Branding the art world

Once deemed a dirty word in gallery circles, a competitive art market is increasingly embracing the brand. By Eliza Williams

The art world has exploded over the last two decades. Once a niche, rarefied scene, galleries and museums have now become forms of entertainment on a par with the cinema or the zoo. The biggest changes can be seen in the contemporary art sphere: while the mainstream press remains suspicious of the validity of much of the art produced today, the public have no such qualms, and instead flock eagerly to museums such as Tate Modern and contemporary art fairs like Frieze. Whether they are visiting for the art or just to hang out in the cafés and people watch, as some people cynically propose, they are nonetheless visiting, and in their droves.

Reflecting these changes is a surge in inventive branding and identity design for art institutions. While simply using the word ‘brand’ in association with the art world might once have prompted a disgusted shudder, it is increasingly accepted that having a clear agenda, accompanied by a strong design identity, can prove hugely beneficial for a museum or gallery. The art on show will always be central to any institution, but a unique voice and positioning can certainly aid success.

Abbott Miller, a partner at Pentagram New York, who has designed identities for museums including the Guggenheim, the Whitney in New York and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has witnessed these changes first hand. “I began my career working in the New York art gallery context in the late 80s and early 90s, and then moved into working for the New Museum in its early phases, and the difference to me is there was almost a tentative nature about full-on identity work at that time. There was a concern not to step too wholly into a branded look, or a branded world. In the last decade there’s none of that reticence or reluctance. It’s almost like you better have a brand if you’re an art museum, you better be clear about your brand and your identity. That has changed, that’s a different embrace of what design can do to help give voice to an institution.”

Competitive atmosphere

Miller puts these changes down to a general acceleration of branding and design across all sectors, and also the need for museums to perform in a wider arena. “Museums have a lot of pressure to compete in a very open field of cultural attractions and entertainment,” he continues. “They’re operating in a broader and more truly public environment, as opposed to feeling like a subset.”

Andrew Blauvelt, curator and chief of communications and audience engagement at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, agrees that the need for museums to compete more vigorously for their audience’s time has led to more defined identities. “I don’t think museums are immune to the demands of the marketplace,” he says. “In America this concept has been in practice for decades, with museums getting progressively more sophisticated about it in recent years. The roots of the distrust of branding in the museum world, if there are still pockets of resistance, are not so different from the sceptical attitudes about advertising and marketing in the general culture, I think. Museums were also more tied to the idea of an educational mission and that intrinsic ‘goodness’ was seen as being above the crassness of the marketplace. It’s laughable to think that academic institutions – the epitome of such missions – are not now fully aware of the competitive landscape in which they exist. The museum is really no different; it’s crucial for any museum to have a strong identity and brand.”

In addition, the internet has brought virtual visitors to museums, meaning that a cohesive presence, both online and off, is required. The website for the Guggenheim, for example, is a one-stop-shop for info on all its operations. “In the digital age, museums are no longer limited to the physical experience of the galleries, and face a rapidly expanding horizon of media opportunities and programming initiatives,” says Guggenheim’s managing director of business development, Karen Meyerhoff. “Traditional activities like exhibitions and publications now encompass every kind of new media outreach. This creates a plethora of communication, making brand identity more important in order to distinguish each voice amid all the noise.”

In the UK, one of the first major art institutions to embrace branding was Tate, which launched a radical new identity in 1999, for the opening of Tate Modern. Designed by Wolff Olins, the identity was intended to signal the arrival of Tate Modern, and in turn unify it and the various other Tate sites (Tate Britain, Liverpool and St Ives) under one distinctive look. It was a bold move, and required vision on behalf of the client. “They had such a strong point of view on things and so much conviction on what they were there to do in the world,” remembers Marina Willer, who designed the identity for Tate. “So we were very careful to make sure that what we were doing wouldn’t dumb down the authority that they had. It was really about finding the balance between making Tate much more democratic and accessible to lots of people, without taking away any of the things that they’ve built over the years in terms of respect and authority.

“We created an identity that is very fluid and very open,” she continues, “so it’s not imposing. Even though there is a unifying voice, the mark itself is open and always changing. It’s really about embracing different points of view.”
Tate Modern had a seismic effect on the London art scene, with the landmark building alone proving a major draw. Combined with an engaging programme of exhibitions and events, the museum is now one of the most popular attractions in the city. Representing all this is Willer’s dynamic identity.

Pros and cons

One downside of the success of both Tate Modern and the identity is the two became wedded together, to the detriment of the other sites, Tate Britain in particular. Perhaps in recognition of this, a recent refresh of the identity places more emphasis on the site names. “The words ‘Modern’ and ‘Britain’ are bigger and are in front of the mark,” says Willer. “So Tate is the platform in the background, and each of the places have become much more evident.”

Design can prove useful in providing a sense of unity between institutions that may be linked by name, but feature different content. One example is the Pinakotheken series of art museums in Munich, of which there are three: Alte Pinakothek, which houses Old Master paintings, Neue Pinakothek, which covers 19th century art, and Pinakothek der Moderne. When KMS Team in Munich was commissioned to create an orientation and signage system for the latter space on its opening in 2002, they recognised the need for a broader approach, and later produced a design that unified the three spaces. For Michael Keller, managing partner at KMS Team, the need for a strong brand identity in today’s art world is clear. “It is very important,” he says. “The more famous the name of the institution and the stronger its identity, the more visitors will come. Large numbers of visitors also increase the significance of the museum, making it easer to get major works of art for special exhibitions, for example.”

