Artwatch UK

Trouble at Yale University Press London

This week Yale University Press published Art History and Emergency, a book of essays assessing art history’s role and responsibilities in what has been described as today’s “humanities crisis”. It explores how artists, art historians and related professionals respond to pressures and demonstrate worth.

It considers how it might be possible to think deeply about art objects and images without losing the intellectual intensity of the best works being studied. (We are tempted to hold that a clear distinction should always be drawn between making and appraising art. Fuseli held it desirable to maintain such a division even within the production of art when he advised artists to conceive with fire but to execute with phlegm.)

The content and timing of Art History and Emergency must coincide embarrassingly for its publisher with the profound collapse of scholarly confidence triggered by a radical restructuring of Yale University Press’s own art historical programme. There is also irony in the fact that this particular examination of the “humanities crisis” is published in the “Clark Studies in the Visual Arts” series. ArtWatchers will be familiar with the Clark Institute’s own contribution to that crisis through mistreatment of paintings and breaches of its founder’s terms of bequest. (See “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners” and “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures”.)

Art is perpetually vulnerable to wrong-headed, impetuous and destructive administrative impulses. Its traditions are slow to build but all too easy to dismantle – an architect in revolutionary France devised a way of destroying Gothic churches in an afternoon. When Sterling Clark’s widow died the Institute’s staff rushed to “restore” paintings against Clark’s explicit terms and despite the fact that he had carefully bought un-restored works in excellent condition. Paintings are not the only victims of administrators wishing to make their mark.

A LETTER OF MASS PROTEST BY SCHOLARS

On 8 July a letter signed by more than 290 scholars from 77 universities, and 30 museums and institutions in 9 countries, was sent to Peter Salovey, the President of Yale University; Susan Gibbons, the Librarian and Deputy Provost for libraries and scholarly communications, Yale University; and John Donatich, the Director of Yale University Press. The letter had been framed by two scholars, Professor Andrew Saint and Professor Jules Lubbock, in protest against what has been widely taken to be:

“[A] grave threat to the future of excellence in publishing books on art, architecture and design in Britain, the United States and around the world.”

This threat is seen to come from a “restructuring” of the Yale University Press (London)’s art books under the Managing Director, Heather McCallum, whose actions are supported by the (interlocking) directors and trustees.

Over the past forty years this university press is widely regarded as having built an unparalleled record for first-class, good-looking and scholarly books on the visual arts. This much-admired tradition was established by John Nicoll in the early 1970s and has continued under two outstanding editors, Gillian Malpass and Sally Salvesen, whose experience, scholarship and eye for design earned international acclaim, the gratitude of many eminent authors, and many awards.

Malpass and Salvesen are being sacked to make way for an editorial director (on whom, see below). This restructuring – for which no financial requirement or other necessity has been demonstrated – has caught the art world unawares. No one had been consulted in London – not even The Paul Mellon Centre in London whose generous financial support, together with that of The Yale Centre for British Art, lies behind much of this outstanding publishing. Although the top-down restructuring operation was hatched in secrecy and executed by fiat, its intended means and underlying rationale had peeped out two years ago.

A BAD IDEA IN THE MAKING

In the absence of consultation and transparent policy-making, institutional players put the spotlight on their own standing and tastes. At a conference in Berlin in 2014, Francis Bennett, the deputy chairman of Yale University Press, issued a “Positioning statement” that was both portentous and alarming. (It is to be found in full here.) Mr Bennett’s c.v. seemed to have run into the sand when, after a mixed career in publishing (“My first managing directorship [was] an unhappy time at WH Allen, but I learned to run a company”), he became an electronic publisher and set up a company, Book Data, that was sold in 2002.

