12 March 2008
Markus Zehentbauer
Markus Zehentbauer

Reprinted with permission from form magazine:
form 218 The Making of Design
The Art of communicating Art, 1/2008

Never before has art seen such a boom. Museums and trade fairs are attracting ever more people who, until now, were interested in other things. Yet competition is great, and many exhibition houses have no yet prepared for it.  What does this mean for the design of corporate images and exhibition campaigns?  Will museums and other cultural institutions soon be marketed like major companies?

There did not use to be many names which guaranteed a full house, or rather museum.  Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, maybe Munch, that was about it.  Today, curators are amazed at the attention some contemporary art exhibitions receive, and at the number of people who, motivated by the media and the hype on the art market, are suddenly interested in Daniel Richter and Erwin Wrum. "Contemporary art has become the expression of a lifestyle," states art expert and journalist Wolfgang Ullrich, in other words a social phenomenon that naturally also impacts on corporate design and exhibition campaigns. Do the means of communication that museums and other cultural institutions use have to look different today to reach new target groups? In any case, this is Uli Mayer-Johanssen's opinion, who, as Director of Berlin-based agency MetaDesign, has supported some of the most successful German art exhibitions of recent years, including the MoMA guest show at the Neue Nationalgalerie (1.2 million visitors) and most recently and exhibition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled "The most beautiful French come from New York" (680,000 visitors).

"There is an increasing number of people who would rather go to an exhibition in economic terms," she says. "We also have to get people out of the football stadiums." The overall conditions for exhibition campaigns of this magnitude have changed noticeably in the past few years.  MetaDesgin is now involved in plans, early on, to define exhibitions as brands. "The aim is to reduce the message to its core," says Mayer-Johanssen. "You have to penetrate into people's everyday reality." On the one hand, that sounds very much like corporate communication and on the other has led to the term "impressionist" not being used in the campaign for an exhibition on French impressionists. The slogan "The most beautiful French come from New York" and the red and blue striped edging, which not just by chance resembles air mail envelopes, better accentuated the unusual aspects of this exhibition.  "Branding such as this can no longer just be intuitive, even an art-historical perspective is not suitable," says Mayer-Johanssen, who is calling for a professionalisation.

A goal that the organisers of the International Museum Communication Awards (IMCA) also have their eye on, which has just been decided this November.  However, the first competition on the theme does not judge the efficiency of campaigns, but only the quality in terms of design.  And it is precisely this which has a lot to do with a museum's success, believes Raoul Thill, whose Luxembourg-based design agency Bizart is organising the IMCA together with the Parisian agency Arena. "Museums are becoming increasingly commercial, but it only works when the quality of the communication is right," says Thill.  "And we want to help improve that." The competition provides a platform for the exchange of ideas, as well as an overview of 82 corporate designs and campaigns by a total of 63 design studios, which museums and galleries have sent in from all over the world.  Members of the jury include graphic designer Irma Boom and design author Emily King, among others.  Damien Whitmore, Director of Programming at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, was head juror.  Registration for one of the two categories (corporate design and exhibition campaign) cost 250 euros.  As we see, the corporate designs of museums and other art institutions look completely different, and very different to those of Dax-listed companies, for example, of which more than half use the corporate color blue and more than 85 percent use a sans-serif font as their company typeface.  And first place going to the corporate design of the Musée d'Art Moderne (MUDAM) Luxembourg is proof that you can indeed play with legibility without losing stringency. The Berlin-based studio Ott+Stein transformed the wordmark into a sign by arranging the initial letters "MUDAM" vertically and schematizing them in such a way that they new resemble Asian characters.

However, it is a myth that you can work more freely, or maybe even experiment, for museums and cultural institutions than for companies.  "We are not the artists, we serve art," says Raoul Thill.  And Carsten M. Wolff, who designs the campaigns for the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, warns against "interpreting instead of presenting" an artist. it is probably rather the case that demands become higher when one design discipline advertises another.  The difference to a company commission is the content, which, as advertiser and art collector Christian Boros says, "is extremely fragile." It is rarely obvious what contemporary art is about; it blocks itself off to all too easy explanations, but in any case it is about an intellectual investigation of the world. It is a great help to many designers that a museum generally does not only exhibit artworks, but also its architecture. "All famous buildings have a face," says Boros.  And that is enough to make them brands.  London-based agency Wolff Olins is using the New Museum's spectacularly towering new Sanaa building in New York as the central element of its corporate design, and Stfan Sagmeister is using an architectural design by Ram Koolhass, the Casa da Música concert hall in Porto.  Sagmeister actually wanted to develop a corporate image without using the profile of the building.  But he realised "that was not possible.  The building itself is a logo." A sculptural, prism-like shape, which, in his design, now either stands on its own or like a chameleon adapts as a symbol to the colours of the main motif.

Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was not he first to show the magnetic pull museum architecture can exert.  On the whole, museum communication also involves the competition between cities.  And that is why Uli Mayer-Johanssen is certain that campaigns for museums "will change noticeably." Provided the budget can stretch that far.  It remains to be seen whether the exhibition culture will continue to develop in the direction of event spectacle.  In any case, the organisers of the IMCA have already observed how much artistic lifestyle echoes in the design of some posters and catalogs. Or as Raoul Thill says: "Some things look really hot but run against the content.  This is not the place for superficial effects."