Bold, risk-taking, authoritative, unceremonious. Could be ad copy for a new cologne, or outtakes from the profile of an IPO CEO. Instead, these words are part of the pose of the new Whitney Museum, the august institution that director Maxwell Anderson is reinventing from the letterhead up.
Already, architect Marcel Breuer’s classical font has disappeared from invitations, brochures, and catalogues. Later this month, everyone will get a fresh stack of business cards, white stock, brown lettering, and the word whitney (just whitney) in a brand-new, clunky, quirky acid green. It’s goldenrod on the membership brochure, Post-it yellow on the calendar. “The building is such a big chunk, and I think of this font as being its chunky cousin,” says its designer, Abbott Miller, a partner at identity powerhouse Pentagram (bam, the Public Theater, the new 42nd Street Studios).
“The W looks like a neon sign; the Y looks like a football goal,” says Anderson. “When I first showed members of the board, they were stunned. The first reaction is always ‘Well, that’s unusual.’ It’s an acquired taste.” It’s also a shot of entirely appropriate Pop color in a somber building. Anderson is dressed in taupe-on-taupe. The museum offices are gray-on-gray. But this is the place that showcases Warhols and Davises. “One of the people at the Whitney asked for something that was ‘sassy,’ ” says Miller. Because of the Biennials, “the Whitney is a little bit more confrontational than other institutions. There’s something almost embarrassingly confident about this.”
The new look is part of a larger plan of public outreach, accessibility, and approachability (all key words), which includes the creation of departments of external affairs and marketing. “We’re thinking about how the message of the institution is getting out from the institution itself, rather than through critics or word-of-mouth,” says Anderson. He’s not, however, planning a line of Whitney plates. “I’m a little cautious about the word brand. Some of my colleagues use it with” – pause – “enthusiasm.” He prefers to call the business of raising the Whitney’s profile “reputation management.”
If nothing else, the Whitney has sprung ahead in fashion points. Anderson has already seen the new bags on upper Madison Avenue. “People do turn their heads,” he says. And that’s just the kind of attention the Whitney wants.