Center for Book Arts
Wandering around the flower district of Manhattan, you may be surprised to see a green flag hanging high above the foliage, signaling the location of the Center for Book Arts (CBA) on the third floor, where it has been located since 1999. As artist and designer Ben Denzer recently wrote to me, “Despite coming and going to CBA all the time, I can never really get over how much of an unexpected gem it is. The fact that this book utopia is hiding on the third floor of a random building on 27th street has always made me look at all NYC buildings as if each might contain delightful secrets inside.” I first discovered CBA in 2015 when an announcement for an upcoming talk called “Repositioning the Archive,” part of the organization’s “History of Art Series,” found its way into my inbox. At that time, I had not yet fully immersed myself in the world of artists’ books and was eager to learn more. Since then, CBA has continued to be an important part of my own career in the field of artists’ books: I’ve reviewed several of their shows over the years, given talks as part of their programming, helped launch a new magazine, and curated an exhibition. For nearly 50 years, this organization has been devoted to supporting those invested in the art of the book, like myself.
The rhetoric of artists’ books has long focused on artists taking back the means of production, circumventing the commercial art world, and distributing works of art directly to their public. Art critic John Perreault noted that artists’ books exist “outside the normal art distribution system of galleries.” He cites their affordability to produce and buy, as well as their ease of distribution as key factors in this: “Because books are easily mailed, books as art are aiding in the decentralization of the art system.”1 Curator Joan Hugo similarly lauded the book as a mailable and affordable object for artists to create, citing specifically the ease of printing bookworks: “The accompanying rapid margin of other technologies, from the mechanization of paper-making and binding, the various applications of photography to printing, including photocopying and photocomposition, the increasingly widespread availability of the typewriter and the camera, to the most recent applications of computers to the printing process have brought self-publishing within everyone’s means and no farther away than the local instant print shop.”2 But it’s rarely as simple as finding a photocopier machine. Lucy Lippard wrote of this very problem of production costs, explaining that artists “rarely recoup printing costs, which, though fairly low, many cannot afford in the first place.”3 How do artists find the money and resources, which includes technical instruction on printing and binding, to produce artists’ books?
It’s this exact challenge—a challenge of economics—that artist, bookbinder, and entrepreneur Richard Minsky hoped to solve in 1974 when he opened Center for Book Arts, the first of its kind in the US, on Bleecker Street in New York. “The only thing that interested me was developing a model for a general theory for the development of not-for-profit corporate economic structure in a free-enterprise economy, a model that takes recognizance of the necessity for corporate economic structure and takes into account the necessity and the importance of free enterprise.”4 Minsky had studied economics and bookbinding in college, and both would become equally relevant to the success of Center for Book Arts, which will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary next year.
Like many other artist-founded non-profits, the team is small. In addition to the director, the staff also includes a program manager, education manager, and studio manager, as well as more standard administrative staff who work on development and outreach. Over the years, CBA’s Board of Directors has included a range of professionals from within the field, including librarians, art historians, and philanthropists such as Buckminster Fuller, Joan Davidson, Rose Slivka, and Clive Phillpot. Since then, it has remained similarly diverse with ten current active members elected each year after rigorous outreach efforts.
In 1974, CBA was part of a growing movement of independent artist-run organizations opening up in downtown New York, including Artists Space and A.I.R. Gallery—both founded in 1972. Book arts in particular were a major part of this drive, both in New York and nationally. By the time of CBA’s founding, a number of organizations in the city were already giving artists the means to print, including Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop (est. 1971) and the Lower East Side Printshop (est. 1968). And a few years later, in 1976, Printed Matter and Franklin Furnace would join CBA downtown as organizations devoted to artists’ books.
What distinguished CBA from these others was a concentration on all aspects of the book arts, not just printmaking and publishing. They defined book arts to include, “all arts and crafts relevant to the production and manufacture of books from manuscript to large editions. This includes, but is not limited to type design and typography, all methods of printing, including photomechanical and photochemical, hand and mechanical bookbinding, book repair, and restoration.”5 Their first storefront space on Bleecker Street included a bindery and letterpress area. For a modest membership fee, artists could make use of the space and equipment and take classes. Some of CBA’s early programs included a summer session in hand papermaking, bookbinding and printmaking demonstrations, and wood engraving workshops. “For the first decade we were in a storefront where people walking by on the street could see the workshop and exhibitions. That brought in many who had no idea that book art existed, or that they could do it,” Minsky remembered in an email to me. Today, CBA’s in-person and online workshops and classes include such diverse offerings as linoleum block printing, trace monotype, riso printing, drum leaf binding, Coptic binding, sewn binding, collage, accordion books, folded book techniques, book ornamentation, embroidery, letterpress, and paper marbling, in addition to scholarly classes on the history of artists’ books. This is just a slice of the exhaustive offerings, evidencing not only how much CBA has grown, but also how much the book arts have expanded over the past 50 years.
