Catalog coverWhen I was offered a solo art show at a university space in the spring of 1995, I decided it was the perfect excuse to produce an exhibition catalogue. I wanted to use it as a promotional piece for a select group of people--I'd send it with a letter explaining I had completed 15 new paintings too recently to include in the catalogue, but that they would be in the show.

But the catalogue, like any good catalogue, also would fill some other needs:

Good Credential. If done well, a catalogue equals credibility. For an artist, a bunch of exhibition announcements look impressive tucked into the back of your portfolio book. But with a catalogue, I wouldn't even need a portfolio book.

Low Per-Unit Cost. Artists--and even some businesses--often use packets of slides to show their work, but slide dupes are quite expensive to produce; a slide packet can easily cost $25. Then there's the $1.70 or so required to mail it, plus an additional $1.70 for the SASE to get it back. At $30 a pop, my slide packets are pretty scarce. My catalogue, on the other hand, cost me only $2.50 per copy. Furthermore, it costs me less to mail out, and no SASE is necessary--I ask people to keep the catalogues (hopefully on desktops and coffee tables, rather than hidden in files, as slides so often are).

When my catalogue's printer estimated $4 per unit for a print run of 1,000 (about $3,900) and a per-unit cost of $2.50 for a print run of 2,000 (about $4,700), I decided to go ahead and print 2,000. That's a lot of promo packets, more than 10 times the 200 or so slide packets I could have produced for the same money. On the other hand, that's a large investment, so you must be sure you're ready and you must be sure you deliver first class transparencies and copy to your printer.

Assistance for Intermediary Customers. The more easy-to-see and solid documentation you provide, the easier it is for dealers or distributors to move your work. It's easier for someone to fall in love with a 6" x 4" printed image than a one-square-inch slide. Also, leave room on the back cover for the dealer or distributor to stamp his or her name, address, and phone number--that way the dealer can use it as a promotional device on your behalf.

The mechanics of producing a catalogue are straightforward, but attention to detail will be necessary. You want your catalogue to be respected, not dismissed as an amateurish product. It's too big an investment not to do everything 100% right from start to finish.

To get started, pick up or purchase every catalogue and brochure you can get your hands on. After you have several catalogues, you'll find yourself being attracted to certain styles and formats. For instance, I didn't like catalogues which were folded in a complicated manner--why go to the trouble of making the art accessible and then make it inaccessible? To me, anything with less than eight pages felt more like a flier than a catalogue--fliers and brochures are fine, but this time I wanted a catalogue. I was also attracted to odd sizes; I felt that 8-1/2" x 11" pieces seemed more like every other newsletter or mail order catalogue. Though a few black-and-white catalogues were very well done and caught my eye, ultimately I felt that only color would represent my work well. And, I know that glossy paper almost always represents color images better than uncoated paper.

Catalog cover
The brochure cover
So I decided on a 24-page, 8-1/2" square catalogue, with color images printed on 80 lb. (somewhat heavy) glossy paper. A self-cover (meaning the cover's paper stock was the same as the inside pages rather than heavier) reduced the costs significantly, and the difference in quality was minuscule.

You may need to hire a professional photographer who can produce high quality 4" x 5" transparencies and slides for you. In my experience, my printed materials have been better when I have sent the printer 4" x 5" transparencies rather than slides.

If you are planning to send the printer camera-ready copy, hire an editor to proof your copy. You don't want double spaces between sentences; you want typeset quotation marks rather than vertical hash-marks; you want good grammar and proper spelling; your captions should list the vertical dimension before horizontal before depth.

Some of the catalogues you collect will credit the printer inside the front cover. Now that you have decided on the format you want, contact these and other printers for estimates.

If this is the first time you've gathered estimates for a major printing job, I recommend that you go to the library, consult a directory of specialty printers (look in the chapter for art products or catalogue printers), and ask for estimates from at least 20 printers, including printers who have done catalogues you've liked.

NorwayYou'll need to provide potential printers with page count, number of color plates, type of binding (glued binding is called "perfect binding" and stapled is called "saddle stitched"), type of paper, number of copies (have them estimate for different quantities), and specify whether you'll be providing camera-ready copy or whether they will need to typeset it for you. Ask them to send you samples of similar work they have done, and ask them to tell you what kind of paper was used in each sample so you can speak their language; each printer has a favorite or "house" stock of paper. Each printer's representative will probably have questions about your job and will be able to explain printer lingo to you. Ask the printer for references from other customers who have produced similar products.

After you have sent your transparencies, cropping instructions (if applicable), camera-ready copy (or copy and layout directions), and your instructions to the printer, it is critical to get a proof. Always, always, always, always get a proof. In your color proof you will be able to see whether the printer has cropped anything incorrectly, spelled anything wrong, laid out anything in a sloppy manner, and so on.

When I got my catalogue proof back from my printer, I was appalled to see that they apparently had not bothered to clean my transparencies before making the color separations. Specks of dust, dirt, and even hairs floated throughout all of my images. My rich emerald greens had shifted to a duller more olive green. And, I had specified 200 linescreen reproductions, not 150 linescreen, which was the (coarser) resolution my eye discerned in my proofs.

Though discouraged, I asked our Director of Marketing to call the printer. They weren't happy about it, but we gave them a choice: either they would do the job properly, or we would pay them a portion of the charges incurred to date and go elsewhere to get the job done.

BromeliadThere was more: apparently some of the problems were due to my own transparencies; they said there were flaws in the film which had not been visible to my naked eye. And, if the printer was to retouch these flaws, we would incur additional charges.

We decided that this printer's past work for me was very good--they had produced notecards and postcards for me--and they deserved another chance. Though the additional charges weren't pleasing to us, at least my transparencies got fixed, the images' color separations were done over at a higher resolution, and neither party lost face.

In the first few months after I had my box of catalogues, I mailed out a small number--50--to recent clients, people who have expressed interest in my work, people with whom I would like to work (including museums, nonprofits, and a very few dealers), and a few special friends. Of the 1,950 remaining catalogues, I'll save 1,000 or so for future clients, dealers, libraries, media kits, documentation, etc. I plan to mail the rest--950 or so--over time to spaces where I would like to show. As frequently as possible I tell fellow artists about what I call the Numbers Game, a kind of standard direct marketing ratio: for every 100 promo packets you send out, you'll get 3 to 5 expressions of interest, from a group show to a solo exhibition to a sale. Therefore sending out 950 catalogues to carefully targeted recipients should yield 25-50 shows or sales.

I'll keep you posted on how this investment works for me. I should know short-term results fairly rapidly; probably within a year I'll have a very good idea of how things are going. Long-term benefits of my catalogue will be more difficult to determine, but I have no doubt they'll be substantial. I have already had two wonderful responses: one curator who asked me to keep in touch said he is becoming anxious to curate my work into something soon. And the director of the university gallery where I just showed asked me to supply him with several copies of the catalogue so he can hand them out to others with his personal recommendation.

Carolyn Blakeslee was profiled in the September, 1991 Inc. article "Can Carolyn Blakeslee Have It All?" She lives on an island in the Chesapeake Bay with her husband, daughter, and son. E-mail her at

Copyright (c) 1995 Carolyn Blakeslee.

Editor's note: This article was adapted from a story which originally appeared in Art Calendar in the summer of 1995. Printed here with permission of the author.