Penned to Paper: EXILE Books Champions the Tome as an Art Object- and as a Community Builder
“I always did art on the side, but I never considered it something you could make a living at,” says Amanda Keeley, chuckling at her earlier naiveté. After all, she’s the woman behind the artist-book-focused roving pop-up, Exile Books, a store whose sales now directly contribute to the bank accounts of scores of creatives. Moreover, she’s become an accomplished artist in her own right with a solo show of book-centered sculpture this fall at the Fredric Snitzer gallery, the top dog among Miami’s art dealers.
Part of her earlier disbelief, Keeley explains, stems from coming of age in Miami in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Whatever adventurous culture was percolating at the time failed to creep out to her suburban home in Kendall. Like so many others at the time, Keeley fled north, but rather than heading for Manhattan, she joined the famed Bradenton, Florida, tennis academy run by Nick Bollettieri, the legendary trainer credited with molding star players from Andre Agassi to Serena and Venus Williams.
“Your whole education is focused around being on the courts eight hours a day,” Keeley recalls of the grueling experience. And while she eventually decided life as a professional tennis player wasn’t her true calling, choosing instead to hang up her racquet and attend the University of Vermont (“I wanted a return to normalcy”), she credits the strict discipline fostered by Bollettieri as key to her present-day approach. In fact, to hear Keeley tell it, art school curriculums could use a little more tennis time: “Working with artists is like herding cats,” she quips.
It’s a lesson learned first-hand following her 1995 graduation and subsequent MFA at New York’s Parsons The New School for Design. Immersing herself in that city’s art scene, she eventually became a manager at Printed Matter, an artist’s bookstore dedicated to popularizing the book as art object. Later, she worked as a personal assistant to Yoko Ono, managing her extensive archives as both an early Fluxus artist and as a playful conceptualist in tandem with John Lennon. Working for Ono was instructive—she says Ono’s avant-garde sensibility happily coexists with her business savvy.But by late 2013, Keeley found her- self, like so many other New Yorkers, intrigued by the buzz surrounding Miami. “I never thought I would move back. There was a lot I really didn’t like about Miami growing up here,” she admits. “It was very shallow.”
But that was then. “Seeing all the energy now, there really is an artistic renaissance happening!” Yet there was still one gaping hole: “To think of ourselves as an arts and culture mecca, but not to have an artist’s bookstore, or anything like Printed Matter, seemed like a shame.” And also an opportunity.
Thus was born Exile Books, its name an homage to Miami’s defining demographic, to Keeley’s own idyllic vision of rootless cosmopolitans tethered only to their creativity, and not least, to the store’s nomadic nature, moving from spot to spot around town; hosts so far have included Locust Projects, Books & Books, and the Bas Fisher Invitational. It’s a novel business plan that avoids the draining expense of maintain- ing a brick-and-mortar storefront while capitalizing on the art-minded audiences already frequenting its temporary homes.
Sales are only part of the equation, though. Keeley aims for Exile Books to become “a space dedicated to print culture and creating a community.” In fact, rather than being eclipsed by the digital era, she insists old-fashioned ink-on-paper is all the more vital: “For a younger generation raised on the Internet, they’re being turned off by having communication only be on and via a computer. There’s a huge resur- gence of interest in having something you can physically hold, along with the immediacy of contact. That’s what’s happening with the exchange of zines.”
Accordingly, Exile Books’ next roost is at the National YoungArts Foundation, featuring an exhibition of seminal fanzines curated by the University of Miami’s head of Special Collections, Cristina Favretto, all drawn from that school’s extensive library holdings. There will also be a zine fair, as well as zine-making workshops, each aimed at bringing writers and their readers face to face. “Having a space that dedicates itself to books allows people to truly connect instead of just being Facebook friends,” Keeley says. “It’s not anonymous like so much of the Internet, where people don’t take responsibility for what they’re saying. Print takes us back to a reality where we’re talking to one another.” Exile Books opens on April 10 at the National YoungArts Foundation, 2100 Biscayne Blvd.