The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The National Gallery is back. And it’s done being subtle about its brand and mission.

The National Gallery of Art is adding a boost of color to its palette. (National Gallery of Art)
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When the National Gallery of Art reopens its doors on Friday after a six-month closure, it won’t just be attempting to bounce back from a global pandemic. It will be unveiling a whole new look.

Vibrant colors — anointed with such names as Honesty Blue, Inspiration Red, Curiosity Yellow and Generosity Green — and modernized signage will enliven the subtle palette of grays and off-whites that have dominated the museum’s decor since its opening in 1941. The nine-color palette accompanies a new logo and tagline — The National Gallery of Art: Of the nation. For the people. — emphasizing the federal art museum’s vision, mission and aspirations, Director Kaywin Feldman explained.

“When I was hired, I had one primary mandate from the Board of Trustees. They described it as putting the national back in the National Gallery of Art,” Feldman said. “That’s been the focus of the work.”

The new brand is the result of 18 months of staff discussions about values and priorities and “talking about who we are and our dreams of the future,” said Feldman, who became director in March 2019. The design involved two consulting firms that were paid almost $820,000.

The logo’s typeface — Empirica — complements the one carved into the museum’s marble walls. The word “National” is bolded, and the tagline is meant to highlight inclusion. The bright colors might be the most controversial part of the new look, Feldman said, because they are in stark contrast to the muted palette previously used.

“We want to make it known we are an art museum and [visitors] are welcome,” she said. “It’s lively and dynamic, while still communicating a serious sense of purpose. We want to preserve the weight and dignity and gravitas of the gallery and make it more warm and contemporary.”

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New banners will hang on the exterior, and interior signs will unify the museum’s two buildings and its sculpture garden and help visitors navigate between them, Feldman said. Recent surveys revealed one-third of visitors do not venture into the I.M. Pei-designed East Building, home to its modern and contemporary art galleries, and a large number do not know that the sculpture garden is part of the museum, she said.

“We are too subtle,” she said of the previous decor and visual cues. With the redesign, she said, “We are making it clear what the West Building and the East Building are and how to move between the two spaces.

“How we are deploying [the rebranding] is very deliberate. In our ads and on the website, we will frequently include people in the images, emphasizing that we are a place of people,” Feldman said, adding that she hopes visitors will respond to it the way she did. “My reaction . . . was: ‘That’s where I want to be. That’s the place I want to go.’ ”

The new logo will replace the 30 or so different styles and typefaces that Feldman said she spotted walking through the museum’s multiple spaces. It does not replace the eagle insignia, which she said is the museum’s official seal, primarily used for legal documents. “We have used it occasionally elsewhere, with no rhyme or reason,” she said. The colors and logos will be seen on staff, too. Visitor Experience team members will be dressed in black with easy to identify blue and orange lanyards and orange name badges; security officers will wear black, white and gray with enamel pins sporting the new logo and ball caps with an updated eagle seal.

The National Gallery paid $320,000 to AEA for strategic plan consulting and about $500,000 to Pentagram for the brand. Those costs were covered by private donor funds, according to spokeswoman Anabeth Guthrie. The cost to replace uniforms, supplies and signs come to about $900,000, an amount the museum would spend “in any given year” to replace and replenish such items, Guthrie said. Those expenses are part of the operating budget.

The National Gallery unveils its new look as the museum field emerges from a year of pandemic-related closures, a national reckoning on racism and calls for social justice. Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests were held in cities across the country, former and current gallery employees signed a petition alleging sexual and racial harassment at the federally funded institution. In the fall, the national racial reckoning caused the museum to postpone the highly anticipated exhibit “Philip Guston Now,” which contains images that include Ku Klux Klan hoods. That decision, made with the three other museums hosting the traveling show, sparked widespread criticism.

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With employees agitating for radical change, will the museum’s focus on labeling its color scheme and making the word “National” boldface in its logo seem frivolous and out of touch? Feldman says no. “It is joyful and optimistic,” she said about the new look. “I would argue that is exactly what we need right now.”

This is the fifth branding effort Feldman has undertaken in her career, and she says there is always criticism. “You never get unanimous consent around design. People bring their own opinions,” she said.