Today, as deputy chairman of Yale University Press, Mr Bennet’s views and his declared “vision for the future of academic publishing (2020)” merit close examination. He prides himself on a commitment to professionalism and “a questioning of orthodoxies” when his own views betray prevalent patterns of banal management-speak and received wisdom. He fixates on “trends which will force change on university presses” when Yale University Press is anything but a run of the mill university press. He sees university education as “becoming a global trading commodity, aka the knowledge economy”.

In other generations such over-heating and simplistic techno-Futurist visions might well have been taken as disqualifications for a leading role in venerable and high-minded cultural institutions. Mr Bennett thrills that “Communication is instant” and that “Market expectations are immediate”, seemingly without awareness that current trends are never irreversible escalators to the future and that the chief distinguishing traits of markets are volatility and unpredictability. As for the supposedly irresistible force of techno-determinism, far from knocking out hard-copy books, e-book tablet sales have already levelled off. Television did not kill off cinema or radio. The world, for the imaginative and the enterprising, remains full of niches and opportunities, and books remain phenomenally attractive and enduringly user-friendly artefacts.

BRAVE NEW ACADEMIC WORLD AND THE DEMISE OF PEER REVIEW

Mr Bennett betrays a strikingly short term view of the future and confidently predicts that within four years we will occupy “A new academic publishing world” in which the printed book with a high price and a small market will have vanished. Peer review will also have gone on grounds of being too slow. To survive at all, university presses must now accept that their “traditional methods must change”. Under the Bennett Prescription, change means becoming “brands” that support the “extended reach of their owners”. One word is absent in Bennett’s programme. It is scholarship.

On the internal evidence of this particular positioning statement it might seem that the lacuna is the product of a personal aversion as much as a reflection of institutional policy. The deputy chairman of Yale University Press came from an academically distinguished family. His father was a Cambridge don. His mother was an author of biographies. An aunt was principal of St Hilda’s Oxford. One uncle was a don and then a civil servant; another was a don and then the Astronomer Royal. This Bennett confesses that he “couldn’t compete, so became a publisher.” Also absent is the term “charitable mission” which notion is central to Yale University purposes and is stated like this:

“Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society. We carry out this mission through the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni.”

For Mr Bennett the future is pre-ordained and it’s anticipated imminent impositions are relished in business-speak:

“The academic publishing process must respond by creating a new model. The present system is too slow at experimenting and adopting new models – and will be left behind if it doesn’t change.”

Left behind what? The publishing world is various and serves many purposes well and simultaneously. What law says that academic publishing must travel in tandem with cut-throat commercial publishing where economies can be made through skilful mass-marketing? Why must great, richly-endowed and tax-favoured universities cease to give succour to scholars?

YALE UNIVERSITY’S MISSION

Yale University Press happens to have its own mission. Its purpose is to play a key role in the university’s core mission of “improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice” and, specifically, to do so by publishing “books and other materials that further scholarly investigation, advance interdisciplinary inquiry, stimulate public debate, educate both within and outside the classroom, and enhance cultural life.”

AN EGREGIOUS REPLY

How, then, did this month’s appeal from Professors Lubbock and Saint and their many scholarly associates go down when sent to Salovey, Gibbons and Donatich? The reply came only from John Donatich, who is both the Director of Yale University Press and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Yale University Press London, and Heather McCallum, the Managing Editor of Yale University Press London.

John Donatich’s appointment in 2003 was highly welcomed. He arrived as the departing publisher and vice president of Basic Books, having previously served at HarperCollins from 1992-1996 and before that from 1989-1992 as the director of national accounts for the Putnam Publishing Group. All was auspicious in that now long ago-seeming world. Anthony Kronman, the dean of Yale Law School and the chair of the search committee, said of him: “John has a scholar’s taste, an editor’s eye and bookseller’s experience and judgment,” and, “He possesses just the combination of qualities we sought when we began our search and he brings to the Press great vitality, high idealism and a profound love of books.” Mr Donatich responded graciously and fittingly:

“I am thrilled to be joining this prestigious press and invited to help shape its future. Yale University Press commands a unique and leading position among university presses. I can’t imagine a better place for scholars and intellectuals to publish books.”

