What you need to know if you want to be a museum's director of publishing | Backstage | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

What you need to know if you want to be a museum's director of publishing

click to enlarge Matthew Newton - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Matthew Newton

Name: Matthew Newton, Churchill
Work: Director of Publishing, Carnegie Museum of Art

What do you do?

I’m charged with working on all in-gallery texts, from introductory panels and section texts to wall labels, as well as any appropriate gallery guides or brochures for an exhibition. I’m also in charge of the book program, publishing one to three books a year. I’m editor-in-chief of Storyboard, the museum’s online journal that bridges the gap between the museum, its collections, its ethos, and the community. 

Is your background in art, writing, or both?

Kind of a mix. I don’t have an art history background, but I’ve been a freelance writer and journalist — culture journalist, arts journalist — for over 15 years. I’ve also always had a job in publishing one way or another. I’ve mainly written about photography and more social practice art over the years, but here we do a wide spectrum.

With these varied responsibilities and projects, what does a typical day look like?

Pretty much everything is happening at once, all the time. An average day can be two or three meetings planning for exhibitions, all the way up to 2022. Editing for a few hours, with a lot of writing in the process. As far as writing long-form pieces, which is my interest, that’s usually three to five a year, but I try to make them more substantial pieces. 

You might be getting a gallery walkthrough from a curator to show you where the artwork is going to be placed, get a sense of how many labels you need, what you’re grouping together. A working session with the education department trying to figure out how best to talk about a program. It’s an interesting mix. 

How do you begin approaching an exhibition?

We have early planning sessions where we work on something called “The Big Idea”: What is the crux of this, the general idea behind the exhibition? We work to make sure that it’s always a thread throughout the introductions. We want the writing to be smart and accessible; at the same time, we don’t want to abandon scholarship. It’s treading this fine line a lot of times, trying to make sure we’re not alienating visitors who don’t know about a certain type of art, but at the same time, not speaking too generally and simplistically. It’s a very challenging thing to do. 

Is the tone the same throughout all the varied ways text comes in?

It depends on what the publication is and what its goal is. For exhibitions, we try our best to present texts with that smart and accessible idea; in a catalog, it can be far more scholarly. We’ve had beautiful essays that are very lyrical, in-depth research-based essays, and everywhere in between. That’s the great thing about Storyboard, this multiplicity of voices.

And the pieces that use an exhibition as a point of departure, I think readers really like that idea of writing about a grassroots art initiative or profiling artists in the community, as opposed to giving them a treatise on the enlightenment or something. 

What’s in the future that excites you?

The direction I’d like to take the book program. My goal is to occasionally publish books not tied to an exhibition that can essentially stand on their own. I like the idea of doing something inspired by the collection, using that as a point of departure to write about whatever it might be and go from there. 

For Storyboard, we've recently initiated a project called Artist Editions. We commission a local artist to create an original work that we then make available as downloadable wallpaper and as a limited-runprint in the store. I think that's a nice extension, to actually work with local artists, be able to pay them, and then get their work out to a larger audience. 

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