Contemporary Art Museum Bookstores: Hirshhorn Museum and Dia:Beacon

Recently I was fortunate enough to visit Dia:Beacon and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden within days of each other.  In addition to viewing incredible art, I easily compared the difference between the bookstores for these two contemporary art museums.

A separate issue for each animal, vultures anyone?

Dia:Beacon’s bookstore is well stocked and fairly high brow.  There is an impressive collection of journals, monographs, criticism, and unique publications.  I was intrigued by the colorful shelf of journals in which each issue specialized in a specific type of animal.  Who knew there was enough interest in the crow to dedicate an entire journal to it.

The selections were challenging.  This isn’t the bookstore for the contemporary art novice, but what a treasure trove for people who are ready to go beyond The Shock of the New.  While the store is compact, the choices available for felt overwhelming at times.  I stared at the criticism shelves alternating between delighted and exhausted.  There is a children’s section that offers a variety of fun and educational options.  Even better, cases with actual art and art books are sprinkled through out the store.  I wish more museum bookstores offered more original current art and less reproductions.  While Dia:Beacon is a little remote for visit just for the bookstore, it is certainly worth carving out some time to peruse books about the art represented in the collection.  Moreover, the Dia Foundation hosts an online store that is a good place to start any foray into contemporary art books.

Some I already owned, some I’ve bought, and some are on my wish list

The experience at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is significantly different.  This is at a museum store, the space is divided fairly evenly between books and museum reproductions/jewelry/toys.  While there are significantly less offerings at the Hirshhorn than at Dia:Beacon, these books are geared toward the lay person.  In fact, there were so many books that I wanted that I couldn’t choose, so instead of buying any I just took a picture of the shelves to make a wish list for later.  On the one hand, the store overall is a lovely museum store, but the book section is fairly sparse and normally not worth stopping by unless you’re already at the museum.  On the other, I was surprised at how interested I was in the books that were on display.  Unlike Dia:Beacon, this isn’t a store to explore contemporary art in depth; the Hirshhorn store sells books that take a reader from a basic understanding of contemporary art to a deeper level.  If you’re walking down the Mall, meander over and drop by the art and maybe a book that will expand your understanding of contemporary art.


3 Beekman St.

Beacon, NY 12508

T:  845.440.0100

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Independence Ave at 7th Street SW

Washington, DC

T:  202.357.1429

Museum Monday – Art Catalogues Store at LACMA and the Kienholz Discussion


Great Store for Modern Art Books

Great museums have bookstores, MOMAthe Met, and the Chicago Art Institute all have wonderful stores.  The Hammer has two locations right now, it’s permanent store upstairs and the temporary Libros Schmibros in a gallery space.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is no different.  Situated in its own space just off the main entrance, Art Catalogues specializes in modern and contemporary art, specifically from 1913 to the present.  The store stocks current and past art catalogues, and not only limited to LACMA shows.  This is a good start for hunting down a rare art book.  Art history books, biographies, and general knowledge books also line the shelves.  Although situated off a passageway without windows, it’s white walls and shelves provide an airy atmosphere.  My primary criteria when looking at a museum bookstore is if it is worth visiting separate from the collection and if you’re looking for works on Modern Art this store passes muster.

A Magical Afternoon – the Kienholz Discussion

I spent a couple of hours in the store yesterday listening to a discussion about the Kienholz Five Car Stud, 1969 – 1972, Revisited exhibit.  I think this is the best bookstore event I’ve attended.  The sales clerk agreed.  I talk about the sense of community and exchange of ideas that occur in bookstores and I’ve experienced it numerous times, but this event glittered with ideas and shared memories.  Kienholz’s Five Car Stud is an installation piece about five white men castrating a black man because they found him in his pick up truck with a white woman.  The exhibit is part of Pacific Standard Time, a region-wide art extravaganza that examines the development of art in Los Angeles.

The discussion centered around Kienholz, the era, and political art.  One speaker, Joe Lewis, an artist and educator, said that political art didn’t occupy the footprint it deserved in the art world because it tended to be didactic to the extreme.  It tended to hit people over the head with its message.  He advocated that political art give people space to experience it and think about it rather than slap them in the face when they walk in the room.  I immediately thought of Robbie Conal, his political posters helped most LA liberals survive the Bush years, and there he was in the audience asking Lewis if by advocating political art with an aesthetic he meant art that was beautiful?  (Lewis wisely said ‘I’m not getting in that discussion with you right now.”)

