The National Gallery of Art, located in Washington DC, has rebranded as it reopens its doors to the public for the first time in months. The first visitors to the world-famous art museum noted that some of the different fonts used in the gallery had been rationalised. Furthermore, much of the often contradictory and confusing signage had been taken down and replaced with more consistent messaging. More tellingly, perhaps, a new logo has been developed for the gallery, one that will be very visible both inside and outside the building. This has been backed up with a new strap line. The new slogan now reads ‘Of the nation and for all the people’, something that is more a statement of the museum’s vision of its future than anything else. The phrase was chosen after a series of consultations with employees.
According to the gallery’s director, Kaywin Feldman, the slogan symbolises the museum’s renewed commitment to a number of areas, including diversity and inclusion. Feldman, who became the gallery’s director in 2018 – the first woman to hold that role – said that she had been given a mandate by the museum’s board to accentuate the national aspect of the National Gallery. Among the visual changes on show as the art museum reopened was a new, bold typeface that emphasises the word ‘National’ more than ever before. This is backed up by the fact that the chosen typeface resembles the one that has been used for years to mark the names of donors that are carved into the museum’s walls.
According to the National Gallery of Art, the rebranding project will cost in excess of $800,000. The use of consultants, including the design firm Pentagram, has been justified on the grounds that this is the first time in over 80 years since the museum was founded to establish a brand identity that the public can relate to. The project is a key one for Feldman and shows how she intends to bring the institution into the twenty-first century from almost the very beginning of her tenure as director.
Darren Walker, a trustee at the gallery, said that the move would show just how boldly the institution was seeking to become in the modern era. However, he was keen to stress that the rebranding exercise was not simply about creating a superficial appeal. “Diversifying the collection is also one of the gallery’s top priorities,” he said.
This is because, despite the fact that the gallery was intended to be the public’s accumulation of art in America when it was first established, its current collection does not represent the demographics in the United States. For example, the museum released statistics as a part of its wider programme of change which indicated that the current national collection is heavily male-dominated. Over 91 per cent of its artworks are by male artists. Indeed, for works in the collection which have a named artist, almost all are by white people.
Consequently, Feldman and the museum’s trustees have been trying to redress the imbalance. Part of their commitment to diversifying the gallery’s collection has involved making new acquisitions. Last year, the National Gallery of Art bought a number of works which had been produced by a group of African-American artists. Even more recently, the acquisition team chose to add a Christopher Myers textile that remembered victims of police brutality in a racial context.
A Troubled Recent History
According to Feldman, the National Gallery of Art has navigated its way through 2020 – including the explosions of the pandemic and the country’s anti-racism movement – with a great deal of success. She now says that the resumption of visits to the gallery is ‘a moment of rebirth’ but not merely in the sense of reopening. The gallery wants to re-establish its place within American society as a public art collection that is for the entire nation.
That said, Feldman says that the institution must remain rooted in its founding principles. “Our new vision statement [connects us to]… the National Gallery’s history,” she said. “When we were established, the gallery was a gift to the US [something that was to be]… for the people.” The director added that those founding principles should also determine the gallery’s future and its values. That said, Feldman also admitted the institution’s collection still needed to be worked on before it could ‘catch up’ with how the country looks like today.
Feldman went on to say that the gallery’s core collection was a fair representation of the demographics of the country when the institution was founded in 1941. However, since then the gallery has failed to keep pace with the level of change in US society, especially its racial demographics. “We have our work cut out to expand representation,” she said. According to the director, it was at her very first board meeting that she told the trustees that it was no longer feasible to only acquire works by artists with a European ancestry, especially in the field of contemporary art.
The gallery has recently hired a chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer to help it expand its horizons. What’s more, Feldman says that when she took over as gallery director, her leadership team was completely white. She is now proud of the fact that her management team is much more diverse with a significant representation among people of colour. Of particular note is the gallery’s chief officer responsible for curation and conservation officer, E Carmen Ramos, who was appointed to her role under Feldman’s tenure. She is the first female and non-white person to hold that position.
Time will tell whether these changes and the wider rebranding project will improve the gallery’s standing among the wider public. However, Feldman said she feels confident about the future, especially in light of the gallery’s reopening.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.