Q&A: The Art Museum’s Amanda Renshaw, Editorial Director of Phaidon

Interview by Cheryl Ann Lajos

Veteran fine arts reviewer Cheryl Ann Lajos took some time late last month to ask Amanda Renshaw, the editorial director of Phaidon, about the press’s new book The Art Museum (Xpress Reviews 11/11). She writes:

Expertly conceived to mimic the encyclopedic organization and arrangement of many world-renown museum collections and containing numerous well-known and lesser known, iconic, significant, and beautiful masterpieces, Phaidon’s The Art Museum‚ a virtual museum in a book‚ is spacious and easy to navigate, in spite of its overwhelming size, weight, and contents. Rivaling and undoubtedly surpassing Google Art Project, as it currently exists, this museum in a book constitutes one of the first truly, visually and intellectually accessible, ideal art museums of the world, open 24/7, 365 days per year.

Where did the idea for this publication come from (i.e. to conceive this book in terms of an ideal art museum)? What inspired or lead you to this publication? What were the objectives and goals, if any, of the contributors and/or publisher?

We’ve always tried to think of innovative ways to make art accessible to as wide an audience as possible. For example, some of the bestselling Phaidon art books created over our nearly 90 year history are The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich, which was a woven narrative, and The Art Book, which featured 500 artists in an A-to-Z format that depicted one picture per artist.

Phaidon editor Amanda Renshaw

Phaidon publisher Richard Schlagman was the catalyst for The Art Museum when, ten years ago, he suggested that we imagine unlimited space and an unlimited budget. We would call the space the museum, and could collect the greatest work to tell the story of world art from cave paintings through to work made in the 21st century. The aim was to give the reader a complete and easy-to-use overview of world art.

Many of the books published by Phaidon are made internally. In the case of The Art Museum, we had a global team of curators, art historians, teachers, and researchers to help us curate this unprecedented collection.

Can you comment on the cover of this publication? Why was it chosen and how does it fit?

Our goal was to create a timeless cover with a classic contemporary feel that inspires a sense of unlimited space.

Given the facts that this book costs $200, consists of more than 900 pages, weighs 18 lbs., and took more than ten years to create, can you comment on the process of creating this work? What was involved? What obstacles, if any, were presented and overcome? What criteria, if any, were used to include/exclude certain objects?

We wanted the book to include iconic works, but not just to be a compilation of favorite art and artists. Our mission was to create a book that tells the overarching story of the history of art. Works included were selected for their significance in the history of world art, their cultural legacy, and their sheer beauty and covetousness.

The Art Museum includes many works that museums cannot borrow for exhibitions‚ either they are simply not moveable due to their size or their fragility, or private collectors won’t lend them. For example, a private collector in Paris owns an important painting by Braque that she won’t lend to museums. It took a lot of cajoling, but the piece is included in The Art Museum.

Also Room 162 in the book (the book is organized by color-coded galleries, rooms, and corridors like a real museum) features the Maestà Altarpiece by the artist Duccio, a double-sided altarpiece that, over the years, had been dismantled, with fragments on display in various places. We went to the various sources to reassemble the altar, and The Art Museum is the only place where one can see the altarpiece in its entirety.

How do you foresee this book being used? Who should use it or buy it? Why?

The Art Museum will appeal to several very different types of readers. First, it’s for those who are extremely knowledgeable in certain fields of art, but who know little about other fields of art. It’s also for those of us who go to museums and galleries but aren’t sure what we’re looking at‚ and, frankly, I think that includes most of us! It’s for people who feel they should like or understand art but find it difficult. Finally, it’s a wonderful investment for families as the first and only art book they will ever need.

In terms of deluxe art publications like this one, what lies ahead for the art book publishing industry? Does this book evidence any trends in the art book publishing industry of which librarians and others should be aware?

Clearly times are changing very quickly, but as a publisher, I’m not afraid of change‚ I’m excited about it. Our role as a publisher is to make useful and exceptional products, and it doesn’t matter what format they appear in, whether paper or digital. The extensive content in The Art Museum happens to for now work best in the format of a book because it’s only on oversized double-page spreads that one can get such an overview of a complete movement in art or of an artist.

At the same time, just like in a real museum, readers can browse the galleries of The Art Museum, which they can’t do effectively in a digital format at the moment. Our role isn’t to be 100 percent comprehensive, but to act as a guide to 30,000 years of world art, to select and edit art to make it more accessible, interesting, and enjoyable to as wide an audience as possible.

Also there is currently great demand for books that are also beautiful, unique objects, and this book is an incredible object unlike anything that has been ever published.