If that wasn’t enough, Kienholz’s family was there to discuss previous installations of the piece in Europe and how it was received.  The gallery owner of Brockman Gallery, who exhibited the ultra controversial Noah Purifoy installation, talked about the upheaval it caused and the risk he took exhibiting it.   Ed Bereal, artist and performance artist from the 19602 and 70s, shared his memories, but then many in the audience added their experience of working with him in the ghetto. A well-respected civil rights advocate described the impact of Bereal’s Bodacious Buggernilla in the South Central area, he’d even kept posters from the performances all these years.

The discussion was better than traveling back in a time machine, it was getting a peek at a time forty years ago from people who lived it, survived it, and had evaluated it in their maturity.  It is my new favorite example of what bookstores provide to their community.  I promise you, it could never be duplicated online in any format.  To hear the thoughts and memories of these people and their interaction with each other and those of us who were learning about them was priceless.

Art Catalogues Store

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

5905 Wilshire Blvd

Los Angeles, CA 90036

T:  323.857.6159

Libros Schmibros is the Artist-in-Residence at the Hammer Museum

What happens when two of my favorite things pair up?  A unique bookstore fills the gallery of a contemporary museum.  A while back David Kippen, book critic and former director of literature for the NEA, noticed two things:  the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles didn’t have a bookstore while the local libraries were cutting hours, and that he owned 7,000 books.  In response, he opened Libros Schmibros, a small store front in Boyle Heights where the community can borrow books or buy them at a heavy discount.  It is run by volunteers, that’s right, it’s a true labor of love.  All of literary LA loves this concept, so much so that the Hammer invited him to the westside of LA to take over the lobby gallery for six weeks.  Think a pop up bookstore museum style.  Same rules apply here, books are available to borrow or buy at a discounted price.  In fact, residents of Westwood and Boyle Heights can buy the books for a dollar.  Anyone else heard of a local bookstore selling books to locals for a buck?

Part of the back mural

The store is packed with books under a banner on the back wall depicting Los Angeles literary figures.  The banner itself is worth entering the gallery.  But the books won’t disappoint either.  They’re all arranged alphabetically by author, fiction, non-fiction, all genres are shelved together (with the exception of California history and art books).  I like the mixture, it felt strangely efficient.

What would a bookstore or a gallery installation be without related events?  Libros Schmibros hosts several over the next few weeks.  I attended a quiz about LA History last weekend in honor the reissue of the Los Angeles in the 1930s:  The WPA Guide to Los Angeles.  Halfway through the quiz, my team was in the lead.  I think this is more indicative of my ability to pick teammates among strangers than it is of my knowledge of LA history.  Unfortunately, I had to leave before the second half of the quiz began so I don’t know the ultimate winner.  Even on days without events, the website lists the hours of well known volunteers (guest workers) such as authors and film makers so the public can stop by and ask them about their artistic work.

It’s a charming space, stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

Libros Schmibros at the Hammer Museum

10899 Wilshire Blvd

Los Angeles, CA 90024

T:  310.443.7000

Museum Monday – National Museum of American History, Washington, DC

r_image_3_316Checking out the event calendar for the National Museum of American History for the days I would be in DC, I was thrilled to see that my favorite non-art museum was hosting an author talk and book signing the day I was visiting.  I had a lovely chat with John Ferling about his book, Independence:  the Struggle to Set America Free.  The timing was perfect, on July 5th we just finished celebrating Independence Day.  Ferling described two of the book’s premises, that independence from Britain wasn’t inevitable and that as the war continued, it radicalized the population (a tendency seen over and over again in war torn areas).  His book is organized around various historical figures each giving a different perspective.  The book sounds fascinating, I’m looking forward to reading it.  The presence of the author demonstrated that the bookstore at the National Museum of American History is well worth stopping by.

