Inside the National Museum, which just reopened Thursday afternoon, the room was awash with modest energy as an insignificant crowd missed out on a year of sensory experience. In addition to all the art, visitors got to see the museum’s high-profile rebranding. New logos, fresh signs, and incredibly vibrant color palettes have all been created by top design company Pentagram. This effort is a new mission statement (“The National Museum serves the country by welcoming everyone to explore and experience the art, creativity and humanity that we share”) and diversification. A collection that shows a wide range of changes in approach to museums, including the emphasis on. The changes are being led by director Kaiwinfeldman, who started at the museum in 2019 after leading the Minneapolis Institute of Art and other institutions.
Feldman’s office is a quiet beige space in the East Block, with a view of the postcards of the nearby Parliament Building. The subdued tones accentuate some of the pop colors in the room. The visitor’s eyes quickly jump to the painting she has chosen to decorate the wall above the sofa. Ed Ruscha’s vivid undertones of “I think so…” represent phrases like “PAYMENT”. .. .. “And” about the second idea. “Why does it work in particular?
“I knew I was going into decision mode,” she says. “And I love the colors.”
What message are you trying to convey with Rebrand’s very luminous palette?
We often have [think] Going back to the 1941 groundbreaking ceremony, where President Roosevelt said the purpose of the gallery was to celebrate the human spirit. He said he realized and recognized it during World War II, moving it into one of the lowest times in the world. The color scheme is, I think, the most amazing part [of the rebranding].. We are a fairly beige and gray establishment, but a museum. Who can do it if you can’t use color? We wanted a bold sign on the outside to advertise who we are and that we are an exciting place. Before this mark, anyone could write our name in the font of their choice. We did not speak with one voice. Five versions of our facility’s map were running at the same time.
The new logo shows the word “national” in bold, but “gallery” and “art” are not. Why do you want to emphasize the national character?
This is what makes us unique. This means that we are the only National Gallery here in the United States. When I was hired, the board gave me the clear task of making the National Gallery “National”. Most of our money comes from American taxpayers, so it is thanks to them that they provide the best artistic experience possible. And the country is a very diverse place. We want to emphasize the richness of America’s diversity and better reflect the country.
From your own testimony, NGA’s art collection is approximately 92% male and 97% white. Why did this happen?
In fact, I looked back: when the gallery was founded in 1941, America [almost] 90% white [close to 10] Percent African American. It wasn’t until 1970 that American demographics really started to change, and museums didn’t know that demographics were changing until the late 1990s. As a discipline, it was too late. for us to notice that America was changing. There are specific challenges for [the National Gallery] Because it only shows European and American art. It automatically reduces the collection range. Previously, the collection of works by female artists and color artists was not considered. But we are working hard to win more works.
How are you doing that? What does the identification and acquisition of the art that belongs to this museum involve?
[NGA founder] Andrew Mellon has stated in our charter that our collections must be of the highest quality. And unlike most museums, we never leave the collection. These two things mean that when you look at a piece of art in a collection, you really make sure that it achieves a high level of excellence. Now what is changing is the definition of excellence.
So what is your definition of excellence?
The artist will master the technique, the composition of the artwork will be powerful, it will feel like an original work of art, and it will be possible to speak to people in time and space.
You mentioned the withdrawal when the museum sold part of its collection to raise funds. The museum’s board had a policy on this for a long time, but it was controversial and relaxed the policy during the pandemic. What do you think of the discussion?
The· [National Gallery] Don’t Do It It was part of our founding idea to pay close attention to the works of art that we have brought to our collections and to ensure that they stay here forever. So this is not necessarily a problem that concerns us. However, I have worked in small and medium sized museums nationwide. I have been a director for almost 30 years and have experienced financial crises all over the place. I am not in favor of denying access to use the income for operations. However, it should be emphasized that we understand that museums have different situations.
Why are some collections sold in such taboos in the museum world?
