The West Coast became the center of America’s graphic design universe in the mid-1980s. Naturally, it began with April Greiman and Emigre and their California Apples. And it expanded with Katherine McCoy’s Cranbrook vision invading CalArts. This fact’s not that apparent from examining entrenched attitudes, and even advisor lists, of prominent East Coast museums: It’s as if they’re still peering out from Saul Steinberg’s 1976 “View from 9th Avenue.” But the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has long been aware of—and are currently taking major steps to institutionalize—this major seismic shift.
LACMA plans to build one of the country’s most vital, important graphic design collections. And it’s starting on a solid foundation, with a substantial collection of posters, prints and drawings dating to Lautrec’s “Belle Epoque” and with exhibitions such as its acclaimed “California Design: 1930-1965” in 2011.
Moving forward, LACMA held a “study day” on Friday, May 16th. It brought together a wide variety of professional curators, scholars and designers, all deeply engaged experts, to examine issues and develop strategies.
The agenda was structured around a series of speakers. They included MoMA’s Department of Architecture & Design’s senior curator Paola Antonelli, who covered digital typefaces, electronic games and such, and Benjamin Weiss, chair of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ Department of Prints, Drawings and Photos. But they also came from the rest of the country, and even the world, as we heard from Marina Garone Gravier of the National University of Mexico and Ian Lynam from Temple University Japan. LACMA’s creative director, Lorraine Wild, delivered on “Graphic Design History into Practice,” and other curatorial staff from a spectrum of the museum’s divisions were among the audience participants. And as one of my interviewees notes below, the “CalArts Design Mafia” was well represented.
From my perspective, the most valuable talks were by Andrew Blauvelt, the Walker Art Center’s Design, Research and Publishing senior curator, who analyzed ways in which graphic design can be presented in a gallery context, and Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Art History Department at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Victor kicked off the morning with “Collecting Graphic Design: the Quest for Diversity.” This immediately provoked pushback. A lively debate about priorities ensued, which could be summarized as old-school Modernist “aestheticization” versus progressive, post-Postmodern “situational contextualization.”
Following up, I contacted Staci Steinberger, assistant curator in LACMA’s Decorative Arts and Design division, who was instrumental in organizing the event. She provided background to the project meeting as well as results. I also got in touch with three other attendees:
Christopher Mount is a former curator and currently founder of the Christopher W. Mount Gallery in Los Angeles. He shares Staci’s concerns about the importance of asking the right questions.
Chuck Byrne is the Principal of Chuck Byrne Design in Oakland, Ca, and a retired professor of design from San Jose State University. He acknowledges the importance of cultural context but values aesthetic considerations.
I also interviewed Victor, who is direct, outspoken and specific in his evaluation of this particular issue and of the session as a whole. In the course of detailing his vision of the collection, he guesses at a recently acquired Glasgow School poster’s purchase price, a figure which LACMA, per policy, holds in confidence.
All posters below are part of LACMA’s collection.
Michael Dooley: Staci, what led to this planning session?
Staci Steinberger: Over the past year, LACMA’s departments of Decorative Arts & Design and Prints & Drawings have been collaborating on a new initiative to collect graphic design, with advice from the museum’s creative director Lorraine Wild and the support of our director, Michael Govan. We conceived of this study day as a way to tap into the broader questions and conversations about graphic design and its place in an encyclopedic museum.
The program evolved from a series of questions: What areas of graphic design had other institutions already collected in depth? In what areas could LACMA make a new contribution through acquisitions and exhibitions? How could LACMA’s new collection best complement the existing collections and communities in Los Angeles? How could we narrow the never-ending stream of contemporary design into a focused collection? How should we deal with new digital formats? And how would we store a graphic design collection and make it accessible to the public?
Dooley: And what were the results?
Steinberger: The enthusiasm and energy that we felt during the study day was incredibly encouraging. It really confirmed our suspicions that there was both a need and an audience for this type of program. I think one of the best things to come out of the day was the sense of community; there are already calls for follow-up meetings, and possible institutional collaborations on graphic design-related projects.
The presentations and conversation yielded many insights and helped us to define the major issues we would need to work through as we formalize our collecting strategy and exhibition goals. We had always known that one continued area of focus—though certainly not the only one!—would be design generated in California. but it was helpful to think about how the “LA perspective” can encompass more than just what’s made here, and draw connections with designers in other parts of the world, especially the Pacific Rim.
