03/02/2011 12:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Disappearing Art Catalogue Essay

Customarily, when painter Ben Aronson's work is exhibited in a gallery, a catalogue is published filled with images of artworks in the show and an appreciative essay by a critic. However, when Karen Jenkins-Johnson had a show at her San Francisco gallery in 2008, there was a catalogue, but it didn't have an essay. "People -- clients -- aren't reading essays," she said. "They just want to see the images and a C.V." -- the artist's version of a resume, which she has included. Essays are also expensive, costing several thousand dollars, "and I have to recoup that by selling another painting, or maybe half or quarter of a painting." Every penny counts these days, in a world of ever-rising rents and intense competition for sales. The one- to three-dollar-per-word essay may be the most expendable luxury.

Emily Mason is another artist whose solo gallery exhibits are accompanied by catalogues with both words and pictures, but the catalogue for her March 2011 show at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art in New York City has images but no critical essay. The reason, gallery director Louis Newman noted, is that Mason has "a large and loyal clientele who just want to see the images, to see what she's doing now. Her clients think they know more than any writer. They don't need some 30-year-old telling them why they should like her work."

Many gallery exhibition catalogues continue to include essays, offering biographical, art historical and technical insights about the artists, but a trend is emerging: the catalogue essay is slowly fading away, replaced sometimes by a dealer's penned tribute or a brief question-and-answer page with the artist or by nothing at all. "The word has become just a lot less important in these days when everyone has computers and iPods," said art critic Dore Ashton, who used to write catalogue essays frequently for gallery shows but now only for exhibitions that take place in Europe. "No one here reads that much." Or, more properly, visitors to galleries may not read exhibition catalogue essays as much as they once might have done. Both Newman and Jenkins-Johnson stated that they have received blank stares when mentioning to prospective buyers an idea written up in the catalogue essay. "Most times, no one notices if an essay isn't included," Andrew Arnot, director of Manhattan's Tibor de Nagy gallery, said. The essay is rarely a part of conversations he has with collectors, and it does not appear to be a factor in a collector's decision if or what to buy. As a result, the Tibor de Nagy gallery also has foregone catalogue essays, at least some of the time.

Not every dealer takes this view. New York gallery owner June Kelly stated that "I have essays in every catalogue, and I always have," claiming that part of her role is educator. "I see the general public needing information. I want to give people a sense of what the work is about, a point of reference." She added that essays are helpful to visitors to the gallery who are not collectors -- yet -- and simply need a way to understand what they are seeing. Still, the connection between the information essay and actual sales is tenuous, and their continued inclusion is based on the belief that it is the right thing to do rather than it is a proven marketing tool.

There may be no way of knowing who, if anyone, reads these essays. "Art critics read them," said Kim Levin, an art critic and past president of the International Association of Art Critics, adding that what critics write is influenced by what others have written. She added that exhibitions come and go, and it is the ideas about the art found in the written essays that may have a longer resonance than the memory of the images. For many professional critics, writing catalogue essays form a substantial portion of their income; catalogue essays indicate, among other things, who's hiring.

The artists themselves read them. George Schectman, owner of New York's Gallery Henoch, stated that the essays "are more important to the artists than to the gallery." When the choice is made to hire a writer, which is frequently an economic decision (at many galleries, artists contribute to the cost of exhibitions), the critic is approved by the artist in advance (sometimes, the artist proposes an essayist), and the essay also must be OK'ed by the artists before being published. However, Schectman said, "artists are much more critical about the color reproductions in the catalogue than about the essay."

The artists are probably onto something, since most gallery owners claim that buyers are sold on the images, rather than what is said about them and who is saying it. Emily Mason claimed that she prefers "not to have an essay, as it takes up space that could be used for reproductions. Essays take time that could better be spent looking at the art." Stuart Shils, whose paintings are currently being exhibited at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, stated that he doesn't regret the lack of an essay in the exhibition catalogue, since "I have read some pretty vacuous, self serving stuff in their catalogs" in the past. He added that the absence of an essay seemed a bit jarring at first, but "maybe, it is just a matter of something to get used to."

In general, according to San Francisco gallery owner John Pence, "the vast majority of collectors go straight to the pictures," adding that "museums and libraries are more likely to be interested in the essays." The usual print run for an exhibit at his gallery is 4,500, and only 10 percent of that group -- 150 to members of the press, 150 to schools and 150 to libraries -- may focus on the text.