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Printed Matter, Inc., New York. Where publishing, social activism and inclusivity take precedent

«Our guardian trajectory is to take art off the pedestal and out of the sanctity of the museum, and fold it into everyday experiences». Max Schumann, Director of Printed Matter, Inc.

New York, 28 February, 2021. Printed Matter, Inc. was founded in New York City in 1976. Its band of creators – a union of critics and artists – shared a dedication to the dissemination, understanding, and appreciation of artists’ books and related publications. As one of the world’s leading arts-and-culture focused non-profit organizations, it continues to operate expanding its offering and programming, reflective of cultural evolution, acting as a platform and voice-box for social activism. «Our guardian trajectory is to take art off the pedestal, out of the sanctity of the museum, and fold it into experiences», explains its director, Max Schumann. Printed Matter operates as a bookstore, but is an organization that serves the arts community on a number of levels. At the time in which Printed Matter was founded, artists’ books were an under-represented form of art. Schumann elucidates the importance of artists’ books – not to be confused with art books – the force of Printed Matter’s mission, «An art book is a book about art, an artists’ book is the art. We represent forms of artists’ books. We are based on an ethos of accessibility, affordability, inclusivity, and carry twelve thousand titles. One of the principles of the store is the reproducibility of the book to ensure it can be sold without bearing an expense. The majority of our inventory is in-print artists’ books, priced from $5-$50». Printed Matter has a rare and out-of-print section, but the emphasis is access. «In our stacks, you can find books from the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties sold at their original price. Works have become sought-after and, due to scarcity, the prices have risen. We have books priced in hundreds and thousands of dollars, and carry a number of signed-editions». 

For Schumann, a child of the Sixties counterculture parents who founded the politically-orientated puppet theatre Bread and Puppet in Vermont, New England, the lure of the art scene was inevitable. «I did a couple of years at Oberlin College in the Midwest, where I studied art and received exposure to the wave of postmodernism: Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Prince». The chief-curator at the college museum, the Allen Memorial Art Museum, was William ‘Bill’ R. Olander, who brought the contemporary-artist programs to Oberlin College and had the New York City art world connections. Schumann started working in Printed Matter in 1989, packing books in the sales department. «In 1993, while working part-time, multiple leadership roles left the store at once: the director, the manager, the assistant manager. That is when I began my role as Acting Director. It was like the grown-ups had left, and the kids were in charge. We had to pivot in haste, and we did. That was the beginning of the emphasis on ‘programming’ at Printed Matter. We started inviting people to host launches, performances and video screenings». The founding members had a vision of ‘programming’ for the arts community from day one. Printed Matter’s launch team included critics Lucy Lippard and Edit DeAk, Sol LeWitt, the painter, Pat Steir, and Walter Robinson, who was the founder of the magazine Art-Rite – a publication that aside from its art reviews, served as a newsletter, sharing insider information on the downtown New York art scene. The rest of the founders included Mimi Wheeler, Robin White, and Irena von Zahn. As for who is credited with the initial concept of Printed Matter, we do not know. «There are myths that contrast. Lucy Lippard says it was the result of a conversation that she had with Sol LeWitt. Pat Steir says it was the result of Walter Robinson and Edit DeAk researching an artists’ issue for Art-Rite»During a New York University gallery exhibition, where the history of Printed Matter was the subject, Mimi Wheeler, an audience attendee, explained how the organization came into being. «She spoke about the nuts and bolts of its origin. She explained that Printed Matter was figuring, ‘how do we respond to this phenomenon of artists doing their work in book form? What are the roles that need to be fulfilled? There needs to be production, distribution, and an archive’».

printed matter 3
Interior of Printed Matter Inc.

