The Art Editor's Library

Before I joined the Fine Arts Museums seven years ago as an editor, I did not know such a job existed in the museum world. It is not a role that merits much attention—in fact, the more invisible the editor’s hand, the better. But if you look around at the museums, you will understand how important an editor is. From humble signage directing your way to hefty exhibition catalogues, a huge range of text in a variety of forms is issued by the Museums, all reviewed by a team of three editors in the publications department.

A shelf filled with books

Books, magazines, exhibition labels, event invitations, brochures, signs—all of these materials have words, words, words. We are the people who help the other museum departments to ensure this text meets the style guidelines of the Museums, is accurate, is clear and easy to read, and yet allows the voice of the writer to shine through.

A San Francisco city bus with a poster featuring the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev

Fortunately there are many tools at our disposal that help us to do this job and appear much smarter than we really are. The first, the dictionary, is obvious, but it is surprising how often it is called into action. We use the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Here are a few other resources that we use and that may interest you if you want to write about art.

Chicago Manual of Style. This style guide is one of the most widely used in the publishing industry, and is the foundation of the Museums’ house style. It provides guidance on day-to-day questions (where does punctuation go relative to quotation marks?) and more unique problems (should “Cubist” be capitalized?). It is available both as a printed publication and online, by subscription.

Union List of Artist Names (ULAN). The Getty Research Institute has developed a variety of tools and databases to aid scholars (and, apparently, editors). Among them is the ULAN, which provides brief information on hundreds of thousands of artists. We use this tool regularly to confirm spellings of names and dates. This is available free online. Don’t miss out on the other resources available online through the institute.

Grove Dictionary of Art. With 34 volumes, the Grove Dictionary is actually an encyclopedia of artists, art movements, art techniques, and even important cities and centers of art. It is available in a printed edition (it should be at your best local library) or online, by subscription, as part of Oxford Art Online.

The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. This ingenious project, developed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was designed to present the Met’s own collection through chronological, geographical, and thematic explorations. Because of the breadth of that collection, it is the world of art history at your fingertips and serves as a guide to art made virtually anywhere. It is available online.

And a few quick links just for fun:

Happy art writing!