Graphic, Grabby and Democratic: Posters Get Their Own Museum

By Ted Loos

Introducing the first museum in the United States devoted to the art and global history of the medium.

ImageAlphonse Mucha’s lithographs, from left, “Hamlet” (1899), “Médée” (1898), “Lorenzaccio” (1896) and “Tosca” (1898) in Poster House’s inaugural show, “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme.” 
Alphonse Mucha’s lithographs, from left, “Hamlet” (1899), “Médée” (1898), “Lorenzaccio” (1896) and “Tosca” (1898) in Poster House’s inaugural show, “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme.” CreditCreditRebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
Ted Loos

Posters don’t get a lot of respect from the art world, but the founders of Poster House, the first museum in the United States devoted to the art and global history of posters, hope to change all that. The museum, which opened Thursday on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, is taking a scrappy and focused approach to a genre that really took off as a medium in the late 1860s and has become so omnipresent that some may forget that it can be art.

“They have a great impact on fleshing out a culture, a time period,” said Angelina Lippert, the museum’s chief curator, citing the democratic appeal of posters, which people encounter everyday. “It’s a really valuable way of looking at social history that affected the average person.”

One of their mandates is to show non-Western and female-centered designs “every single year,” said Julia Knight, the museum’s director, who noted that some 3,000 pieces related to the first Women’s March, in 2017, had been donated to the museum.

The privately funded Poster House will charge $12 admission — free for those under 18 — and it will build its collection, starting with its current trove of 7,000 posters from more than 100 countries. “We would love to be free, but we don’t think that’s sustainable,” Ms. Knight said.

ImageFrom left, Mucha’s “Lefèvre-Utile Biscuits Champagne” (circa 1896), “Biscuits Lefèvre-Utile” (1896), and “Flirt” (1900), at Poster House.
From left, Mucha’s “Lefèvre-Utile Biscuits Champagne” (circa 1896), “Biscuits Lefèvre-Utile” (1896), and “Flirt” (1900), at Poster House.CreditRebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

The opening programming is intended as a mix of the familiar and the new. The larger of the two main exhibitions, “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme,” puts the spotlight on the Czech artist and his flowery Art Nouveau images. Mucha (1860-1939) created compositions that captured the mood of the belle epoque. (Most of the posters in the show are on loan from the Richard Fuxa Foundation in Prague.)

The display of about 80 works emphasizes the visual ground broken by Mucha, whose career didn’t take off until he was an illustrator in his 30s and living in Paris. There he began a rewarding working relationship with the great actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt.

His first poster — “Gismonda” (1894), which is featured in the show — has a great origin story, though it may be in the “myths and legends” category, Ms. Lippert said.

Installation view of “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme,” which puts the spotlight on the Czech artist and his flowery Art Nouveau images.CreditRebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

Mucha, the story goes, was working alone and checking proofs in a printing shop on Christmas Eve, “when the manager comes in and says, ‘Sarah Bernhardt needs a poster for her show ‘Gismonda,’’’ Ms. Lippert said. “No one else was around.” Mucha, who had already seen the star in the play’s title role, promptly went to work.

The resulting sketch “breaks the rules of posters,” Ms. Lippert said — with its tall, skinny shape, new pastel color palette and unusually high level of detail for the time. Bernhardt loved the regal depiction, Ms. Lippert added, because “previously she was presented as a girlie ingénue, and that’s not how she saw herself.” Mucha created her theater posters for nearly five years and also produced costume designs and theatrical sets for her.

By 1900, Mucha was much in demand. He helped transform a cookie brand, Biscuits Lefèvre-Utile, with the dramatic image “Flirt,” which is also in the exhibition.

“He takes it from the lunch box to the opera box,” Ms. Lippert said of the concept, with a soignée romantic couple and nary a cookie crumb to be seen. Amazingly, given the swirls and frills in such designs, “he worked freehand,” she added.

Mucha’s 1896 design for Job cigarette rolling papers.CreditRebecca Smeyne for The New York Times
The poster “Job,” from 1898, also by Mucha.CreditRebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

The exhibition also has a Mucha design for Job cigarette rolling papers, along with posters for the company done by seven other artists, including an 1895 example by Jules Chéret, who was considered the father of the modern poster.

A smaller exhibition, “Designing Through the Wall: Cyan in the 1990s,” showcases the inventive graphic work of a design collective, Cyan, founded in East Berlin. Cyan used early desktop tools like PageMaker and Photoshop to make layered, densely packed images for the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation — the modern version of the Bauhaus art academy — and other cultural organizations.

Both shows are on view until Oct. 6.

“Having these two shows allows us to cover 100 years of what happened in posters, and you can see the pendulum swing to the other end of the spectrum,” from charming Old World to cutting-edge, Ms. Knight said.

The renovation of the museum’s existing space cost some $10 million, and the operating budget is around $5 million a year, she added.

Installation view of the exhibition “Designing Through the Wall: Cyan in the 1990s” at Poster House.CreditRebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

As with any modern museum, Poster House will have a gift shop and a cafe as well as interactive exhibits, including a terminal where visitors can design their own posters.

Poster House is one of the few museums to have an all-female leadership team. Val Crosswhite, the president of the board, is also the chief operating officer of the real estate firm Grettir Management. (She is the only member of the board whose name has been made public; the three others are remaining anonymous, as are the donors who made the museum possible.)

Ten full-time people make up the current staff, and the museum has an advisory board that includes Paula Scher of the design firm Pentagram, who created the Poster House logo, and Tim Rodgers, director of the Wolfsonian Museum, a division of Florida International University, in Miami Beach.

The fall exhibitions look at a little-known area of the genre. “The Golden Age of Ghanaian Hand-Painted Film Posters” offers a window into the aspirations of the country’s burgeoning middle class in the 1990s, after a period of upheaval. Another show, “Three Years Later: The 2017 Women’s March & Where We Are Today,” is intended to demonstrate Poster House’s interest in diversity in a genre where much of the work has been done by European and American men.

“I’m particularly interested in collecting posters by female poster artists because they’re generally underrepresented in all poster collections,” Ms. Lippert said.

Ms. Knight said they were aiming for a welcoming feeling that suits the medium. “We really hope that this is a museum for everybody,” she said. “Posters were designed and made for everybody on the street.”

Poster House

119 West 23rd Street, Manhattan; 917-722-2439, posterhouse.org