New Work: National Academy
Established in 1825, the National Academy Museum and School has a mission to “promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition.” Founded by a group of artists that included Thomas Cole, Asher Durand and Samuel F.B. Morse, it is the only institution of its kind to integrate a museum, art school and honorary association. It is modeled after the Royal Academy in London and is guided by a membership of esteemed artists and architects elected by peers. Members have included Jacob Lawrence, Frederic Edwin Church, Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Louise Bourgeois, Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Frank Gehry, Robert A.M. Stern and Maya Lin, among many others.
The National Academy is housed in a 1901 Beaux Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, sited between the Guggenheim and the Cooper-Hewitt on New York’s Museum Mile. This fall the Academy completed an ambitious $3.5 million renovation designed to raise its profile and create a better visitor experience. Timed to the renovation, Pentagram’s Abbott Miller has refreshed the Academy’s identity and developed a new program of environmental graphics for the institution, including a striking typographic installation of members’ names on the ceiling of the museum’s foyer.
Miller and his team collaborated closely with renovation architect Jane Stageberg of Bade Stageberg Cox on the project. (The renovation was overseen by the current Academy president, architect Bruce Fowle of FXFOWLE.) To create a more welcoming experience at the museum’s Fifth Avenue entrance, the lobby has been opened up to better flow into the galleries and a cluttered gift shop has been removed. Miller created new institutional messaging, designing custom light boxes and video screens to highlight the Academy’s history, collections and mission.
Most dramatically, Miller created a beautiful installation of 1,995 names of the Academy’s members engraved into the ceiling of the foyer. The names are arrayed from 1826 to the present, listing the members elected each year. The design alludes to the white-on-white ornamental plaster ceilings seen in other parts of the mansion, linking the past to the present in a typographic display that celebrates the Academy’s distinguished membership. The names have been set in the modern Plan Grotesque typeface designed by Peter Bil’ak and are routed in panels of white Corian, with dates infilled in red. (The design is the first ceiling installation of Corian in the world.) Each year new members are elected, and a portion of the ceiling has been left blank to accommodate future members.
Beyond the lobby, the renovation also modernizes the interior spaces of the 1901 mansion, creating new galleries—including the museum’s first for its permanent collection—and an assembly room. New lighting has been installed and windows uncovered to create airier galleries. The school entrance and gallery have also been reconfigured.
Miller’s update of the National Academy identity acknowledges the institution’s heritage while positioning it for the future. The identity has been refreshed with a new version of the Academy’s historic typographic medallion and supporting type, set in Plan, that gives the Academy a more modern look. The medallion may appear in a lockup with the institution’s full name or in versions separately identifying the National Academy Museum or National Academy School. The new letterhead includes a narrative phrase describing the Academy’s mission and history.
The identity graphics have been extended to a full program of interior and exterior signage. Long banners on the mansion façade prominently anchor the institution on Museum Mile, and the school entrance around the corner on 89th Street has been transformed by signage that invites visitors with the fundamental message of the original academy, to provide “Art for All.”
Project Team: Abbott Miller, partner-in-charge and designer; Brian Raby and Kristen Spilman, designers; Susan Brzozowski, project manager. Photography by Bilyana Dimitrova.