Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “branding,” which to my mind involves defining in as few words as possible what is unique about Carnegie Museum of Art. With today’s emphasis on the sound bite, and with a population inundated with information and accustomed to getting it at a clip, this kind of branding becomes increasingly important—even vital—for attracting new audiences. For a general museum like ours, however, without the narrow focus of a contemporary or Asian art museum, or the internationally powerful brand of our sister institution, The Andy Warhol Museum, this can be difficult.
In the United States, museums like ours, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reflect the values of those times. Housed in grand Neoclassical edifices, they were meant to “improve” the general populace through insights gleaned from the array of historical and aesthetic artifacts available within. Thanks to the largesse of patrons who cared about their cities, general museums all over the United States contain great art; but the very variety of their collections—unquestionably a benefit—compromises their ability to define themselves succinctly.
At Carnegie Museum of Art, our particular attributes include the Carnegie name but, recognizable and respected though it is, it can actually confuse rather than illuminate our identity. (Are we part of Carnegie Mellon University? Related to Carnegie Hall in New York? A library? And so on.)
The Carnegie International, however, one of the two oldest international surveys of contemporary art in the world and the program for which we are best known, is truly unique to us. In 1895, when Andrew Carnegie founded Carnegie Institute, he famously instructed the Department of Art (now the museum) to build its collection from an annual exhibition of the best of European and North American contemporary art. At that time, and for over a half a century, there was only the Carnegie International and the Venice Biennale. In the 1950s, the São Paulo Bienal in Brazil and Documenta in Kassel, Germany, arrived; for the next several decades, there were four important international mega-shows. Today there are over two hundred. In this context, what makes us special?
Ours is the only large-scale international survey connected to a museum. Carnegie’s plan in effect created the country’s first contemporary art museum. His intent was embraced and compromised to greater and lesser extents during different periods (sometimes there were good arguments for augmenting his vision; the people of Pittsburgh did need to know something about art history). Nevertheless, in many ways, the International—and responses to it, good and bad—built the museum that we have today. It is the only survey of contemporary art that can make such a claim, and that is something that you will see illuminated in the next International, in 2013.
But CMA is not just the International. We have the Heinz Architectural Center, a distinguished collection of decorative arts and design, 3,000 Japanese prints, impressive holdings of Old Master prints, and much more. As we move into the future, our role as one of four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and our physical situation between two great universities are sure to influence our activities as we help define art museums for the 21st century. We seek to become leaders in that effort, and that, together with our history and our physical and intellectual resources, should add to our uniqueness.
Of course, how to put all this into a sound bite remains a quandary.
Until next month,