Upon arrival at the website of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, visitors are greeted by groupings of dancing punctuation marks scattered across the page. A comma appears, only to be quickly replaced by a period, followed by a colon, a parenthesis, a plus sign, and an asterisk. Aside from these dynamic, sparkling punctuation marks, only a handful of horizontal lines, a name (The Wattis Institute), and several social media icons are visible at first. Still, this sparse black-and-white home page feels alive.
Clicking anywhere on the page reveals the text, all of it rendered in the widely available Times New Roman font. Complete sentences, many written in the first person plural, convey basic information about the institution and its programming: "We're in San Francisco, a few blocks away from California College of the Arts" and "The Wattis is currently closed for install." But the text further down the page takes a more personal tone. One sentence encountered on a recent visit was repeated as if it were a mantra or a hex: "Andrea Fraser is on our mind. Andrea Fraser is on our mind. Andrea Fraser is on our mind."
This spring, Fraser presented a series of exhibitions, performances, and public programs at the Wattis, a nonprofit affiliated with the California College of the Arts, that specializes in presenting various facets of a single artist's work over an extended period of time. But the strange repetition raises questions about how the institution presents itself. How many minds are at work here? Who is the "we" contemplating Fraser?
These questions underscore a conceptual challenge inherent in designing any institution's graphic identity: how to create a visual language for a single entity with a coherent mission that is, at the same time, a collection of individuals. The design of the Wattis website seems like a metaphor for this condition. A generic font unifies the frantic, dispersed activity of the blinking punctuation. Despite its austere look, the Wattis website feels quirky and intimate, an effect amplified by the text. At the very end of the page is a personal aside, a bit of insider advice from this "tour guide" behind the website, that has little to do with the Wattis's programming: "Meanwhile, every living artist really needs to see the Picabia retrospective now on view in Zurich."
Websites are, of course, standard for art institutions. It's difficult to imagine a museum or gallery without one. The Museum of Modern Art in New York launched its website in 1995, two years before Google was founded. Over the decades, its site has assumed increased importance beyond announcing exhibitions and providing visitor information. MoMA has built a reputation for employing the newest technologies to produce elaborate web environments for special exhibitions. The 2013 Webby Award-nominated site for "Century of the Child," utilized advanced (for the time) motion graphics-interactive animations to create a rich virtual version of an exhibition about modern design for children.
Websites are an integral part of the museum experience, both for audiences who want to learn more about work encountered in a physical gallery and those "digital non-visitors" who explore exhibitions and collections remotely. Yet the sites themselves tend to be treated as matter-of-fact supplements, even neutral platforms, that merely direct attention to a "real" experience in the gallery. For that reason, few museums have devoted resources to preserving their websites for posterity. Given the rapid rate of obsolescence for Web technologies, the full experience of many of these sites is likely lost for good. Indeed, one foundation seeking to counter this trend by funding initiatives to archive art institution websites describes an imminent "digital black hole" in the art historical record of the last twenty years.1
This neglect is surprising because, over the same historical period, work by Fraser and many other prominent artists has focused attention on the context in which art is viewed. As critic and artist Brian O'Doherty argued in Inside the White Cube (1976), the apparent neutrality of the modernist gallery space is an ideological construct that is essential to the identity of modern art. "Context becomes content," as he wrote.2 Websites present a digital version of this problem. They can be dynamic, interactive environments for viewing artwork, or at least representations of it. And yet many of the most trafficked art sites adhere to design conventions borrowed from the modernist gallery. The influential Contemporary Art Daily (CAD) publishes installation images from a single gallery exhibition every day. The website design-spare borders, minimal text, white background-echoes gallery architecture. CAD essentially presents images of white cubes within a digital white cube. The design choice projects authority, but it also obscures the role of the individual taste preferences that determine the featured exhibitions.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Critic Orit Gat recently urged artists in particular to consider their websites as integral to their work. According to Gat, the Web offers an exhibition venue in which artists can exercise more or less total creative freedom:
Though the state and place of art on the internet is a matter of concern for all artists, critics, curators, dealers, and viewers, direct engagement via personal websites is at the moment undertaken by younger or emerging artists who are more likely to contribute to-and control-the presentation of their works online. These artists can change the way we look at art online.3
There is an element of resistance in Gat's formulation. By "curating" in the controlled environment online, artists can hope to provide a counterweight to the dominant tendencies in the internet's image economy, by which JPGs appear on various social media platforms, often without credit and disconnected from their source.