Since the collection is the lifeline of the institution, when you start collecting, you lose what is at the center of your business. And if you really need the cash, I’m not going to sell a trivial coin in a drawer. I’ll sell Van Gogh. You start removing jewelry from your collection because only the most valuable works of art make enough money to pay your bill. The loss of trust in blood donors is also a real cause for concern. If they think in a few years you could sell it to foot a bill, why would an artist or patron give them a great job?
But if you have a collective goal to address the issue of diversity and many museums don’t have the money to do so, it makes sense to sell art to achieve it. Is there?
I haven’t done anything that I’ve worked for or seen the gallery do for, but I think it depends on each institution.
In your opinion, what role do museums, in particular the National Gallery, play in taking cultural moments into account, whether in terms of acquisition or exhibition?
I don’t think partisan politics necessarily has a place or a role in a museum. But since art is a story of human experience, it will be filled with pain, trauma, war, hurt and joy, beauty and redemption. This is the whole range. Of course, people will somehow feel very attached to the works of art and exhibitions, as it cannot be ignored that people are at the center of the museum’s activities. Sometimes it drives me crazy. Most of the time, I think “Thanks for the interest of people”. That is why museums are still important today. We are relevant because art is always an expression of the human being.
“I am not a coward. I always stand up for the system, our values and why we do things.
One of the exhibits I remember the most these days was one that didn’t happen. Philip Guston’s show was postponed last year due to concerns about how best to contextualize the image of the Ku Klux Klan, even if he was using it. These images criticize white supremacy.
It was a difficult process as four museums were involved and we all had different reasons and challenges during the exhibition. In the past, museums believed that the audience was homogeneous and came from the same point of view. We now understand that viewers are diverse in all aspects including age, life experience, and background. So when I announced the Philip Guston show, I realized I needed to slow down and be more thoughtful. It includes all of the more challenging works of art that needed to be on display from the start. Nothing was deleted. But we think about how to present it and help frontline staff think about works of art that can make people traumatic or uncomfortable. We provide training to our staff on how to work with visitors in such situations.
The report received a lot of criticism. You have seen an open letter signed by over 2,600 artists, including a high profile black artist. Then I will quote a bit. “The people who run our wonderful institutions don’t want trouble. They are afraid of controversy. They lack confidence in the intellect of the public. Are you afraid of controversy and do you lack confidence in the intellect of your audience?
So why do you think there was such a protest?
I think they thought we were criticizing the artist, but we are not. We all respect and admire Philip Guston. He is one of the most important American artists and therefore we continue to show. The mistake we made was to announce that the show would be postponed for four years. I just did it thanks to Covid. We didn’t know when our institution would switch Covid and be able to have the conversations we needed. You cannot use them beyond zoom. You must be in the same room. But it was still a mistake because the people who signed the letter and others thought we were free. to pretend It was postponed and we were really canceling it.
How was that at the center of it?
I am not a coward. So I always stand up for the system, our values and why we do things. I think the establishment should have empathy for viewers and visitors.
The museum has been closed for most of last year due to a pandemic. Have you ever spent your time here walking around empty rooms or looking at art?
I come almost every day. It really gave me the energy to walk in the door and chat with us [essential-worker security and maintenance] Staff. And obviously, going to see for yourself the collections of the National Art Museum is a special privilege. I didn’t turn on the light so I’m just getting the filtered light from the skylight. Very calm and silent. The artwork was lively which also made me sad Man.. They looked very alone in the gallery.
Did you have a particularly memorable moment?
It was really hard to come after the terrorist attack on the Capitol on January 6. I was sitting at home and getting ready to write one of the messages from all the staff. Then he turned to his husband and said, “I am empty. I can no longer find my joy and my optimism in myself. Then I came here. When you enter the atrium of the East Building, it looks like a cathedral. I can’t help but feel at the center. It is a spiritual place. Our team members had installed [artwork by] Sarah Kane. Seeing contemporary art reborn in front of me, I recovered 100%. I remembered why we were doing what we were doing. And I came with [to my office] I wrote a message because I was full of work spirit.
Photos and renderings were kindly provided by the National Museum of Art.
This article appeared in the July 2021 issue of Washingtonian.