Art Institutions Are Going Brand Crazy

Contemporary art museums and galleries are recasting themselves
with an almost corporate fervor.

Recently many contemporary art museums have introduced new logos.

Illustrations by Lisa J. Maione

This story could be a modern fable. It starts in the boardroom of a contemporary art institution somewhere in North America. The place isn’t important. There’s the director, head curator, three people from communications and PR, the social media guru and three trustees, including one major donor—the sort about whom profiles are written describing his extensive art collection. The head of another cultural organization sits in for good measure. Eleven of them face our design team around a conference table that could seat more than double that. We’re here to pitch for rebranding the institution. This scene has been reenacted numerous times recently, not just here with competing firms, but in other galleries and museums around the world because so many of them are rebranding.

This museum wants to be a “living, breathing brand.” Early discussions included ideas about shopping and tourism, Nike and Apple. Now I’m trying to convince the panel of 11 that they don’t need a new logo. Or, at least, that it won’t solve their issues. Logo marks themselves don’t build brands, I say; what goes into them are the function of marketing and communication and engagement—mostly engagement. Still, countless contemporary art museums have taken the branding plunge. They’ve come up with new names, logos, marks—so many of them you might assume there’s something in the air, or water, or oxygen pumped into the planes on which museum directors and their boards fly to the global gamut of art fairs, biennials, and triennials.

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It’s no secret—contemporary art is booming. It’s where the rich are parking their money. To attract it, museums now behave like corporations that must capture new markets and show growth, as if responsible to shareholders. Thus all the expansions and redesigns just for modern art. The Art Institute of Chicago has the new Renzo Piano “Modern Wing.” The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is expanding thanks to Snøhetta, and of course there’s MoMA’s land grab. The Tate Modern is growing into the former power station’s oil tanks, with a building above by Herzog & de Meuron. The Whitney Museum of American Art is decamping to a Renzo Piano building, while the Met is taking over the old Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. There, the grand dame of all museums will display its contemporary and modern collection, which it’s been aggressively collecting with a former Tate Modern chief curator at the helm. London’s Serpentine Gallery has become the “Serpentine Galleries,” taking over a former armory with a stark carbuncle at the back by Zaha Hadid, and Los Angeles is getting Eli Broad’s personal art palace.

All of this empire building requires new identities, but designers are reluctant to discuss the projects lest the jobs get jeopardized. Privately, they’ll say museum boards are now full of MBAs who bring the gospel of corporate branding to the museum world, while directors are choosing logos not necessarily with an eye to the institution’s visitors, but for what other directors will say. “Decisions,” one designer explains, “are being made for their peers, for what Hans-Ulrich Obrist [the Serpentine’s co-director] and their colleagues in Miami, Basel, and Venice think—not the public.” Which is why the same names and agencies often appear in meetings like the one in which I find myself. It may also be why we lose the pitch. Boards want “brands” and directors want identities that function “conceptually.”

Recently, museums including the Centraal, the Whitney, the Stedelijk, and the Serpentine all acquired new logos. Each looks different, yet they share similar goals. Lesley Moore’s design for the Centraal deploys a giant dot with a bold you-are-here urgency. The Whitney has a zigzagging W—called the “responsive W”—that expands based on context. The designers, Experimental Jetset, wrote a 17-page essay referencing everything from Walter Benjamin to hobos’ train-yard graffiti. The treatise compared the identity’s typeface to one used in early text-based Conceptual art.

“Concrete poetry” is the analogy the Stedelijk’s director used for Mevis & Van Deursen’s logo: the letters in the museum’s name form an “S” and look like bad kerning. More than 300 comments on Facebook complained about the identity. Still, that same concrete, literal use of type reappears in Experimental Jetset’s signage for the Whitney.

Meanwhile, Pentagram’s logo for the Serpentine has a rectangle in the middle of its name. Representing the bridge linking the galleries in Hyde Park, the block looks like a misplaced hyphen—except it also grows into lines down the cover of a magazine. And the bridge/block/hyphen/lines can contain photographs of art and Hyde Park. The block subsumes these images as if the logo has swallowed them whole and branded them so they, too, belong to the Serpentine. This calls to mind a different serpent—the snake in The Little Prince, where an elephant is still recognizable in its belly.