Institutions, which are embedded in the art economy and dependent on donors, may have a harder time striking any kind of oppositional stance. But some, like the Wattis, conceive of their website design as conceptually integral to their programming. David Reinfurt, a founder of the influential design collective Dexter Sinister, built the Wattis website as part of a broader graphic design identity project for the institution. According to a statement published on the site, Reinfurt sought to create "a language that narrates all of the Wattis's activities in real time." Reinfurt characterized the system he devised as "fluid, spontaneous, moody, challenging, and precise-fully consistent with the spirit of the [institution's] program itself."4
This program aims to slow down the pace of the art world by keeping a single artist on the minds of Wattis curators and audiences. Recent subjects include David Hammons, Laura Owens, and Joan Jonas. As Wattis director Anthony Huberman put it to me in an email: "The entire ‘on our mind' series is about a certain kind of stubbornness . . . while most institutional programming is always moving on to a ‘next' artist or a ‘next' exhibition, we are sticking to our guns and repeating ourselves. . . . The idea is that we are sending out emails every month saying ‘yes, we are STILL thinking about Andrea Fraser.'"5 This stubbornness is also evident in the site's lack of images-unusual for a nonprofit focused on visual art-and in the opacity of the home page, which requires a viewer to become engaged (at least with a click) before anything is legible. And the visitor must click at least twice before any gallery installation image is revealed.
But it is perhaps Reinfurt's invocation of a "moody" sensibility in the design that best captures the provocation at the heart of the Wattis project. Lecturing this summer at the San Francisco bookstore and art space Kiria Koula, Huberman emphasized the role of the institution as a "collaborator" with the featured artist. Instead of running away from this reality, he argued that art institutions should embrace this role, making it transparent. One way of doing this is by establishing a personal voice for the institution, complete with a moody temperament. The feeling that the website is alive highlights this sense of personality. With this subtle anthropomorphic tint, the institution can be understood not just as a frame for an artist's work, but as an agent in its production.
The Wattis has made this aspect of their Web presence explicit, and other institutions are pursuing flexible, dynamic typography on their websites to similar, if less pronounced, ends. The Whitney Museum's "Responsive W" identity by Experimental Jetset, for example, is a system that allows the museum's initial to flex and stretch around reproductions from its collection on advertising material. The design suggests an institution grappling with the particularities of the artwork on display inside. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago's grid identity, conceived by Mevis & van Deursen, provides a stable framework within which a suite of typefaces can appear, ranging from stoic to playful. Through this design, the institution comes across as multifaceted: scholarly on some occasions, quirky and fun on others. The Aspen Art Museum recently introduced seasonally shifting typefaces by Radim Pesko that rebrand the institution over the course of the year, linking its graphic identity to the earth's natural cycles. One of the first institutions to launch a website designed for constant change was Istanbul's SALT. In 2011, the New York firm Project Projects built a flexible, multilingual platform, and every four months a new designer is invited to create his or her own version of the institution's typeface, Kraliçe.
This trend toward dynamism in museum website design counters the static logos that convey authority, stability, and timelessness. If the museum appears to be changing with the seasons, flexible yet opinionated like a living thing, then perhaps its authority can be viewed as provisional and context-specific rather than monolithic. Likewise, dynamic designs foreground the museum's role as a producer of art and culture, not just a frozen frame for it.
Laurel Schwulst is a graphic designer and writer based in New York.
Seth Persons, “MoMA.org Turns 20: Archiving Two Decades of Exhibition Sites,” May 25, 2015, moma.org.
Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1976, p. 15.
Orit Gat, “Scroll, Skim, Stare,” The White Review, April 2016, thewhitereview.org.
David Reinfurt, “A New Identity and a Website,” cca.edu.