New Work: The Contemporary Austin
The Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) and Arthouse, Austin’s contemporary art museum, merged in 2011 and became AMOA-Arthouse. That unwieldy name and the resulting identity, basically the two original logos shoved uncomfortably together, just added to the general confusion and misconceptions about the new entity. The museum’s awkward name and logo-sandwich, the unfortunate product of a shotgun wedding, just underscored the fact that it used to be two organizations. It didn’t help things that the combined visual arts institutions were housed under two separate roofs in different parts of the city. After the merger AMOA, which had been mostly downtown for several years, moved back into an old stately lakeside villa called Laguna Gloria and Arthouse stayed in the Jones Center, a modern revamped theater on 7th Street and Congress Avenue downtown. Last January the museum’s new executive director, Louis Grachos, enlisted Pentagram to help rename AMOA-Arthouse and to develop an original brand identity that expressed his ambitious vision for the new museum. The chosen name, The Contemporary Austin, and its sleek new look were unveiled for the first time to the public on July 18th.
Partner DJ Stout and lead designer Kristen Keiser in Pentagram’s Austin office began the project by compiling a list of every art museum name they could find. From that exhaustive survey, patterns emerged and it became clear that another acronym like MOMA, MOCA or even AMOA was not an original or forward-thinking way to go. Both AMOA and Arthouse had been promoting and exhibiting contemporary art over the years and neither had the capacity to build large collections. With that in mind the team decided to steer clear of “museum” because the word usually suggests a collecting entity. The Contemporary Austin is a simple, direct name that clearly states the focus and mission of the new institution. In the end, the new moniker represents a clean break from the burdensome histories and baggage of the previously established names and opens the door to a new day. “I’ve lived in Austin for almost 30 years,” says Stout. “And I’ve seen both of these museums soar at times and then flounder. This feels like a breath of fresh air. Kristen and I are honored to be part of something so important to the cultural fabric of our hometown.”
Like the name, the new identity system is built around a simple wordmark, a sans-serif typographic solution that spells out the museum’s name in upper- and lowercase but highlights the “A” in the word Contemporary with a capital letter and a change of color. “I started my design career in Dallas, The Big D,” says Stout. “And I’ve always called Austin The Little A. The small cap ‘A’ in the new logotype refers to Austin (which ain’t that little anymore) but it also stands for Art, as in contemporary Art.” The simple cap A can be pulled out and used by itself as an icon in some situations, like buttons and membership stickers, and the identity system also allows for an abbreviated version of the new name, The Contemporary, that drops the word Austin altogether. “At one point during the process, I asked Louis what he’d like the museum to be known as in five years,” says Stout, “And he replied, ‘The Contemporary.’ The new name has just been announced and people are already referring to it with the shorthand version. It’s human nature to do that.”
The new brand identity gets its clean, modern look from a generous use of white-space and a spare, uncluttered aesthetic. A signature blue-green color that Stout named “Dani Blue” after the director’s invaluable executive assistant Danielle Nieciag (who originally suggested the aqua color) matches the color of the distinctive glass-bricks jutting out of the downtown Jones Center’s walls when they’re illuminated at night, and also makes reference to the bluish lagoon off of Lake Austin where the Laguna Gloria estate gets its name. “The key to designing a successful identity for a major cultural institution is to keep it simple and unfussy,” says Stout. “It has to be timeless. You have to keep asking yourself if the identity will look dated in 10, 25, 50 years, maybe a century from now. The design solution can’t end up being a fad because it won’t survive the test of time.”
One of The Contemporary Austin’s goals is to commission original art from the world’s leading contemporary artists and to feature their works simultaneously at the Jones Center and Laguna Gloria– and beyond. So in the spirit of Grachos’ vision of a “Museum Without Walls,” the first artists to show work under the new identity this fall will be British multidisciplinary artists Liam Gillick and New Yorker Marianne Vitale. Both artists, two of the most topical and challenging contemporary artists working today, were commissioned to create large-scale outdoor works to be displayed on the 12-acre grounds of Laguna Gloria and in the gallery spaces at both venues. The Contemporary’s calendar into 2015 includes commissions by such noted artists as Charles Atlas, Tom Friedman and Doh Ho Suh.
Project Team: DJ Stout, partner-in-charge and designer; Kristen Keiser, designer.