These logos are all bold, conceptual—and dynamic. Their refusal to be static says something larger about the goals of the institutions, as if making manifest their insistence that they’re flexible and welcoming. We’re responsive, they claim a bit too insistently. So, too, is the language designers and museums use for the logos: “dynamic” (the Whitney); “ever changing”/“constantly changing” (Serpentine and Centraal); “democratic” (Serpentine); “open” (Serpentine, Stedelijk, and the Whitney). Briefing us before the meeting, the art institution said it needed a logo that can “flex.”

Despite all this dynamism, I miss the old Whitney logo—the chunky one Abbott Miller made 13 years ago. His now abandoned logo is nearly the same age as the Tate’s, which haunts all the new ones. The Tate’s was the first dynamic museum identity and was universally disparaged when it launched in 2000. Then, I wrote that it looked like nothing more than a Photoshop filter, and now in the pitch I show different iterations looking fuzzy and fat, like some ghostly X-ray. But the Tate Modern is the most popular modern art museum in the world, and it should come as no surprise that Marina Willer, who did the Tate identity, also created the Serpentine’s all-consuming snake. The typography is so similar that it would be easy to mistake the Serpentine for a Tate outpost.

“I want to tell them that a logo is a waste of money. The identity alone will run more than $125,000, not to mention the costs of implementing it”

This need to mimic the Tate’s popularity plays into all the logos. “I can tell you,” one designer said, discussing the Tate and Serpentine, “most museums want two things when they commission an agency. An identity, of course, but they’re also desperate to get on the ‘short list’ for visitors and tourists. In New York that’s the Met, MoMA, and probably the Guggenheim. Everyone else would do anything to inch a little bit up that ladder. Consider the poor American Folk Art Museum, just a few steps away from MoMA, hoping for a little rub-off effect—all for naught.”

In the boardroom, the collector slumps in his chair; another checks his phone. The word “board” now could literally mean “bored.” I want to tell them that a logo is a waste of money. The identity alone will run more than $125,000, not to mention the costs of implementing it: posters, badges, tickets, fliers, paper cups and napkins in the restaurant, and bags for the gift shop, plus a new website. Instead, I talk about Nike and Apple, logos both made by kids starting their careers. We can never divorce those marks, I say, from all the work that goes into maintaining them: advertising, marketing, retail, and promotion. Also, I add, companies rarely change their marks. Nike and Apple have only refined theirs (the swoosh got thinner; Apple dropped the rainbow stripes).

“All these people want to portray themselves as suitable partners, in the Jane Austen sense, for big corporate sponsors and significant private philanthropists.”

In Creative Review a couple of years ago, Matthew Slotover talked about perceptions of brands in the art world and his own brand, Frieze, which includes two magazines, three art fairs, and two nonprofits. “When you talk about brands, it’s a funny word; it’s a bit unclear what people mean,” he said. “Is it the name or is it the graphic identity? I think the graphic identity is a different thing from the brand, which I see as the name. I think what a brand stands for, and how people feel about it, is much bigger than the logo.”

During the meeting, I want to discuss the Tate and the Whitney. The issue wasn’t whether the Whitney’s old logo was dynamic (Miller’s aggressive mark and the Tate’s fuzzy one actually look similar). The museums offered very different experiences. On the Thames at the foot of the Millennium Bridge, the Tate draws tourists with bold, free installations. Visitors come, are thrilled, and spend money in the gift shop. Isn’t that what buying a T-shirt means? I had fun here! The Whitney is now moving closer to the Tate model and not simply with a “responsive W.” Abandoning the staid Upper East Side, the museum’s new building will be along the High Line, swarming with tourists. Perhaps there will be bold, free installations, too.

By showing the panel the other museum identities being rolled out, I was hoping they’d see this was just a trend, a branding bubble, and realize that jumping on the bandwagon wasn’t the answer. I was wrong.  A designer I spoke to said something dismaying about the real agenda in such meetings. “All these people want to portray themselves as suitable partners, in the Jane Austen sense, for big corporate sponsors and significant private philanthropists. No one wants to tell the person controlling the budget that we just gave a bunch of money to someone no one’s ever heard of.”

Part of this rebranding craze is just that—museums are signaling that they’re worth the money. With so much of it going to contemporary art, museums must be there at the front of the line. Rebranding makes sure they’re seen in the same league as their competitors. This isn’t about visitors, but “suitable partners.”  In the boardroom, a member of the communications team stands. Another group needs the room. “It’s the board’s finance committee, and we have to let them have it,” she apologizes. “They’re the reason we’re all here.”

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