Careful handling

While branding and design are important, cultural institutions require careful handling in the creation of identities. “If something hits too heavy, or looks too commercial, I think there is a problem,” says Abbott Miller. “The issues are still capturing the nebulousness of a creative and educational/intellectual destination. That’s trickier than a coffee shop, because you’re trying to strike some kind of balance of giving a unique voice to the place but also feeling like it’s connected to our culture.”

A fear of being too bold or bombastic is particularly evident within the commercial gallery sphere, which, for the time being at least, seems to be more reticent about identity design. “I think that the [commercial] art galleries are probably more conservative actually,” says Miller. “They have their foot more in that older model of ‘don’t get too branded’. It’s very comparable to what it was like when I first started doing work in the gallery context – it was much more about choosing a good typeface and letting it be a little bit more low-key. Anything that was over-invested started to look like it was pushing the gallery instead of the artists.”

There are a number of possible reasons for this caution from the commercial spaces. They are not as reliant on the public to raise their profile: instead their role is largely to court collectors, artists and other art world opinion-makers, to whom overt branding may seem too populist. Also, the credibility of a gallery usually resides in the dealer’s name. If the dealer is respected, and the artists they work with admired, that alone is enough to attract visitors. Branding in this instance could be perceived to be a bit, well, needy.

There are exceptions. The commercial art behemoth Gagosian, which has galleries in cities across the world, has an identity that features a bespoke font, Gogo, designed by Bruce Mau’s company, BMD. While decidedly neutral in style, it is used in the signage across the various Gagosian spaces. More radical is Haunch of Venison, which launched almost a decade ago with a distinctive brand identity by Spin. Rather than using the names of its directors, it took its name from the street on which the first gallery was sited, Haunch of Venison Yard. Over the last decade, Haunch of Venisons have opened in New York, Berlin and Zurich (the latter two have now closed), and for three years the London space was sited in Burlington Gardens, near the Royal Academy. All of the galleries carried the same name, regardless of location, and this proved no hindrance to their success. The main London premises has now moved back to the Haunch of Venison Yard, where the space has been newly renovated, with the Burlington Gardens space closing in November.

Public outlook

Pertinently, both Gagosian and Haunch are examples of commercial galleries that are more outward facing than most, and who have recently taken to staging museum-style shows of the more prestigious artists they represent. Matt Watkins, director of Haunch of Venison, is at ease with use of the word ‘brand’ in connection to his operation too. “I think some people think of the idea of brand as being mass-market, and maybe commercial galleries at the high-end don’t particularly want to be seen as mass-market,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s what the word brand is, it’s something very different. You have luxury brands, and I guess galleries operate to a degree along similar lines brand-wise.

The artists’ needs remain central, and Watkins is careful to involve them in design decisions. “I think artists are fine with it, if it’s done in the right way,” he says. “What we have to do, and every gallery has to do, is really mediate the balance of how much you use the brand, because our primary role here is to show artists, to work with artists, and represent them. So we don’t want the Haunch of Venison brand to be overpowering.”

Epitomising the unique dilemmas of branding in the art world is Frieze, owner of both the art magazine, now 20 years old, and the Frieze Art Fair, which launched in 2003. The fair has achieved the tricky balance of proving enormously successful with both the general public, and also, crucially, the art world: such is its impact that galleries and museums in London now schedule their most important shows to take place in October, when the fair is on.

Following the initial London fair’s success, Frieze is this year launching a second London fair, Frieze Masters, which will feature non-contemporary art, and will next year debut a New York Frieze Fair. Also under the Frieze umbrella is the Frieze Foundation, devoted to creating non-profit projects. From the outside, this appears a masterful piece of brand expansion, but it is one that has come with detailed thought and care, particularly about how the brand should be visually presented to the world.

Name versus logo

“When you talk about brands, it’s a funny word, it’s a bit unclear what people mean,” says Matthew Slotover, co-owner of Frieze with Amanda Sharp.

“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. What we’ve developed now, which you could say is a really interesting contemporary approach, or you could say is really stupid, is we’ve ended up with a family of different logos to represent the different aspects of what we do, with the same name. It’s quite unusual, and time will tell if it’s a brilliant new concept in branding or a bit silly.”

What the logo family offers to Frieze is the ability to move amongst the different aspects of the art world while potentially avoiding conflicts of interest, say between the fair, which is a commercial venture, and the foundation, which involves public funding. “We ended up thinking they are connected but they are different as well, and it might be interesting for the logos to reflect those differences, and to not continue the homogeneity that you sometimes get when things are a bit over-branded,” continues Slotover. “The art world is not a corporate world, it’s anti-corporate, it’s full of individuals.”

So where might branding in the art world go in the future? If the public appetite for art continues unabated, it is likely that we will see more experimentation, particularly among the commercial galleries. This may in time also extend to artists, who are already using the internet to develop their own personal identities. “I think we’re pretty close to that actually,” says Abbott Miller. “I see certain artists who have a very high degree of control. Even though they don’t have a brand standard, you could imagine that in a decade they would…. I think there’s plenty of artists that would say ‘I don’t give a flying fuck what you do with the poster for my show’, but there are others for whom that boundary isn’t there, who would say, ‘that’s the wrong font for my world view’. The whole process is a reflection of the increasing sophistication around typography and graphics. I think it’s kind of interesting: it’s design literacy getting further and further out there.”

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