchasing exhibition catalogs help me to research what is in the minds of other curators. Visually, how do they lay out an exhibit? How do they tell the artist or artwork’s story? What have they tried that I haven’t thought of? What do they do that I personally don’t like and may avoid? The art world is an ever changing scene, and museum staff works constantly to research and learn the best practices for exhibitions and the collection. Just this summer, MoMA closed the entire building to reinstall their permanent collection; redesigning their galleries to exhibit more work by women and people of color.

Looking through exhibition catalogs can help art professionals learn more about the artists and artworks highlighted, whether in the museum permanent collection or on loan. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

It may not be obvious… but I really like art. In my spare time I enjoy visiting other museums and staring at artwork until my eyes don’t work anymore. For the most part, I like all different styles and generations. There isn’t much art that doesn’t blow my mind. Some people have celebrities or athletes they are obsessed with: my obsession is art and their creators. I’m always interested in how it’s made, what techniques are used, what are contemporary ideas for the artist’s time period, how does it relate to art history? The questions never end. When I go to see exhibits, I want a keepsake for what I saw so I can have the freedom to look at it as often as I want. Books aren’t the same as the real thing, but it’s something I can flip through a million times without having to get in a car or plane to see the artwork again; especially when catalogs for special exhibitions show the artwork in a way it may never be shown again. Ever since my first museum highlight book, I make it a point to try to collect at least one book from every museum I visit. From Dallas to San Diego, to overseas in Venice and Florence, so far I’ve gathered quite the mix of collection and special exhibition books. In addition to getting a book I will enjoy for years to come, I also consider it a small donation to the museums I purchase books from for putting together a powerful exhibition or collection. I’m always down to support the arts!

A page from the book on Julian Stanczak, whose artwork is currently on display here at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

Although the FWMoA doesn’t have a museum collection book, we do sometimes have a catalog or book on hand for what’s on display. Currently, we have two separate books for Julian and Barbara Stanczak. If you enjoy the exhibit as much as I do, you can pick up a copy and see insight pictures of the artist’s life and some work that didn’t get exhibited. Plus, this is one cool coffee table book to get for yourself or even a gift to any art loving friends!

Come in and see Full Spectrum and swing through the Paradigm Gallery for exhibition catalogs and other books!

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