A spread from Wim Botha's Heliostat, published by the Norval Foundation. Picture: SUPPLIED
A spread from Wim Botha's Heliostat, published by the Norval Foundation. Picture: SUPPLIED

Producing a catalogue or monograph to accompany an exhibition in SA costs anywhere from R70,000 for a simple publication to R450,000 for a quality volume. Yet the benefits go well beyond any material investment.

Publications “are like postcards that you can open up”, says the Norval Foundation’s head of publishing, Robin Kirsten. They contain all the memories of a show. While works themselves disappear into private collections and homes, books act as mobile ambassadors for a gallery or institution, emitting subtle signals as to status and provenance.

“Our books have played a huge role in establishing the gallery as a serious presence, and extending our reach internationally,” says Stevenson director Sophie Perryer. The gallery has produced more than 90 small, almost square soft-cover catalogues in-house since the Stevenson’s first solo show by Guy Tillim in 2003, as well as extensive monographs, including some in partnership with international publishers such as Prestel and Aperture.

They have also occasionally produced a few special editions with “an original artwork or intervention by the artist” to help fund a large print run for a significant book (publications for Kemang Wa Lehulere, Nandipha Mntambo and Nicholas Hlobo are examples). Stevenson sends its books to collectors, takes copies to art fairs and uses them to introduce artists to curators.

As importantly, says Perryer, commissioned essays and interviews for books build “critical discourse around artists’ work” and “indicate that there is context and support for the work… [Publications] allow for works to be seen together and for the development of the artist’s oeuvre over time to be observed.”

The benefits to commercial galleries are clear, particularly those aiming to join the elite international tiers. The Goodman Gallery has been publishing catalogues and monographs for decades, including a lush, stitched volume to celebrate its 50-year anniversary in 2016, priced at nearly R900 a copy. Bad Paper has designed good-looking monographs on Georgina Gratrix for Smac and Cameron Platter for whatiftheworld (in conjunction with Paris-based Galerie Hussenot). Both Smac and whatiftheworld produce publications, though not for every show.

Private museums too are beginning to use publications to extend their reach. The Zeitz MOCAA has thus far produced one catalogue to accompany the show Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era; another book for an upcoming solo is in the works. “Much of the benefit is more qualitative than quantitative,” says interim communications head, Emma King. “It’s important for Zeitz MOCAA to be seen as a thought leader and to have a voice.”

Cape Town’s Norval Foundation, opened in 2018, produces smaller, templated publications for focus shows, and larger, more expansive volumes for certain key shows. Head of publications Kirsten says publications are a “way we can send [our work] to people who can’t come to us”, tools that “represent the foundation’s ethics, our standard and our commitment”. 

Norval publications are not designed to make money. Costs will be ideally recouped, but over a few years, as “few publications can sell enough copies within the short lifespan of an exhibition”. Books can also be a way for artists and institutions to have a small physical presence in prestigious museums and galleries — on a shelf in the shop. But then, says Kirsten: “You have to make great books.”

The Norval’s current approach is to provide richer, deeper information and context in its publications, not attempt to replicate exhibitions. Even slimmer templated catalogues, such as Labour of Many on Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama, contain collages and working drawings as well as images of the museum installation and a fascinating essay by Nigerian Emmanuel Iduma. It adds historical and archival depth and widens the appeal for art professionals.

Heliostat, a 172-page publication created with the artist Wim Botha, uses a wide range of papers to provide tactile clues to the navigation and play on the artist’s work: pink, blue and transparent tipped-in pages reference Botha’s neon lighting and dichroic filters applied to glass. Sketches, essays and process photographs of works such as Mieliepap Pietà add layers for contemplation.

Quality publications can be very collectable. Aspire Art Auction MD Ruarc Peffers says market value for monographs is guided by a combination of how acclaimed the artist is and the rarity of the publication.

“Exhibition catalogues have a market, though less so, mostly concentrated on important and critically regarded shows — these are usually in the form of large group and survey exhibitions. The wealthier galleries regularly produce publications on their artists, this is part of the process of creating value. These retain value in later years based on the career trajectory of the artist.”

Collector value aside, quality publications — like art itself — bring pleasure. “It’s all that’s left after an exhibition,” says Kirsten, “and it’s like wine. If it’s a good one, it will last.”