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Oral history interview with Sonel Breslav, 2020 July 29

Breslav, Sonel

Curator, Arts administrator


Collection Information

Size: 1 Item, (17 min.), digital, mp4

Summary: An interview with Sonel Breslav conducted 2020 July 29, by Benjamin Gillespie for the Archives of American Art's Pandemic Oral History Project at Breslav's home in Ridgewood, New York.

Biographical/Historical Note

Sonel Breslav is the Director of Fairs & Editions for Printed Matter in New York, New York and founder of Blonde Art Books.


This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.

Language Note

English .



The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Sonel Breslav on July 29, 2020. The interview took place from Breslav's home in New York, New York and was conducted by Ben Gillespie for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This interview is part of the Archives of American Art's Pandemic Oral History Project.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Archives of American Art. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.


BEN GILLESPIE: This is Ben Gillespie interviewing Sonel Breslav, Director of Fairs and Editions at Printed Matter, at her home in New York City on July 29th, 2020 for the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art Pandemic Project. Could you tell me a little bit about how these past few months have been for you and how your life and work have changed?

SONEL BRESLAV: Um, sure. Well, um, I just want to say thank you, Ben, for the invitation to participate, um, in this project. Um, there have been, yeah, a lot of changes, um, to the work that I, uh, do for Printed Matter. Um, I've been in my role as Director of Fairs and Editions at Printed Matter for just about, uh, two-and-a-half years now. And so, um, I've had the experience, um, uh, to produce, uh, three, uh, fairs, um, that are within the model that was—that existed, uh, with the art book fairs that Printed Matter has produced now.

This would actually have been our New York Art Book Fair, um. 2020 was meant to be our 15th year, uh, as the New York Art Book Fair. Um, unfortunately, it has been—uh, it was a couple weeks ago, we announced that we were, uh, cancelling that fair. Um, and cancelling the New York 2020—New York Art Book Fair 2020, as well as the LA Art Book Fair 2020. So, Printed Matter is a producer of both of those fairs. Um, hosted by MoMA PS1 in New York and MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] for the last six years, um, in Los Angeles.

And so, we—uh, yeah, it—over the course of the last few months, we came to the realization that the best, um, way for us to move forward, uh, put our energy of our very small production team, um, is to really, uh, work on a virtual fair that would combine the New York and LA fair. That is planned to be happening in early 2021. So, getting to that point has been, um, uh, a really challenging and difficult, uh, process in many ways. Um, the process started, I think, you know, uh, in mid-February to early March, when, uh, New York, uh, and the country really felt like there was this, um, major shift in reevaluating what public gatherings are going to be looking like in those months.

We were leading into the LA Art Book Fair 2020, which was, uh, scheduled for the first weekend of April. And, um, it was very—very quickly, we, uh, realized that there was this event that is meant to be, um—you know, a place for many people to meet. Uh, for artists, for publishers, for producers, for collectors, um, from all around the world. You know, this is an event that hosts, um, 30-plus—uh, publishers and artists from 30-plus countries. Uh, over 300 sometimes. You know, sometimes closer to 350 exhibitors and tens of thousands of, uh, visitors.

And so, this, um, major event, this—you know, this celebration, this festival, was kind of taking the course of what it seemed like a lot of these types of events—um, what was happening to many of these events that they were being cancelled or postponed. Um, and so—uh, and so, following that decision, which was a really difficult one, but I'll be honest, was—we've—we have this incredible community of people who, um, showed utmost respect and warmth and understanding, uh, because this was a decision that was made that was difficult for, you know, um, the productions that everybody was working on and the work that they had put into all the publications, all the artwork, that was meant to be presented and made available for distribution and sale to the public.

Um, there was—there was this, you know, uh, outpour of, um, of just, uh, understanding and care for each other. And so, following that cancellation, um, we really were already very much thinking about what the future holds for this kind of event for us as an organization that has come to, um, you know, in many ways, rely on this kind of event. You know, um, it's something that we pride ourselves in producing. We pride ourselves in building a platform for this huge, international community. Um, and how can we move forward, uh, when we may not have an opportunity to do a physical event again?


So, um, kind of quickly following that, because the fair had already, like, essentially been produced, um, except for, like, the event happening itself, you know, we gathered all the information of the exhibitors. We'd—there was copy written, you know, essentially like we were ready to go to print with, like, all the catalogues and all—and all the content. Um, we had all of this programming that was already set. We had all of these—you know, there were a lot of publications that were already produced. So, we quickly turned our energy toward, um, uh, essentially producing the programs that were scheduled.

So, uh, you know, today, you can go onto our website, the Printed Matter Art Books—Art Book Fairs website, has its own website, um, outside of the website. And on there, for LA 2020, are, uh, a large, um, variety of programs that were meant to happen in person. And we were able, within about a month in the month of April, produce, uh, prerecorded conversations, as well as a series of live conversations that were meant to happen online.

So, what happened out of this was—you know, it was incredibly devastating for many reasons, for the production team, for—um, for the organization, for the community at large, that this event wasn't happening. But what emerged for us was—um, was, essentially, like, all the opportunities that online programming is capable of. Um, and the truth is that, like, up until I had taken on this role as Director, our programs hadn't been archived at all.

And so, all the events that were happening at the fair—which were exceptional, you know? There were—there were—um, there were historians and artists that were—you know, that people really flocked to see, to the—to the fair itself. And we didn't have a lot of documentation. Uh, so, about two years ago, we started an audio archive of the programs. And this year, for LA, we had—it's, you know, something in-between. It wasn't an archive of something that had happened, but it was—you know, it was an archive of, uh, what was meant to happen in a different form.

