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40 Years of the New Museum, as Told Through its Maverick Graphic Design

The irreverent New York institution has long viewed its communications strategies as “sites” for intervention.

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.

Design by Droga5, 2007.

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.

Early suite of New Museum invitations and catalogues

(1977–late 1980s)

“Still among the most striking of our graphic materials are the invitations and catalogue covers produced for the New Museum’s earliest exhibitions in 1977 through the late 1980s. While the typography is varied across these different designs—with some treatments tending towards a conceptual rather than simply a straight up approach—it’s the palette of saturated color, incredibly piquant, which provides continuity across the radically different kinds of exhibitions these were produced for.

Barry Le Va Catalogue cover, 1978. Image courtesy of New Museum.


Dimensions Variable catalogue cover, 1979. Image courtesy of New Museum.


“The single-color printing with simple text layout were of course a pragmatic decision for a fledgling museum on a limited budget. However, their simplicity and boldness retains an energy and confidence of an organization which was itself pitching to be a counter force in almost every way to the traditional art museum.”

Fashion Moda invitation, 1980. Image courtesy of New Museum.


“Bad Girls” Zine


“As a supplement, or perhaps a more populist approach to the exhibition catalogue for the 1994 exhibition Bad Girls, the New Museum produced a 24-page zine, the idea for which was conceived by Marcia Tucker, founding director and curator of the exhibition.

Spread from Bad Girls brochure, 1994. Image courtesy of New Museum.


“Tucker wanted to try something new with exhibition mediation, and envisaged this zine as a takeoff of a 1950s pulp rag. It was created by then designers at the investment firm Neuberger Berman (Emily Clark, Joan McClung, and Marianne Morea)—which may seem an unlikely creator for an irreverent, DIY, and anti-establishment publication. However the project could only be brought to fruition because one of the museum’s trustees was then a partner at NB.

Spread from Bad Girls brochure, 1994. Image courtesy of New Museum.


“The cut-and-paste aesthetic of the zine’s inner pages conveys a cacophony of disparate voices, but it’s perhaps the logo on the zine’s cover which most stridently represents the amplified, larger than life voices within this exhibition. Designed by Nancy Dwyer, an artist who has a long history of working with text in graphic, animated, and sculptural forms, this is a loudmouth logo laid over a shadowy background which is at once theater and crime scene.”

Spread from Bad Girls brochure, 1994. Image courtesy of New Museum.

Wolff Olins’ New Museum graphic identity concept


“When the New Museum reopened in 2007 at its Bowery location, the brand consultants Wolff Olins designed our latest graphic identity. The logo is entirely text in bold typeface and it’s made up of two elements: one that is always the same (the words NEW MUSEUM) and another that can shift (changing content that can be sandwiched between the fixed content). The beauty of this logo is that it is infinitely changeable and can instantly message current programming, responding in a timely way to shifting contexts. While the fixed content—NEW MUSEUM—is always in black and white, there is palette of seven colors that the changeable content can appear in. These colors—perhaps coincidentally—echo the bold hues of the museum’s earliest graphic materials.

“To introduce the new graphic identity, the New Museum and Wolff Olins produced a folded brochure, one side of which provided examples of how the shifting logo could function, along with conceptual propositions for how the museum might see itself. The irreverence of some of the changing content embodies a museum willing to propose new ways of engaging art, culture, and museum practice—and occasionally challenging decorum—even as it was approaching its 30th anniversary.”

K-HOLE’s Extended Release, New Museum Triennial ad campaign


“For their contribution to the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, Surround Audience, New York artist collective K-HOLE, conceived and designed an ad campaign to disseminate information about the exhibition in subways, billboards, and online. Entitled Extended Release (2015), this was both campaign and artwork, following a long line of artists who have co-opted commercial structures and branding strategies in the production of their art.

“K-HOLE’s smart suite of designs for the campaign includes phrases that are pithy (“I’LL TRIENNIAL ONCE”), banal (“NOTHING LASTS FOREVER”), or self-deprecating (“WE REALLY TRIED THIS TIME”) and these appear in the New Museum’s font, either red on a white background, or vice versa. An anthropomorphic pill performs a different action on each design, subtly corresponding to the slogan it accompanies, and suggesting, along with the campaign’s title, our pharmaceutically influenced culture.”

City Sniping Wild Postings poster, 2015. Image courtesy of New Museum.

Brochure for Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter


“Artist Simone Leigh, as part of her residency at the New Museum, selected Nontsikelelo Mutiti, an independent designer, to create all ephemera associated with her project The Waiting Room. Among many activities, Simone used her access to the museum through her residency to give space for a series of monthly closed-door meetings of black women artists responding to timely issues, culminating in an event that took over several of the museum spaces, centering on black women artists and non-artists alike. As one of many interventions, the ephemera group within Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter considered wayfinding materials for the event, and Nontsi designed this striking and subversive brochure with their input

“When Nontsi designed the title image, she had in mind the full pink lips that Sheila Levrant de Bretteville—one of the country’s most influential figures in thinking about design as politically engaged practice—had created for a special issue of the feminist newspaper, Everywoman. The black panther symbol, as it was initially sketched by Ruth Howard Chamber and refined by Dorothy Zellner, is also an undeniable influence on the project’s representative graphic, with its free-form line and biting contrast.

Sheila de Bretteville reading Everywoman.


“The physical form of this brochure is also exceptional: it is a co-optation of the format of a standard museum all-in-one membership mailer. Its contents include details about The Waiting Room activities and artwork by black women artists, and when sealed on two sides, functions as an envelope to hold inserts produced by members from within the collective conceived with an audience of black women in mind. Rather than returning to the museum as sender, the brochure redirects activity outwards, with the suggested addressee: For A Sister.”

Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, New Museum, 2016.

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