Quite so – but today Donatich’s and McCallum’s (seemingly “lawyered”) joint reply to the anxious scholars insults their intelligence. It describes their anxieties as products of (a mass) confusion. It contends that, on the one hand, they have nothing to fear, and that on the other, they can do nothing to reverse the done deal. In a torrent of blather about seeking to help YUPL to “flourish and lead in the years ahead” by a reorganisation that “is by no means confined to the Art department [because] it is part of a company-wide initiative” the pair insist that the restructuring “was thoroughly researched and discussed at great length” and, besides, that “it has the full support of the YUPL Trustees, Yale University Press and Yale University leadership”. On the nature and purpose of the restructuring, we find echo of Bennett: “However, in the context of the ever-changing publishing arena, maintaining these standards requires a fundamental reappraisal of YUPL’s entire operation”.

Logic escapes the twin authors who insist that the restructuring has been discussed at great length while justifying their own secrecy about it and its consequences: “As we hope you will appreciate, a complex company-wide restructure of this magnitude is a confidential process and it would not be appropriate for us to enter into discussions about individual members of staff.” At the same time there is a brass-faced insistence that “We have fully apprised both the Yale Centre for British Art and the Paul Mellon Centre about the reorganisation of YUPL and have regularly informed them about the changes of personnel that have followed…”

The facts must speak for themselves. Two principal and outstanding editors at Yale University Press (London), Gillian Malpass and Sally Salvesen – who have established the very qualities at issue – are to be replaced by an Editorial Director for Art and Architecture, Mark Eastment, under whose direction “we will develop exciting and innovative books which lead agendas…” When asked last year what he most enjoyed about his job as director of publishing at the V&A, Mr Eastment replied “the challenge of balancing the financial expectations of the museum, by generating as much revenue as possible (all our end-year profits are given back to the museum) along with the academic wishes of curators.”

It would thus seem that proven and acclaimed excellence is being put at risk on an opaque, non-discussable promise of changes being made within some vaguely perceived “ever-changing” and economically-menacing publishing arena. On such an inadequate prospectus, scholars have very clear cause for alarm. To indicate the potential loss we now face under an apparently panicked and insecure Yale Administration, we cite an earlier demonstration that serious scholarship is a collective, slow-running cumulative process. (See Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship ~ Part II: Paper (sometimes photographic) Fakes and the Demise of the Educated Eye.)

HOW SCHOLARSHIP WORKS

In her magnificent 2005 Yale University Press monograph The Pollaiuolo Brothers – The Arts of Florence and Rome, Alison Wright describes a particularly vexing “market for copies, fakes and over-ambitious attributions” but gives gratitude for the fact that she need not re-invent a particular wheel by sifting it all afresh. Instead, she cites Professor Hellmut Wohl’s 1980 New York University monograph The Paintings of Domenico Veneziano – A Study in Florentine Art of the Early Renaissance in which he had, as Dr Wright acknowledges, “listed the myriad attributions under which surviving Florentine female profiles have passed…” Writing a full generation on, she gives specific thanks that “Wohl’s study absolves me from a repetition of this unrewarding task.” Prof. Wohl had taught art history at Yale University before his Professorship at Boston University and he had studied Domenico for three decades. Dr Wright is Reader in the History of Art at University College, London. Such books as theirs are bricks in civilisation’s walls. They should be cherished, not implicitly slighted – and other scholars should not be denied the opportunity to produce such books through a major university’s press.

The President of Yale University, Peter Salovey, may prove wise not to have attached his own name to so egregious and unsatisfactory a reply as that sent by two of his officers to an esteemed body of appropriately anxious scholars. Evidence is everywhere to be seen that Yale University Press have created a self-fulfilling prophesy without the crisis that might have triggered it.

Michael Daley ~ 28 July 2016

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