The non-profit organization model was not a defining principle to start with. The first notion was that Printed Matter’s economy would be a self-sustaining economy. The founders came to understand the dilemma of making accessible what was aform of contemporary-art, as it targeted at an audience that was of privilege. «One of the contradictions of artists’ books was that publishers could produce one-thousand copies. It is a task to sell one-thousand books of obscure work – unless the artist has an established profile. A year after launching, Printed Matter realized that it couldn’t be a self-sustaining economy because there are not enough people to buy the books – it had to be supported». The first application for non-profit status was rejected because Printed Matter was a bookstore. «The state said, ‘A bookstore is a business. How can it be non-profit?’ A counter-argument was made, but it was rejected a second time. A plea stating, ‘It is a service, an educational-vehicle, an artistic-practice that needs support’ was accepted». Printed Matter was granted non-profit organization status in 1978. The status elevated the organization, and the access to subsidization enabled it to diversify its offering to the community and its customers. «We host eighty events per year. These include book launches, artist readings and panel discussions. We have had slideshows and film viewings, sound art, and music performances». The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the organization to scale back, but the gap has been filled with virtual events appended by analog-components. Printer Matter’s window installations have stood through time. «Lucy Lippard curated a window installation series for the eleven years that Printed Matter was in Tribeca, where she invited one artist per month to do a window installation. When we moved to Soho, Julie Ault (an ex-board member) engaged with window displays as a program. It continues now as part of our identity; we budget for four commissioned artist installations per year. In between them, we host internally-curated installations». 

Printed Matter Publishing is an arm of the business which has remained since it launched in 1976. «The publishing program was identified at the time of founding as one of the services that artists’ books needed. Two years following its opening and having published twelve books, it proved to be a task to manage, and the publishing program ended. In 2000, the then director, David Platzker, relaunched the program. We have sustained the publishing program in variations since then». Compared to the consignment books that can be proposed via submission, Printed Matter Publishing is by invitation. An interest in art books in the market has led Printed Matter to evolve its presence on the book fair scene; its annual New York and Los Angeles fairs have become calendar events. Printed Matter now participates at fairs in Sydney, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Mexico. This year, adapting to the coronavirus crisis’s constraints, the organization will launch its online art book fair at the end of February 2021, participating with four-hundred exhibitors from over 30 countries. As for the stocked titles that tower to tens of thousands, Schumann explains the process of curation for Printed Matter as a team-effort directed by a rotating staff panel. «When we order books through commercial distribution or consignment, we are conservative when testing them. We order between four and six copies at a time. Sixty percent of our inventory is carried on consignment from independent- publishers, artists-publishers, small-scale presses, and institutional-publishing programs. The consignment books come in via an open submission procedure. Anyone is welcome to submit their work; it has to be in book format, an artist-periodical, an audiovisual, or computer work. We accept approximately forty percent of what gets submitted». Printed Matter carries video, audio, and other time- and media-based works, in addition to apparel, postcards, printed posters, t-shirts, and bags. As Printed Matter produces its merchandise, it is not open to submissions. 

shower with affection
Zach Grear, Shower with Affection

The revenue stream is its store on 11th Avenue in New York. Its second location in St. Marks casts the net to a customer base. «The current Chelsea store was an expansion, and it tripled our size and capacity [from the previous location in Chelsea]. It is a remote-location, and we were challenged with a reduction in sales because we were located on 10th Avenue in Chelsea, which, while one block away, was a pedestrian thoroughfare». In contrast, the St. Marks store is located in the lobby of the Swiss Institute – another non-profit – situated at the heart of New York’s East Village. The location is not the sole differing quality between the two locations. The Chelsea space was designed pro bono by the architectural firm Handel which is responsible for the 9/11 Memorial Glade in New York. The renovation of the building allowed for spaces to exist within an open-plan setting. There are sections for magazines, periodicals, rare and out-of-print books, and Printed Matters Publishing work. There is an audio and media room with listening and viewing stations on the upper floor and beneath, a two-part event area offering hundred feet of wall space that can be sectioned off or adjoined for exhibitions. The St Mark’s location attracts passersby. Twelve-foot-high bookshelves and utilitarian and minimalist decor – directed by Swiss Institute, who hosts Printed Matter – leads with function and flexibility. 

Before the curtailing of retail, the stores attracted twenty-five-thousand customers annually. «Our bookstore sales plunged in the pandemic due to the government-mandated closure of businesses, but online sales grew. The doubling of e-commerce doesn’t make up for the loss of sales. This year we are facing a deficit, but the human and social need for these books will help us endure». Reflecting on the cultural state and society’s relationship with books, Schumann says, «Printed Matter provides a forum for radical and political voices, which is of relevance to this generation. There has been a revival in consciousness from the uprisings against anti-racism and police violence in 2020. Our customer is becoming diversified. Printed Matter’s demographic is multi-generational, reflecting the artists we work with. There is a renaissance with artists’ books in publishing which has been going on for the last five or ten years. It is a response that challenges the digital-utopia concept».


Printed Matter, Inc.
231 11th Ave
New York City
New York