There’s perhaps no better way to tell the history of the New Museum than through its graphic design. Whether by allowing artists to hijack posters for their own ends, or by articulating its resistance to a rigid corporate mindset through a flexible, dynamic identity, the New Museum’s visual communication has historically emphasized its commitment to questioning the status quo. This legacy is celebrated in the anniversary exhibition, Pursuing the Unpredictable: The New Museum 1977-2017, where the institution reflects on its own pursuit of ground-breaking art and provocative graphic materials.
On the museum’s fifth floor sits the extensive installation: posters and ephemera are arranged in four vitrines, with text and other graphics pasted densely across the walls, much like a display of posters you’d find in the hallway of a theater. These reproductions of archival material list exhibitions and events that have taken place over the New Museum’s 40 year history. At the back of the sprawling room, a vintage Kodak carousel projector shows exhibitions at 583 Broadway, the museum’s address before it moved to its current Bowery location.
Years before that though, the museum set-up shop in a humble office that curator Marcia Tucker rented in January of ‘77. She founded the New Museum as an alternative model of museum practice, intent on introducing new art and new ideas to the public, as well as work by artists who had received little exposure or recognition previously. Its mission—one that hasn’t changed to this day—was to challenge the uptight institutionalization of art museums. In Pursuing the Unpredictable, the institution’s distinctive history is told through its visual communication: posters for exhibitions entitled Damaged Goods, Bad Girls, and Fake bring to light how the New Museum tackled social concerns and controversial topics, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s. When the AIDS crisis hit, one of the museum’s programs distributed free condoms to the public.
This core sensibility, and the New Museum’s practice of reflecting on itself and its actions—questioning the very idea of what a museum can be and do—doesn’t simply extend to the institution’s approach to curating, but also to its marketing and visual communication. It has a tendency towards alternative or unexpected graphic design, especially when it comes to specimens created in collaboration with artists and external designers. Over the years, the New Museum has used its communications as a platform to extend the ideas that it champions beyond its building’s walls and into the public sphere: it sees its own graphic identity and communications strategies as “sites” for interventions, often with the purpose of critiquing or questioning elements of museum practice.
Over the course of four decades, the institution has worked with early-career and in-house designers, while also collaborating with leading firms, including Project Projects, Linked by Air, and Wolff Olins. “Our visual communication has also always been informed and shaped by artists,” says Pursuing the Unpredictable curator Alicia Ritson, the Marcia Tucker senior research fellow at the New Museum. “Many artists we have worked with earn their bread and butter through design work and have also been brought onto projects as design professionals. In other cases, artists have been approached to work on things like book covers or image selections for publications—as was the case with Louise Lawler, Felix Gonzalez Torres, and others, who worked on the New Museum’s early Critical Anthologies.”
Today Ritson takes us through five examples of ephemera on display at the show, presenting a mini-timeline of the museum and the radical gestures that it’s folded into its communications.