Library Program Questionnaire: Vera List Center for Art and Politics Library Program Questionnaire: Vera List Center for Art and Politics

The Vera List Center for Art and Politics (New York, NY) is an artist-focused research center and public forum for art, culture, and politics. It was established at The New School in 1992—a time of rousing debates about freedom of speech, identity politics, and society’s investment in the arts. A leader in the field, the center is a nonprofit that catalyzes and supports politically engaged art, public scholarship, and research throughout the world. It fosters vibrant and diverse communities of artists, scholars, and policymakers who take creative, intellectual, and political risks to bring about positive change.

A.R.T. Library Program Questionnaire gathers insights from librarians and publishers within the Program's distribution network to reconsider and reflect on what it means to make art books public today.

  • How would you characterize the books that you publish?

Carin Kuoni: In the best ways, they capture the chatter at a thriving marketplace, where people of different backgrounds and experiences come together and discuss the happenings of the day. We pride ourselves in capturing a diversity of voices, acknowledging that each person brings their own unique perspective to issues that concern us all, and facilitating truly interdisciplinary discourse among artists, curators, scholars, activists, and policymakers that unfold on the books’ pages in visually intriguing ways.

Re’al Christian: With anthologies, monographs, artist books, catalogues, and digital projects, our approach to publishing depends on mutually supportive relationships within our creative communities. We take on slow, responsive, collaborative editorial practices. Experimenting across a range of ideas and formats, we combine research-driven scholarly essays with artistic contributions, demonstrating the interdisciplinarity of politically engaged interventions in the public sphere encapsulated in the space of the book.

  • How would you define the audience for your books?

CK: Our readers are the intellectually curious, those who fearlessly question authority, and those who turn to art and creative practices to strive for more just and inclusive communities. Our anthologies are published for the classroom as well as the subway ride, and many offer resource and curriculum guides. Stemming from our interdisciplinary programming and our institutional values rooted in relationality and reciprocity, we believe art and education serve as a public good towards political empowerment.

  • Has the way books are distributed changed in the last five years? (If so, how does it affect what or how you publish?)

CK: As many of the large national distributors are getting consolidated, the relationship with our readers is much more personal and direct than it used to be. We therefore approach the question of distribution in ways that are specific to each book. The backbone of our distribution system, however, is the partnership with Amherst College Press that we launched in 2022. All titles in this collaboration are available in print and for free as open-access e-books throughout the world. It’s really the best of both worlds—we can work with the materiality of the printed book while also ensuring that our books are fully accessible as a digital medium to anyone with a computer or smartphone for free. We also recognize the limits of technological access and look to libraries and distribution programs such as A.R.T.’s to bridge these gaps.

Other publishing partners have included Duke University Press, Inventory Press, and OR Books. Through each of these distinct partnerships—ranging from academic to independent or artist-run presses—we find new readerships, contexts, and timeframes, each tailored to distinct audiences and platforms.

RC: We also seek out other ways of connecting our publications with the broader public through programs, from book fairs and symposia to readings and contributor conversations. We’ve found this to be a deeply rewarding means of bringing the act of learning and engaging with books into real space.

  • When did you start participating in the A.R.T. Library Program?

RC: We began participating in A.R.T.’s Library Program in early 2023, shortly after we published the first book under our imprint with Amherst College Press, Studies into Darkness: The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech.

CK: Studies into Darkness emerged in the wake of Trump’s presidency, when the unqualified embrace of freedom of speech violated the rights of safety and representation, most often for minority populations. The book is guided by artist Amar Kanwar, who prompted us—co-editor Laura Raicovich and myself—to identify a “darkness” in our environment or our society. What resulted is a practical reflection on the history of free speech discourse, which grounds discussions on contemporary crises around free expression.

RC: At a moment when scholarship around social justice is facing increased scrutiny and control—particularly in the context of libraries and educational institutions—we felt that The A.R.T. Library Program provided a much needed alternative platform to share socially and politically engaged ideas in the spaces that tend to be the most regulated.

Around this time, we were collaborating with the Berlin-based platform Contemporary And to host the C& Center of Unfinished Business, a roving reading room with titles that speak to persistent forms of colonialism in contemporary life. The VLC hosted the first New York iteration of the reading room—curated by our colleague Eriola Pira, Curator and Director of Programs, with Contemporary And’s Julia Grosse, Yvette Mutumba, and Mearg Negusse—and to accompany the exhibition we wanted to create a map of local libraries, reading rooms, and archives throughout New York City. It became this beautiful broadsheet where brick-and-mortar spaces are coupled with roving libraries and open access digital collections (including A.rt R.esources T.ransfer), referencing the itinerant nature of the C& Center of Unfinished Business. It’s an incomplete listing but points to broader conversations on the importance of reading rooms and alternative solutions to literacy access.

  • How do you decide what to donate to the program?

Studies into Darkness was really the impetus. The book prompts questions about who has access to free speech and, perhaps more importantly, who does not, and the question of access to language naturally led us to A.R.T.

The second book we donated, Seeds of Change, is a monograph of artist Maria Thereza Alves—it’s the second book in our partnership with Amherst College Press. The book examines the import of plant species at various port cities around the world, drawing explicit connections between the history of “alien” plants and the forced displacement of enslaved people during the colonial period. Ultimately, A.R.T.’s Library Program spoke to both our mission as well as that of Amherst College Press—we seek to not only distribute ideas but to engage with audiences, where the printed book serves as a vessel to share socially and politically engaged ideas from a wide range of perspectives, disciplines, and voices.

Re'al Christian and Carin Kuoni from Vera List Center for Art and Politics (New York, NY) responded to this questionnaire in 2024.

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