On Bookworks | Catalyst

On Bookworks

1981 – 1995

In 1981, WPA inaugurated Bookworks, a store that celebrated the emergence of artists’ books.  Inspiration for Bookworks came from The Book Bus, a mobile bookstore from Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, which traveled across the Northeast to bring independent literature, including small press publications, poetry, and artists’ books, to the public. WPA was among its regular stops. Concurrently, under the leadership of Al Nodal, WPA hosted Artists’ Books USA, a traveling exhibition that included books by over 135 artists from across the country. In March of 1980, WPA hosted an exhibition of books by Washington-area artists curated by H. Terry Braunstein. WPA staff member Susan Strauss simultaneously assembled a small collection of books for WPA, which Nodal admired.

In 1981, Nodal hired Don Russell, a Book Bus staff member, to develop a flagship artists’ books store at WPA, which eventually came to feature hundreds of books, ‘zines, graphic novels, experimental music, and artists’ postcards. Book exhibitions were curated regularly both in the store and in the WPA galleries by Russell, who later became WPA director of programs and eventually executive director. When WPA finished renovating its space in the Jenifer Building on 7th Street in 1988, it commissioned the Dog Dream Project, a collective art group comprised of DC-area artists Tom Ashcraft, Ed Bisese, Georgia Deal, and Carrie Meinberg Burke, to develop and carry out a design for the Bookworks space. Ashcraft recently commented that “the project provided a great opportunity for us to explore and execute the function of an artist bookstore as an idea, object, and social space.”

Subsequent Bookworks managers contributed to the store in ways that reflected their interests and specializations. Skúta Helgason, for whom cultural richness was the overriding goal, brought in books from a broad range of national and international art presses, including his native Iceland, and organized collaborative exhibitions that coordinated with WPA events. In 1986, during Helgason’s tenure as manager, Bookworks was commissioned by the United States Information Agency (USIA) to create an exhibition of books by American artists to be shown at book fairs in Madrid and Frankfurt, which strengthened the connections between the store and European artists and book enthusiasts. In the later 1980s and early 1990s, managers Robert Scott Brooks and Robin Moore continued to build representation for books on architecture and art theory. Also during these years, Bookworks held artists’ workshops for which participants could bring examples of their work for discussion and critique; it also organized a series of exhibitions that encouraged libraries to accept artists’ books into their collections.

Bookworks was for many years a success story. It connected WPA to a wider community, drawing in those who purposefully sought the types of works it offered and piquing the interest of curious passers-by. It was, in Russell’s words, a “link to the rest of the world, a store that was essentially an exhibition.” In 1995, however, it succumbed to the financial crisis that led to WPA’s incorporation into the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the following year.

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