These early years, however, set the stage for future growth. Some of the canonical texts on artists’ books were being written around this time, including conceptual artist Ulises Carrión’s essay “The New Art of Making Books,” first published in 1975, in which he wrote the now-famous lines, “A book is a sequence of spaces,” and “In the old art the writer writes texts. In the new art the writer makes books.”6 Though Carrión was active in Amsterdam, his work to establish book art aligned him with CBA. In fact, CBA even reprinted this essay and distributed it free to their members shortly after it was first published abroad. “Other Books and So is much more modest and specialized in its scope,” Carrión wrote to Minsky in 1976 of his own bookstore in Amsterdam. “But its aim is the same as yours: ‘developing public awareness of the book as object.’”7 The earliest exhibitions at CBA worked to achieve this aim. Some of the first shows included a solo exhibition of papermaker Douglass Howell, North American Hand Papermaking, and a solo exhibition of Bruce Schnabel’s book bindings.
In addition to supporting these craft-based book art practices, CBA also encouraged more conceptual approaches to the book, including hosting a Spam Radio Club event for the mail artist and conceptual pioneer Ray Johnson, who corresponded frequently with Minsky, even honoring him with one of his signature bunny “please detach this part & send to” pieces. In 1980, artist Susan Share mounted the exhibition The Naked Book, which included book performances and other activations of the book as a kinetic object. That same year conceptual photobook artist Norman B. Colp began organizing exhibitions for CBA, continuing the trend towards blending traditional and experimental book art techniques. Explaining his curatorial strategy, Colp stated that “when traditional, non-traditional and very radical works are seen together, I think people are more willing to accept them.”8 Colp’s exhibitions included two 1981 shows: Entrapped, which examined primarily unique books with hidden components and featured work by Bruce Bacon, Mary Fish, Jacqui Holmes, and Sas Colby, and To Be Continued, which looked at sequential photobooks and featured work by Bettina, Phyllis Bilick, Conrad Gleber, and Bruce Nauman.
More recent exhibitions at CBA have continued to explore traditional and non-traditional book arts, constantly pushing the boundaries of the book form. “I see CBA at the cutting edge of the public discourse on ‘the book,’” board member and Morgan Library curator Jesse Erickson explained to me. “[I] appreciate it as a community space that helps us question what actually constitutes a ‘book’ and why books as objects remain important in today's society. Both through its curatorial engagement with theory and its ability to embody engagement through spatiality and practice, the CBA is at once demonstrative of the tactility of the printed word while being able to challenge preconceived notions that digital textuality doesn't exist in or is not produced in physical space.”
Looking back at past exhibitions, this expansive notion of the book is consistently present. Certain themes reemerge, such as the archive as both material for and ultimate landing place of artists’ books; experimentation with playful forms including children’s books and puzzle books; and performance as related to publishing and reading. Erikson singled out the 2022 exhibition, Performing Documents: Modes of Assembling curated by Paige Landesberg, as exemplifying this interest in increasing the borders of the book. The exhibition included some traditionally bound books, in addition to books with thermochromic ink, digital prints with video components, and a series of prints created through machine learning. Another 2022 exhibition, Beyond Codex: Living Archives curated by Anthony Tino and Shahar Kramer, similarly brought together a range of digital and print projects, including Mindy Seu’s ongoing compilation project Cyberfeminism Index. “Our exhibition program has started to present historically based exhibitions to fill in gaps that have been present in the field,” current Executive Director Corina Reynolds observed. “We have invested a lot more in our exhibition catalogues so they can become a resource, a way of history building, a way to push the dialogue forward.”
Attention to historically meaningful contributions to the field, however, can be seen as early as 1990, when CBA mounted Book Arts in the USA, a traveling exhibition and conference. The exhibition included over fifty artists from across the US working in very different modes of bookmaking. The complemental conference invited speakers from national institutions to discuss topics such as preservation and cataloguing, exhibitions, bookbinding, and criticism. Book Arts in the USA served to broaden dialogue within the field and introduce it to a wider international audience, as the show traveled through Africa and Latin America. Cheryl Ann Shackelton-Hawkins spearheaded another important program around this time, Cultural Autobiography in 1993–4, which invited high school students to spend a week learning about and making their own artists’ books, culminating in an exhibition featuring their work. Many of the students were drawn to accordion and concertina book structures, in addition to pamphlets. Examining themes of family, New York City, and racism, their works reflected how book arts can offer a meaningful outlet for young people to consider their own lived experiences.