And within California, it was helpful to break down “nodes” of activity: innovative schools, interaction design, typography, moving images. We’re thinking through the logistics of collecting in multiple formats. While most of our existing collections focus on posters, we realize that a 21st-century collection needs to acknowledge the broader definition of graphic design.
Dooley: Christopher, how do you think LACMA should go about collecting?
Christopher Mount: As any curator will tell you, the most important thing about any curatorial endeavor is that you first explain, and are clear about, what you’re going to do or present. What will the show include and what is your take? And why, or basically what, is the premise and how are you going to illustrate that? What do you want to achieve with this collection? And what is it about? A basic history, a supplement to the other departments, an area of strength in SoCal that needs to be shown? Or whatever.
I think LACMA has to be forthright and work hard to answer these things first. What’s the purpose of the new collection? What kind of exhibitions do they want to do? Who is their audience? How do they collect other sorts of design, and how does that relate to this new collection? And even: Where will it be shown? Is there room for billboard-sized A.M. Cassandres?
Set the guidelines first, and stick by them. The more vague an exhibition or collection is, the more likely it is to be critized. Besides, the very point of any curatorial endeavor is to illustrate a point of view and a way of seeing things. A story. You have to make sure you know what kind of story it’s going to be first.
Dooley: Chuck, where do you stand on “situational contextualization” versus “aestheticization”?
Chuck Byrne: The discussion regarding how strongly factors such as gender, race and the current interest in “material culture” should influence the criteria for collecting graphic design was interesting and important. But in the end it’s hard to argue that these factors outweigh the importance of design aesthetics and history in an art museum design collection.
For me, it’s not an either/or decision. Exemplary design both draws upon and influences culture.
Dooley: What’s your take on the issue, Victor?
Victor Margolin: I think context helps to frame the kinds of collections a museum wants. If the context is entirely high art, that will determine a direction to go in. If the context is broader to include popular culture as well, that will open up the possibilities for a broader collection.
If the collection is aestheticized too much it’ll become boring. Graphic design was made for use and to simply pull it out of a use-context and present it as art undermines its purpose and meaning. Its references should be other pieces of graphic design and not high art.
Dooley: What about other issues that were raised?
Margolin: For my taste, there was too much talk about new media and the problems of maintaining and accessing digital files. I am still pretty much a “paper” person and believe there is plenty of printed material to collect.
There can be a kind of division among museums. If MoMA is collecting video games, no need for LACMA to do it. What we see on the street, get in the mail, and see in the bookstore and on the magazine rack is still primarily paper.
Dooley: And how do you see LACMA proceeding?
Margolin: The collection should be full of surprises, particularly representing the diversity of local design tendencies but also moving into other geographic areas.
LACMA should move ahead aggressively to build a collection of Los Angeles graphics, Latin American graphics, and Pacific Rim graphics. I would begin to build a network of designers who could donate their material and get material from others. Some of them were at the meeting: Jeff Keedy, Lorraine Wild, Louise Sandhaus, Ed Fella. And Carol Wells, who heads the Center for the Study of Political Graphics archive.
I’d collect broadly: old magazines like Avant Garde, Dot Zero, Art and Architecture, etc. And I would look for collectors who could sell or donate large runs of such publications. I’d also start to collect fringe material like punk posters as well as more established material.
I’d also build a core collection of well designed graphics from all over; classics if you will. Swiss posters; French post-1968: Grapus and Michel Bouvet; etc. I’d look for collectors who would donate or promise their collections. I’d also hire an intern to start buying stuff off eBay and the internet.
I heard that LACMA spent almost a couple of hundred thousand dollars—I may be wrong about the amount—on one Mackintosh poster. For that money, you could have a few thousand graphic pieces.
I might also hold a Poster Biennial as we did in Chicago. You get hundreds of entries and get to keep them after you hand out the prizes.
- Want more Dooley? “Looking Closer 5: Critical Writings on Graphic Design” by Michael Bierut includes prominent contributors Michael Dooley, Milton Glaser, Maud Lavin, Ellen Lupton, Victor Margolin Steven Heller and more. This collection of essays takes stock of the quality and profundity of graphic design writing published in professional and general interest design magazines, as well as on blogs and Internet journals.
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- Don’t miss the latest issues of Print. Print Magazine’s June 2014 Issue is the Innovation & Entrepreneur Issue. In this issue, we take a look at how the entrepreneur shift has paved the way for a new chapter in social innovation design and delve into what being a design entrepreneur really means. Plus get insight into what it takes to break into the world of illustration.