May 18, 2022

When the doors of the National Gallery of Art reopen on Friday, visitors may be surprised by new changes in the look of this Washington museum. About 20 clashing scriptures and confusing signage have gradually disappeared from the building, replaced with a new logo visible inside and out and a new mantra – “By the Nation and for All People” – appearing on its website and is shared with staff. The museum says that this vision, developed through meetings with staff, symbolizes a renewed commitment to diversity, inclusion and excellence.

“I was given a clear mandate by the board to reinstate the National in the National Gallery of Art,” said Kaywin Feldman, who became the museum’s first female director in 2018, in a recent Zoom interview.

The branding campaign, which the museum said would cost around $ 820,000, marks the National Gallery’s first attempt to establish a public identity in more than 80 years since its inception. The plan also shows how Feldman plans to shape the institution two years into office – a time when pandemics have closed, an investigation into allegations of sexual and racial harassment has been called, and a controversial decision has been made to allow an exhibition of Philip Guston’s paintings move.

Visual changes created by design firm Pentagram include a new font from Frere-Jones that highlights the word “National” in bold. (It reflects the font used for donor names engraved on the institution’s marble walls.) AEA Consulting, which advises museums on strategic planning, also helped gather input from museum staff in more than 100 sessions to to achieve explicitly defined goals.

“The National Gallery bravely wants to enter the 21st century,” said Darren Walker, a museum trustee who also runs the Ford Foundation, in a telephone interview. He added, “Collection diversification is a top priority for trustees.”

Although the National Gallery was established as an art collection for the American public, its holdings do not reflect the current demographics of the country. Statistics made available by the museum this week show that the collection is nearly 92 percent men and 97 percent white (for works where the artist is known). As part of a new commitment to diversify the collection, the museum acquired paintings, quilts, and sculptures by more than 20 African-American artists, many of whom were self-taught. Recently, a textile by Christopher Myers was added, reminiscent of black victims of police violence.

In the interview, Feldman discussed how the National Gallery has navigated the Black Lives Matter movement and the uncertainties of Covid-19, and described the reopening of the museum as a “moment of rebirth”. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Redefining the identity of the Nationalgalerie is the first major project of your tenure. What do you hope for the future of the museum from this project?

Our new vision “By the nation and for all people” is rooted in the history of the Nationalgalerie. When we first started, Andrew Mellon gave the United States a gift and was very sure that he did not want the building or museum that was named after him. He wanted it to be from the nation and from the people. These words help us determine our future path and set our future values ​​as we still have a lot to do to catch up with the rest of the country and what the nation really looks like.

Updated

May 15, 2021, 4:09 p.m. ET

What is the museum doing to make the collection better reflect the American people?

Our core collection reflects the demographics of America when we were founded in 1941, when the country was nearly 90 percent white. But we cut out our work for ourselves to expand the representation. At my first board meeting, I told the trustees that it is not feasible or thought-provoking to only collect Euro-American artists when it comes to contemporary art, for example because today’s artists are so global – artists live, work and have studios in different countries and often different from the place where they were born. At the same time, at this point in our history, there is no point in going backwards and becoming an encyclopedic museum.

You talked about the need to listen to the staff Members of the color. How do you acknowledge the diversity within the program and the management of the museum?

I inherited a leadership team that was 100 percent white, and now it’s 57 percent people of color. We just hired E. Carmen Ramos [from the Smithsonian American Art Museum] to be our chief curator and nature conservation officer. She is the first woman and the first colored person to hold this position. We have hired our first curator for African American and Afro-Diasporic art. [Eric L. Motley, who is Black, also joined in March as deputy director of the National Gallery; he had served as a special assistant to George W. Bush.]

We’ve added seven exhibition projects and installations to the schedule that represent women and people with color, including a Native American contemporary art exhibition in Fall 2022 curated by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who will be the first female artist to curate an exhibition the National Gallery.

Last year, several current and former employees wrote a public letter alleging sexual and racial harassment. Can you explain how the museum addressed these concerns?

We have hired a Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Affiliation Officer, Mikka Gee Conway. It introduces a number of programs, including training. During the Derek Chauvin process, we brought in a counselor and held some voluntary listening and healing sessions for the staff.

There was one during the pandemic Relaxation of the rules Prohibition of the sale of works of art from their collections by institutions so that they can use the proceeds to cover operating costs. You described deactivation at a conference as “the wrong answer to the wrong question”. What problem did you want to address?

Museums are undercapitalized. Most of the 20th century was about growth, but our funding models and foundations have never kept pace. I’ve seen the strain in times of crisis. I was the director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art during the 2000 financial crash. If you could have told our board of directors that we could sell art, they would have done it right away. But because I could say that we have to follow professional ethics, we ended this conversation. For political reasons, the National Gallery will not be deactivated.

The National Gallery is closed longer than most of the country’s major museums. What do you look forward to most when you open the doors to the public again?

We thought about the George Floyd murder and how we represent African Americans. The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial [by Augustus Saint-Gaudens] The museum traditionally does not list all the names of men in the African American military unit during the Civil War (although we do list this on our website). We will add their names to the gallery. We also look forward to introducing Souls Grown Deep acquisitions in the summer of 2022.

During the pandemic, we managed to complete the capital campaign launched five years ago. The Mellon Foundation asked us to raise $ 45 million and they would give us $ 30 million for the foundation. We raised nearly $ 50 million. That’s $ 80 million to improve our digital offering and support the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts.

Reopening – and this time I’m definitely assuming it – is really a moment of feeling like the phoenix is ​​rising.