At the risk of being redundant, the books here are about American history, but what a variety of options.  There are shelves and shelves towards the back of the main store that cover just about every topic.  There are scads of books concerning Revolutionary, Civil War, Presidential, African-American, World War II, and general history.  I was particularly interested in the Civil War shelves given the current 150th anniversary of the start of the war.  I wanted a general history that I could follow along with the events as they happened and settled on James McPherson’s well known Battle Cry of Freedom.  I’m a little daunted by the fact that just to catch up to 150 years ago, July, 1861, I need to gulp down 360 pages.  I’m feeling a little behind.  The selection isn’t just about wars and politicians, there are dozens and dozens of cultural options, books on Barbie, baseball (lots of baseball books everywhere), sports, gun collecting, gardening, comics, cooking (a good selection of cooking, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from the museum that houses Julia Child’s kitchen).  The options are a snapshot of Americana.

What really wowed me was the curator’s recommendation shelves, they showed a real indie bookstore spirit.  The Curator’s Choice books reflected the diversity of our history, one book was about cooking another Malcolm X.

The slice of America doesn’t stop with books, there are all kinds of jewelry, clothing, and knick-knacks that incorporate American history.  It’s a shopper’s delight.

This is a museum worth spending a day wandering around in and a bookstore worth dropping by even if you aren’t looking at an exhibit.

National Museum of American History

1400 Constitution Ave, NW

Washington, DC

Tel:  202.633.1000

Museum Monday – Three New England Museum Bookstores

In our college visitation romp around New England, I was able to steal away a few hours to visit three lovely museums.  (Keith and Kyle believe I arranged that afternoon of golf for their benefit.)  All the museums are worth an afternoon of your time, and the respective bookstores deserve dropping by also.

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is a shining star amongst the small museum set.  We raced to Williams so I could visit before it closed and we made it with 45 minutes to view the collection.  Kyle scouted the galleries, finding pieces of art that he knew I would like and leading me to one surprise after another, the greatest was Botticelli’s Madonna and Child.  It might actually be my favorite of the artist and the genre.  The bookstore at ‘The Clark’ rambles through the lobby giving everyone the opportunity to browse while moving from one section of the museum to another.  There was an impressive selection of art history books, the website advertises more than 2,000 volumes.  That figure doesn’t surprise me, this is one of the few museum shops that concentrated more on books and less on ‘stuff.’  Not to say there isn’t sideline merchandise, they have the reproductions, posters, kids items (a great way to introduce art in a child-accessible manner), and knick-knacks, but I could have spent hours browsing through all of the books.  There were tables dedicated to the current exhibits and past exhibits, but also a solid representation of catalogues for current and recent shows in New York and Boston, both cities within “excursion distance.”  Delightfully, there was an excellent sale table full of recent art history books that people actually want to read, the offerings felt more like a gift to the reader rather than a way to clean out bookshelves.

Not to be out done, Yale has a beautiful Donatello

Yale University Art Gallery is the “honey I shrunk the kids” version of the Met.  I was amazed at how I traveled the history of art in three floors, saw beautiful pieces, and left before my feet ached.  Again, the ‘bookstore’ is in the lobby, but it’s the polar opposite of The Clark.  Here, it seems there are half as many couches to lounge on and read about art as there are books to choose from.  It’s sparse, but intriguing.  The publications focus on the Yale collection and current and past exhibitions.  Oddly enough, although the bookstore doesn’t provide a huge browsing experience, of the three museum stores, this is the one I’d like to come back to for an afternoon.  I’d love to spend a couple of hours hanging out and perusing what is there, it feels very welcoming.  It struck me that what I found at the Yale bookstore would be directly helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the art elsewhere in the building.

Yale Center for British Art is a mini Tate Museum, the old one before it franchised.  I loved wandering past the Stubbs, Turners and Reynolds in the galleries and then trying to identify the Tudor portraits.  Not all the art is mired in the past, I walked through an exhibit for contemporary artist Rebecca Salter and became a huge fan.  A solid wall of books on British art is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the subject or any of the Continue reading

Museum Monday – Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney

I ran did a quick tour of NYC museums last week:  the Guggenheim, the Met, the Whitney and MOMA.  What a wonderful 24 hours!  I left NYC art drunk and with sore feet.  In this occasional “Museum Monday” series, I review museum bookstores and ask if they are worth visiting independent of the museums.  I’ve previously written about the stores at the Met and MOMA, both of which warrant visiting and surpass any other museum bookstores I’ve encountered.  The stores at the Guggenheim and the Whitney, not so much.

