It was 2004. All contemporary art museum brands looked the same: lots of whitespace, san serif typefaces, primary colors anchored by black. Adam Lerner, the Director of MCA Denver, was forming a new contemporary art institution called “The Lab at Belmar” in Lakewood, Colorado, and he wanted to try something different. He wanted something fresh and new. Something that would attract new audiences.
While still an undergraduate, he had come up with a contemporary art education concept, Mixed-Taste–lectures about two distinctive topics, completely unrelated to each other and to contemporary art. His first was Birth Control & Chicken Wings. It was so well received, he wanted to continue this program at The Lab.
So he presented EBD with a challenge. Build a brand for his new institution and programs. We met the challenge, and a decade-plus long collaboration ensued.
A note of gratitude to Dr. Lerner….
With Adam Lerner’s recent departure from MCA Denver, we thought it timely to discuss our 15-year collaboration and brand architecture behind the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
At the beginning, the landscape of contemporary art was intimidating, one that many people didn’t feel like they had a point of entry. Like most things, if you’re a novice at it, it’s too scary to attempt to hang out in that environment.
I had heard it repeated so many times. “Come with me, you’ll enjoy it”…”no, I don’t understand it.” It was a constant refrain. But somehow, perhaps because I was a designer/artist/creator from the time I was a tiny child, I felt 100% comfortable in the contemporary art world. It was my space. It spoke my language. But I was around so many people who didn’t get it. I began to understand the way art museums communicated to people put them off. While I personally loved the sans-serif-white-space language, I understood that it communicated knowledge, a kind of artistic elitism, “about something you don’t know”, but mostly, it communicated “cool”. And my non-art friends didn’t think they were knowledgeable or cool enough.
So when Adam gave us the assignment to brand The Lab and its programs, the first of which was Mixed Taste, some of my lingering questions of why people wouldn’t accompany me to see contemporary art was in the background of my mind.
On our first project, we presented a crazy illustration of wrestlers with loud boisterous type and colors. It’s not what Adam imagined, at all. See his TedTalk. But he, vs. lots of clients, was polite. So we moved forward with the graphics. And they worked. At first, there were 50 attendees, then 75, then 300. And they weren’t necessarily contemporary art people. One of the main participants was someone who had bought a condo at Belmar and lived nearby but had never participated in a contemporary art lecture prior.
But honestly, even though Adam says he wasn’t entirely comfortable, I think it’s really what he told me. And I only listened and added my experience to that. Because I think that was Adam’s real message with these lectures. Contemporary art is about keeping your mind open, learning, and knowing that the more you know, the more you know. I always say that contemporary artists are the thinkers of our time. They say the things that no one else wants to say. And Adam knew what they had to offer. And that if he was generous, and gave the knowledge to people, in a way that they could accept it, they would not only learn, but have so much fun doing it.
The programs expanded and continued on, and many designers at EBD have participated in the fun of creating these so-not-san-serif-white-space graphics over the years. In fact, they have become so layered, so funny, so SO that we often wondered where the line was. And when we got there, we would cross it again. People came in droves for the lectures–and became devotees–exactly what every contemporary art museum was begging for, but not achieving. Adam ended up going around the country explaining what he was doing, and he trained museums on the programs. Of course, he traveled along with the graphics.
So when we look back at it, this is really the beauty of what Adam has done at MCA Denver. He’s built a place where people feel accepted, honored, heard, and a place where they can grow. There’s a graciousness to MCA Denver that you don’t often find in contemporary art spaces. Even now, it’s all about the sans-serif-white-space attitude. And it remains an intimidating space for many.
This is a tale of building a brand, with a great client, and it being a success. Together, as a partnership, we took risks and it paid off.
And the contemporary art world is all the better for it.
Thanks for the opportunity Adam,
– Ellen and the EBD Team
*Adam Lerner’s last day at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver was July 31st. We hope to work with him again.