“We have done the rest of the work, too,” she said about the gains made around issues of inclusion, diversity, equity and access. “It’s not like we’ve been sitting around only doing a brand identity. We have a lot to show for the last two years. The challenge is: We couldn’t do the work without updating the brand.”

Feldman points to the museum’s ongoing administrative restructuring as evidence of these gains. The gallery just announced that E. Carmen Ramos, acting chief curator and curator of Latinx at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, will be its chief curator and conservation officer. She will be the first female chief curator in the gallery’s history. With Ramos’s hiring, Feldman completes her makeover of her seven-member senior cabinet, transforming it from an all-White group to one that is 57 percent Black, Indigenous, people of color, Guthrie confirmed.

A new paid internship program with Howard University starts next year, representing another critical piece of its diversity work.

“I have the pleasure of modeling our values,” Feldman said. “I’m hiring at the leadership level and we’re developing the pipeline for the future.”

The National Gallery isn’t the only museum that used the pandemic shutdown to rethink its brand strategy. The Baltimore Museum of Art last week unveiled a new brand that, like the National Gallery’s, uses bold colors and a new logo to reinforce its commitment to “social justice, equity, reciprocity, and artistic excellence.” In addition to a color system that includes a “fearless” blue and an “empathetic” purple, the BMA developed an interactive digital logo.

Through efforts like these, visual branding can welcome a public that may feel uncomfortable or excluded, said Johanna Taylor, design professor at Arizona State University and program director for creative enterprise & cultural leadership at its Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“The built environment around the building, the physical infrastructure of the building, the cost of admission . . . there are so many barriers to entry,” Taylor said, adding that even the classic marble exteriors of some museums can make them feel like “White spaces” to audiences not used to visiting.

Introducing a visual identity that breaks down these barriers could work to counter that legacy of exclusion,” she said.

“If that visual identity can really reflect this radical reimagining of a more equitable institution, make this internal process visible and invite communities in, then maybe it’s an exciting opportunity,” Taylor said.

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The National Gallery’s new look is one of several changes to the museum in the months it has been closed because of covid-19. Fueled by a $30 million challenge grant from the Mellon Foundation, the gallery completed its 75th anniversary endowment campaign, exceeding its goal of $45 million in new donations by bringing in just under $50 million.

Recent acquisitions include “What Does It Mean to Matter” by Christopher Myers, “Free, White and 21” by Howardena Pindell, “Portrait” by Yvonne Thomas, and 40 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, including quilts, paintings, works on paper and sculptures by African American artists.

Visitors will encounter photographer Carrie Mae Weems’s “Untitled,” a seven-part series recently acquired by the gallery, installed facing Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s “The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial,” which commemorates Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first Civil War regiment of African Americans enlisted in the North. Weems incorporates images of Saint-Gaudens’s work in her series focusing on African American culture, sacrifice, resistance and pride. It is the first of a series titled, “Conversations,” Feldman said.

“It’s an invitation to help people see the collection in new ways,” she said. “It’s about confronting the tangled history. And something I’m pleased about is we are adding the names of the men, all of the African American soldiers who fought alongside Shaw.”

The museum commissioned artists Sarah Cain, Avish Khebrehzadeh and Kay Rosen to create site-specific works for the East Building. Construction on the building’s skylights continues, but it is expected to open for visitors in June, Feldman said.

Most of the museum’s temporary exhibition schedule was wiped out by the pandemic, but several shows are certain. “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” an exhibition on female photographers, opens in October, and “Afro-Atlantic Histories” is scheduled for April 2022.

Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, whose work “I See Red: Target” was the first painting by a Native American artist to enter the gallery’s collection last year, will curate an exhibition on contemporary Native American art in the fall of 2022. The postponed “Philip Guston Now” is set for February 2023.

During the closure, the gallery renovated its Garden Café, which will be open at reduced capacity. It also outsourced its retail operation; the shops remain closed while the new vendor takes control.

The gallery will open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and capacity will be limited. Free timed passes will be required. They become available on Mondays at 10 a.m. for the following week. Most of the galleries on both floors of the West Building will be open, although a few that do not allow for social distancing will be closed. The same health and safety guidelines from last fall will be in place. The only entrance will be at Sixth Street NW, but all exits will be used.

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