Um, and so, it really, I think, in many ways, opened our—the door and our eyes to, like, something that was definitely missing from the in-person experience itself. Um, something that we already kind of knew in many ways, like, that we should be doing a better job of archiving; we should be doing a better job of making the fair accessible to people who cannot attend. Uh, either visitors who are on the other side of the world and are not going to make it to New York or, uh, or Los Angeles, um, or, uh, exhibitors who, you know, for many reasons, travel—um, visa expenses make it prohibitive to participate, right?

So, all—these are—these are areas that we already kind of knew the fair could be improving on. Um, you know, areas of accessibility, essentially. And so, this—um, this shift that we were able to very quickly turn our attention to online programming—we made the fair something that it's never been before. We made it more accessible through programming, specifically, than it's ever been. And so, it was really, like, through that experience, um, we—you know, it really has motivated us to take on this challenge of a virtual fair for 2021 in a really serious way and to, like— and to emphasize that, to emphasize that this fair, um, you know, can do things that the in-person fair could not.

I mean, there's definitely challenges of—you know, of commerce and distribution that art book publishing has always faced. Um, you know, we're talking about—uh, shipping of books around the world is just—like, it's, uh, it's incredibly challenging for small, independent publishers and artists to get their books into the hands of the people who want them, um, when they don't have a distributor, when they don't have the ability to participate in fairs—uh, luckily, fair—like, art book fairs have actually, you know, expanded quite dramatically over the last few years. There's, I think, uh, um—you know, we counted something like 80 annually that happen now.


Um, so, there are—you know, the fair has become this, like, sustainable—sustaining model for distribution for art book publishers. So, without the fair, that in-person attraction, that in-person opportunity for discovery, we're now faced with an enormous challenge of how to—um, how to get that work out into the world. Because, if anything, we are also—you know, as Printed Matter, and also just, like, all the individuals that work on this production and within Printed Matter itself, we really believe in this material and this medium.

Like, we believe that it speaks, um—you know, these are the voices that are the most urgent, that have, you know, uh, a lot to say. And it's through the medium of publishing, uh, that there is that opportunity. Um, so, yeah, I think that—I think that—you know, I kind of just, like [laughs]—uh, maybe that was, like, a full circle to where we are right now. Um, and we are currently in production, um, of this entirely new thing. So, you know, I'm grateful that I had the—I've had this experience of now directing three physical fairs.

And, um, I'm now—you know, we're working—uh, our team is, uh, made up of two full-time staff and two essentially part-time staff, uh, with incredible support from the organization—you know, other individuals within the organization. But we're—you know, we're—it—we're up for this challenge, for sure. I guess, like, the future—the future—whoever's viewing this will let us know how it went, [laughs].

BEN GILLESPIE: Yeah, well, it sounds like, uh, you've really adapted amazingly to very difficult circumstances. And, um, just heading towards wrapping up, I guess, um, what I'm wondering is, how do you see the future of the fairs continuing to evolve in a post-COVID landscape? Even though the pandemic doesn't appear to have a horizon at the moment. Um, but what are the lessons that you'll take from this or you want to inform future physical fairs, um, that have that return to materiality?

SONEL BRESLAV: Um, I think that—I think that a kind of, uh, you know, a combination of what we're going to be doing and learning, um, from this experience, and also, having a physical fair is going to be necessary in the future. You know, there are also areas of accessibility that we—um, you know, that we—like I said, we've kind of been talking about them, but it's—this is—strangely enough, you know, awareness around, like, systemic racism and all of the inequity that has been revealed through, uh, the pandemic, and our own personal experiences during this time have really, um, prioritized, you know, what we think this fair and what we think Printed Matter should be doing, and on—and for whose voice—like, whose voice we should really be a platform for.

Um, and so, I think that that's going to affect all the work that we do. And it'll affect future fairs, and it'll affect this coming fair. Um, you know, we—yeah, I mean, that's—it's kind of—we already kind of—we were doing this work, but it's—but it's now more urgent, for sure. Um, and, you know, I recall during, you know, some travel that I was doing on behalf of the organization, people asking, like, how do we attend the fair without physically being there?

And, um, you know, it's such a—it's a very simple thing, in a way, you know, to ask this question. And I don't think it's that complicated [laughs] to also—to make it possible. Um, and we want—we want—you know, it's not just about attendance. It's also about, like, getting more eyes on the work itself and on the artwork that is being presented on the publications and on—and, you know, creating space for these artists' voices. So, the details—we're working it out [laughs].


Um, but it's really—it is really exciting. You know, it's—it's, um, it's hard. It's hard work, and—but we are able now to just also be able to listen more. You know, we've given ourselves a bit of a gift and also giving our production timeline more time this time. We—you know, we produce two fairs a year with, you know, four to five months' lead up to each. And—um, and so, it's—in a way, we have—we have the opportunity to—like, to involve more people from our community and listen to what their needs are.

And the distribution aspect of—you know, the global pandemics, um, will make it difficult for people to get materials out and—and receive materials, let's say, you know, in the mail. Um, but the content—I think, you know, we can do a really good job of being a platform for it. Yeah.

BEN GILLESPIE: Well, that sounds

SONEL BRESLAV: That's all.

BEN GILLESPIE: —that's great. Well, on that hopeful note, uh, I'd like to thank you very much for speaking with me today.


[END OF breslav20_1of1_digvid.mp4]


How to Use This Collection

This interview is open for research.

The Archives of American Art makes its Oral History Program interviews available for non-commercial, educational and personal use unless restricted by donor restrictions, including but not limited to access and publication restrictions. Quotation, reproduction and publication of the audio is governed by restrictions. If an interview has been transcribed, researchers must quote from the transcript. If an interview has not been transcribed, researchers must quote from the audio recording. Please refer to the Smithsonian's Terms of Use for additional information.

Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Sonel Breslav, 2020 July 29. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.