CBA also hosted an apprenticeship program, modeled somewhat off of the book art tradition of learning from master craftspeople. The apprenticeship program, supported in part by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, was “a two-year program which includes traditional hand book-binding and repairing, letterpress printing, hand production methods, accounting procedures, management, and history of the book arts,” as a mailer from the time describes it. Early apprentices included Richard Barrett, Mindell Dubansky, Susan Rabinowitz, and Reginald Walker. “We were experiencing a national traditional craft revival and so CBA had paid apprenticeships,” explained Dubansky, who now works as a librarian and book conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “In that time, I had training from Richard [Minsky], Hedi Kyle, and Bruce Schnabel; and I was allowed to take any and all workshops that the Center was offering.” Dubansky continued to be involved with CBA, contributing texts and wood engraved illustrations to the newsletter and CBA ephemera. Her books, which often incorporated embroidery and found materials such as shoe boxes, beads, and candy, were exhibited in a number of CBA’s exhibitions as early as 1979. The apprenticeship program was one of many ways CBA began to build a book art community. “Learning by doing was the thing,” noted Dubansky. “There were a number of other apprentices as well, some who came before me and some after, for instance, I was taught by Toni Weil and I taught Barbara Mauriello.” CBA cultivated an educational community that wasn’t top down, but communal in learning and making.
While the formal apprenticeship program is no longer active, CBA continues to welcome artists- and scholars-in-residence. The recently announced 2023 Book Artists-in-Residence include Sunny Leerasanthanah, Kyung Eun You, and Kristen Mueller, whose practices reflect the diversity of CBA’s approach to bookmaking. “I was drawn to artists who came from other mediums that were investigating publishing as an interesting, coherent way to conceptually amplify and multiply their practice,” explained artist Simón Ramírez, one of this year’s jurors, in an email to me. “I was also interested in artists who used publishing as a platform to engage and enlarge conversation with others.” For most artists, the residency not only provides materials and space to work, but crucial time to reconsider book art as part of their practice. “Focused mainly on content, CBA pushed me to think more conceptually about text, type, and printed matter,” explained 2012 artist-in-residence Kameelah Janan Rasheed. The residency sparked important questions about text for Rasheed, such as, “What can a single letter do? How does kerning impact the experience with the text? How does materiality of a letterpress work differ from a xerox?” These questions remain central to the artist’s practice today, which includes experimental publishing, printing, and bookmaking.
The impact of the residency on an artist’s career was echoed by many. Ben Denzer, a resident in 2018 who now also teaches classes at CBA told me, “I credit my existence as an artist to the opportunities I had as a resident at Center for Book Arts. In addition to the many classes where I learned specific bookbinding skills, it was really the resource of the community itself that made the experience so special.” The sense of community causes many to return to CBA: to take and teach classes, propose exhibitions, and more. “Returning to CBA to give the keynote for the 2022 CABC [Contemporary Artist’s Book] conference was a lovely full circle moment,” Rasheed reflected. “I am grateful that CBA gave me my first formal NYC space where I began to dream about text as a central part of my practice.”
As with many organizations, the past few years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, have forced significant changes. “When we moved the classes online,” Reynolds explained, “we were able to offer them as pay-what-you-wish, since we didn’t have the restrictions of a physical space. This made classes way more accessible to a larger audience.” Artist and letterpress instructor Roni Gross echoed this impact on CBA’s programs. “The result of [moving online] has been that we have had attendees from all over the world, and also have also had the opportunity to have speakers from all over the world,” explains Gross of her Book Talk series. “This has enlarged the scope of what we have been able to program, and I would hope, include other populations that we may not have included previously.” Reynolds even noted a large international audience, previously unknown to CBA because their membership is national. “CBA’s Zoom classes have been a game changer in terms of bringing book arts to a larger geographic community,” Denzer noted about his own lectures and classes. “I’ve had people from all time zones in my classes, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to zoom in and make books together.” During this time when many non-profits are facing financial struggles, there is something beautiful and powerful about imagining artists and makers all over the world signing in from different time zones and climates to make books together.
Reflecting on the past few years, Gross added, “I think that CBA has become a more open place in terms of being responsive to projects proposed by artists, and its programming is more socially engaged.” I will admit myself, that during the past few years, I have often struggled to justify my own work in the arts amongst so many global, national, and local crises. But then I am reminded of the power of the self-published book to give voice to individual struggles, to build bridges, and to make people heard.
- John Perreault, “Some Thoughts on Books as Art,” in Artists Books (Philadelphia: Moore College of Art, 1973), 20.
- Joan Hugo, “Museum without Walls,” in Artwords and Bookworks (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, 1978), unpaginated.
- Lucy Lippard, “The Artist’s Book Goes Public,” Art in America, January/February 1977, 40–41.
- “General Fabricator: Interview with Richard Minsky,” Book Arts Review 3, no. 2 (March 1984), unpaginated.
- Book Arts 1, no. 1 (Spring 1975): 2.
- Ulises Carrión, "The New Art of Making Books" in Artists' Books a Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), 31.
- Letter from Ulises Carrión to Richard Minsky, Feb 12, 1976, Center for Book Arts Archives Collection, New York, AAR.MN.B2.0018.
- “Interview with Norman Colp,” Book Arts Review 1, no. 1 (January 1982), unpaginated.