04/12/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

Should Artists Pay for Their Own Exhibition Catalogues?

Artists are told regularly that they must take an active role in the development of their careers, that they must invest their time and energy in this endeavor, rather than waiting for someone else (dealer? patron? MacArthur Foundation?) to do it for them. Many of these opportunities involve artists spending their own money, which brings up the question of whether or not self-pay garners the same art world esteem as when someone else is the underwriter.

For some time, the ground has been shifting, moving the line between what is and is not considered acceptable for artists to pay for. Renting out a gallery in order to show one's artwork still may be viewed as a vanity exhibition, for instance, but increasingly it is common for artists to split the costs of shows with gallery owners on advertising and promotion, the opening reception and even repainting gallery walls. That split may be heavily weighted against the artist, but critics don't ask or seem to care about where the money came from before they review an exhibit, nor potential collectors when they visit the gallery. A review and sales far outweigh older concerns about breaking traditional rules about the roles of artists and dealers.

Being the subject of a coffee table art book is another great benchmark in an artist's career, but the publishers of these books regularly are subsidized by the galleries of the artists and/or by the artists themselves. "One of the factors in the decision to produce a book is whether the artist is willing to contribute to the costs of publishing," said Carol Morgan, former publicity director for Harry N. Abrams, the art book publisher. The means of financing these books are not revealed publicly, and readers don't inquire: They simply assume that the artist must be a big deal in order to merit the book, which is what the artist and dealer wanted in the first place. Throwing a veil over how the operations of the art world are actually paid for may help maintain older (needed?) illusions for collectors, critics and artists, but even what used to be called blatant self-promotion does not seem as out-of-bounds as it once had.

A growing number of artists have taken to self-publishing catalogues of their work, complete with high quality reproductions of their work and essays by noted critics, that look for all intents and purposes just like those created by galleries and museums.

"Artists are looking for grants, new galleries, museum shows," said West Palm Beach, Florida artist Bruce Helander, "and they need professional evidence to show that they've not just another artist in a sea of wannabes." He has produced catalogues three times to accompany shows (twice at galleries, once at a museum), claiming that the costs of creating them -- averaging $12,000 -- were more than made up for by increased sales that the catalogues generated. "A catalogue gets more reviews from critics and more attention from collectors," he said. "The basis of a catalogue is to transmit visual information to a consumer with a high level of design and quality. Readers then put two and two together and are more likely to form a more favorable opinion about the artist."

The first catalogue Helander published was in 1995 for his first one-person exhibition at New York City's Marisa del Rey gallery, which had no promotional plans beyond printing and mailing a postcard. He hired a designer to create an attractive presentation and commissioned Henry Geldzahler, former curator of 20th century at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to write a 1,000-word essay about his work. (Part of that expense included round-trip air fare to his studio for Geldzahler). For its part, the Marisa del Rey gallery kicked in $2,500, which went toward mailing the catalogue to collectors, critics and other people on the gallery's mailing list. Sales were strong, and "by the end of the opening, the catalogue had paid for itself," Helander said.

The link between increased sales and a catalogue is not always direct or clear -- might (some of) these sales be attributable to the prestige of the gallery itself or other behind-the-scenes work done by the dealer? And artists may have to take on faith that the catalogues they produce is money well spent.