I wanted to spend money, but there was nothing worth buying

The Violence of the Dawn, from the Hunt Museum’s exhibition

It took me nearly two hours to go to another city. Add another two-plus hours exploring displays and listening to lectures. Then came the moment, one I’d anticipated with some joy. I wanted to buy another book. Not just any book, but a massive book that could collapse a coffee table. And it would be a book I’d actually pick up to read on a recurring basis. . .And it wasn’t there when I went to buy it.

After giving away roomfuls of books over the past few years I’ve become more selective in what I buy. I was prepared to spend good money for a high-quality coffee table book of artwork. After all, isn’t that why that plastic in our wallets was invented?

OK, here’s the rest of the story. I went up to Limerick for a special exhibition of Jack B. Yeats’ work. [Yes, he’s Willie’s brother.]  Over the years I’ve really come to appreciate the way he layers detail into every brush stroke, not to mention his use of colour. If you want to see more, look him up online, even though the images you’ll see won’t come close to seeing his work up close and personal. I used to have a few high-quality prints from previous exhibitions; not sure where they are now. Anyway, I took the bus, paid for the exhibit, got the tour, and had a wonderful time.

And when the time came to spend my money, I was disappointed.

In Tir na n-Og, from the Hunt Museum exhibition

The exhibit guide was comprehensive, well bound on good paper with nice editorial matter, but the colours just didn’t pop the way his actual paintings do, which I didn’t expect. But I did expect more than I saw. The book was a souvenir for the visitor, not a memento for the devoted. I know good printing jobs. This one’s not on my list.

What surprised me even more was that there weren’t any other books about him or showcasing his work. Guess I’ll have to wait til the next time I’m in Dublin.

And no, Amazon isn’t the answer. For me, buying an art book online is like buying shoes online. You never know if it’s going to fit comfortably and I don’t want the hassle of returns and replacements. I want to buy a piece of beauty in its own right, not a tacky reminder that I went to the museum. [Someday I’ll tell you about a museum gift shop’s assortment of shot glasses and playing cards emblazoned with the Vatican’s logo – a bit of a letdown after a walking through a magnificent high-end exhibit.]

In case you think I’m pointing a finger at the Hunt Museum’s failure to fully consider how to merchandise their wonderful exhibit, I guess I am. But they’re not alone.

We can also point the flying fickle finger of failure at for-profit businesses, as well.  Years ago BMW got James Bond to switch from his Aston Martin to one of their models. If memory serves me right, they didn’t even manufacture enough units for each of their dealerships to have one before the movie premiered. And if you’re old enough to remember the California Raisin Board’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” pop culture hit, you may also recall that California farmers hadn’t processed enough grapes to even begin to cover the demand created by the promotion’s success.

A simple web search will reveal dozens of failed advertising and marketing campaigns whose creators just didn’t think things through. They created demand without ever thinking of their supply chain or how to capitalize on customer interest. The answer to our question of “WTF were they thinking?” is that they weren’t. Like so many of us in so many parts of our lives, they were so wrapped up in the beauty and wonderfulness of whatever they were doing that they never looked at themselves from the outside in, the way a customer would.

So…it’s not like there’s any room on my coffee table for a coffee table book anyway. And I really wouldn’t want to spill coffee or wine on a book that I’d consider an investment.

But I still want it, damn it.

P.S. If you’re interested, my favourite Yeats painting is There is no Night. It sits in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery and I’ve been known to spend quality time standing in front of it – on many occasions.

There is no Night, Jack B. Yeats. Private collection on loan to the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

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