There are two stores at the Guggenheim Museum, one at the top and one at the bottom.  I headed straight for the exhibit ‘Great Upheaval:  Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection 1910-1918,’ winding my way up the building to see it all.  This is one of my favorite periods of art, I enjoyed learning as much as I did from the audio tour and museum labels and eagerly entered the upper store hoping to find more resources.  I was disappointed.  There was the catalogue but little else that expanded on the exhibit.  In fact, all that was in this store, book-wise, was a catalogue for the current exhibits or museum guides.  I went downstairs hoping for more enlightenment in the larger entryway store.  No such luck.  In fact, I think the online resources are stellar, but not matched by the offerings in the bookstores.   The only books that looked mildly interesting were a paltry few on a shelf behind a display cabinet.  The only way to access them would be to ask the cashier to hand them to you one-by-one, hardly inviting.  Even more surprising, there were very few books about Frank Lloyd Wright.

It wouldn’t be very hard to argue that Wright’s most iconic and well-known building is the Guggenheim, yet in the store there were far more dishes and trinkets related to the building than information on the architect.  It’s not as if there aren’t scores of books on Wright, from novels to monographs to pure scholarship; there’s something for every reader.  Any book I saw felt touristy.  I was disappointed, but I may not be the norm, the store was crammed with people buying knickknacks.

Run to the Guggenheim for the art and skip the store, unless you want salt and pepper shakers shaped like the building.

The choices are better at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  In its small lobby space, the offerings are low on trinkets and focused on books about 20th and 21st century American art, the Whitney’s core collection.  After visiting the Glenn Ligon exhibit, I became a groupie but wondered how much was written about  an artist 3 years older than me.  Quite a lot apparently, in fact the Whitney had more about Ligon than the Guggenheim had about Wright.  Each exhibit has its own ‘cubby’ for the catalogue exhibit and related books.  In addition, there is a wall of monographs and two tables of books.  The sale table was busy, so much so, I had to go over to see what the feeding frenzy was about and found museum guides for $3.  Any book with decent reproductions for $3 is a steal.  While this is a nice store, under the criteria of whether I would visit regardless of the art, I’d say no.  It’s worth stopping by when you’re there to see one of the Whitney’s fascinating exhibits, but for modern art books, head another 20 blocks south to MOMA.

Museum Monday – London’s Heavy Weights

Last year when we visited Italy, it was a very art heavy  vacation.  Wanting to make sure the kids would still want to go away with us, this year I kept the art light.  Having said that, there wasn’t a chance I was visiting London without going to the National Gallery.  And what better way to travel around the world in 2 hours than by visiting the British Museum?   For the National Gallery visit, we sent the kids back to the hotel in a cab and Keith and I met a guide from Context Travel who led us on a whirlwind 3 hour tour.  [This is my third experience with Context Travel and each one has been well worth the hefty price tag.]  For the British Museum, I sent the family on a scavenger hunt.  Everyone needed to find one item from each continent (Antarctica could be skipped if needed) and no one had to take a tour.  In the end, everyone was amazed by the Rosetta Stone, the Egyptian section and Elgin Marbles, without a word from me explaining their importance.  Perfect.  Here are my brief thoughts on the bookstores at each museum:

The National Gallery – The Bookshop

I found my favorite museum bookstore case:  it’s about 4 feet high and wide, has three shelves and is full of art fiction.  I’ve never seen a museum bookstore give this genre it’s own section.  The shelves contained Byatt’s Matisse Stories, Zola’s The Masterpiece, Pamuk’s The Color Red, and Rembrandt’s Whore by Matton and Black.  There were several books I hadn’t read and I’d forgotten all about Byatt’s book.

In general, this store is very similar to good museum stores in the US, not quite the Met Store, but then again, what is?  There is a wide selection of art theory, art history, technique, museum studies books.  The requisite large bookshelf dedicated to National Gallery publications.  A great kid’s section which made me long for the days when my kids loved museum stores until it occurred to me how much money I save by not buying the puzzle that is twice the normal cost because it is a famous painting.  We never did finish the Botticelli puzzle we bought last year, all that creamy skin got confusing.

The British Museum Bookstore

Tucked away in small room is the British Museum Bookstore.  It’s a space completely dedicated to and packed with books.  I’m not an anthropologist, but I’m guessing this store is an anthropologist’s dream.  The store is divided primarily by geography (Asia, India, Europe, Greece, Americas, Britain, Egypt) including all seven continents.  Not surprisingly Continue reading