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"Eliteness": The Next Big Branding Opportunity for Museums

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What is the difference between "elite" and "elitist"? Both words are used in today's increasingly polarized society, often with pejorative connotations. However "elite" defines something or someone to be admired, while "elitist" or "elitism" suggests exclusion and recalls classist posturing. In reality they are quite different, and that distinction needs to be clear for any upscale brand that strives to capitalize on the notion of "elite."

For example, during a recent press opening at the Museum of Modern Art to preview the exhibition Francis Picabia: Our Heads are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, I was especially aware that I was among a group of visitors that could clearly be disparaged as "the elite." I applaud MoMA's courage in mounting this show because Picabia, who is not a household name, doesn't neatly fit into traditional art categorizations nor is he widely praised by the artist community.

His stylistic adventures in painting and drawing suggest that he was a restless "journalist of art," chronicling the creative energy of the time embodied in Impressionism, Cubism, Dada, Futurism, and commercial illustration. The exhibition showed his explosive artistic vitality and skill that will appeal to some and disliked by others. MoMA took a risk with this show because Picabia's work demands a deeper appreciation of art history to understand his aesthetic references. But it is exactly this curatorial courage that keeps them among the "elite" museums in the world.

However, even these world-class institutional brands are not immune from popular cultural distractions of today: celebrity, spectacle, and sex. Competition for our time is fierce, and museums often rely on their own "celebrities" -- Picasso, the Impressionist, Van Gogh -- to entertain, inspire, and educate, all in an attempt to attract visitors. This is a risk of another sort.

An unfortunate example of this attempt to counter the image of elitism is in branding for cultural institutions. Trendy logos recently designed for legendary museums like The Met, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Stedelijk, and the Whitney signals a desperate attempt to appeal to "millennials" and to appear contemporary.

Fortunately, museums are much more than their logos. Indeed, many museums have learned to play the "relevance card" successfully. Exhibitions focusing on fashion, technology, and pop icons have drawn huge crowds without compromising their cultural mission. In these instances, they've demonstrated that as a brand they are connected to both modern culture and their roots.

Museums always try to strike a balance between education and entertainment, but are often accused of catering only to the elite. However, the general public has little problem with admiring "elite" quarterbacks, racecar drivers or bass fisherman, because it signals a rarified ability or talent worthy of our respect.

For cultural institutions, the risk is that the novice feels marginalized at best and stupid at worst. The reverse could also be true. Yes, I'm an art lover but why doesn't Nascar try to be more inclusive to me? I might not enjoy the thunderous looping of gas guzzling automobiles around a track, but I may nevertheless be interested in how these incredible machines work.

Museums need to create "threshold experiences" that invite the novice art lover to decide if they wish to discover more or just check the tourist box. You can't force-feed high culture, however, but blending the scholarly with the familiar is possible. Yes, Picasso was an icon that disrupted our very concept of painting. But did you know that he was 5'2" tall, left-handed, a child prodigy, created his last drawing three days before he died at age 99 and never came to the United States? This humanizes the artist and makes him more relatable in a way that can appeal to an art scholar and a casual tourist.

If "elitism" is the word institutional brands seek to avoid as they attempt to democratize their images, maybe "eliteness" can be used to describe an essence of distinction worthy our respect, whether it be a master painter or hockey star. After all, Francis Picabia and Wayne Gretzky BOTH possess the air of eliteness in their ability change direction in their approach to their craft.

Today's museum visitor is not a monolithic model. With record crowds approaching seven million at The Met, that doesn't sound like an elitist destination. Visitor attendance remains an important measure of success but the enduring legacy of an institution that transcends generations, remains the ultimate goal. Key to this is delivering a memorable and inspiring experience to all visitors irrespective of their knowledge of art.

Museums have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to rethink what "elite" means for their current audiences and newcomers. Rebranding how visitors internalize the notion of elite can help usher the experience from a barrier to entry to a badge of accomplishment.

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