Diaries of a Poster Curator
Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2022/23 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the first of three posts by the author, the third of which will be an online exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.
Being a poster curator is a strange business. I am one of a handful of poster-specific scholars in the world, studying a medium most art historians feel is inferior to the fine arts. Museums can’t even agree on where to house their posters — some put them in the architecture department, others in prints and drawings. I received permission to go through the poster collection of a prominent museum that shall not be named, only to find a stack of archival boxes, uncatalogued and unlabeled, filled with pages from old magazines, newspaper clippings, and one actual poster. This is not uncommon, as one of the greatest challenges I face on a daily basis is explaining what a poster actually is.
At the most fundamental level, a poster is a public-facing notice meant to persuade. There are nuances to that definition that are hotly debated in the poster community — the differences between a broadside, a handbill, signage, a flyer — but all of these categories share the imperative for clear communication. If a poster doesn’t communicate its message in less than a second, it’s failed.
As such, the history of posters is the history of communication. This is the biggest difference between a poster and a decorative print or other types of fine art — the artist’s vision is secondary to fulfilling the brief. What distinguishes a great poster is when the message is married with clever, exciting, vibrant graphic design, allowing it to cut through the visual noise of the world and hold its audience’s attention. Because of this, posters can tell us more about a given period of time than most history books. Through ephemera, we can look at the world from the bottom up: what bands played in a small town for one night, what products were only available in a country between two coups, what political party existed for just a month before being absorbed by a larger group or vanishing altogether. Posters are evidence of the texture of daily life, the things that don’t make the footnotes.
The ironic challenge in curating posters is that I’m focusing on objects that were never intended to survive. By bringing them into a museum setting, I’m also fundamentally changing how they function, removing them from their communal, street-facing context, and taking away their intended purpose of mass communication, often alienating or ignoring their original audience. Short of creating environmental dioramas that verge on camp, a curator can do little to replicate the way a poster was meant to be seen. Yet thinking beyond the confines of the museum space, particularly with contemporary work, can restore some of that original intent and function without sacrificing the desire to preserve, codify, and teach.
I also have fairly strong views on how museums should speak about their contents, especially when dealing with posters. The wall label style I helped develop at Poster House follows a bullet-point format in accessible language — you won’t find a 20-page manifesto explaining my theories on the color blue or a jargon-laden paragraph on an art movement. If I’m making a visitor or reader feel unintelligent, I’m discouraging them from enjoying a show. And this is why posters are wonderful — they are by definition meant to be understood by a wide and diverse audience.
Because they’re both utilitarian and ephemeral, posters are also under-appreciated as an art form, and are rarely taught in art history or design classes. When they are, it’s almost always work by artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or Alphonse Mucha that’s discussed — White, male, European, dead. And while I love many of those designers, my job as a curator is to add value to the genre to which I’ve dedicated my career. For me, the best way to do this is to expand the canon and use my position within the field to highlight areas of poster history that have yet to be properly examined.
The American poster reached its height of design and expression when Lester Beall created his Rural Electrification Series in 1937, using pictographs to help convince farmers to hook up to the new national grid system and help the United States join the modern era. As part of the New Deal, this promotional effort was designed for the broadest swath of people living outside of major cities. In my opinion, the next great moment in American poster history also emerged outside of an urban center — only this time, these designs were speaking to local communities and not the entire country. The polar opposite of Beall’s compositions, Amos Paul Kennedy Jr.’s posters are a visual cacophony on paper, something that can look like “bad design.” And yet, they are a better, more honest reflection of contemporary culture in the United States than anything coming out of Los Angeles or New York.
I did not discover Amos Kennedy on my own. Six years ago, I was visiting the Library of Congress to examine some World War II-era posters in its collection. I mentioned that one of my goals as the curator of a new museum — the first of its kind in the United States — was to broaden how the world thought about advertising, to highlight designers with whom few people were familiar, and to position their work within the greater history of the medium. A librarian there asked me if I had heard of Amos Kennedy, at which point she brought out a remarkable box of prints and posters.
I emailed him to ask if I could visit him in Detroit.
To visit Amos Kennedy is to enter into jubilant chaos. He has the feistiness of a best friend, the warmth of a grandmother, a low tolerance for bullshit, and the energy of the most precocious toddler. Most importantly, his generosity with his time conveys a deep desire to share his knowledge and passion with anyone expressing a sincere interest. Radical hospitality doesn’t even begin to encompass a day with Amos.
After 20 minutes in his archive, I knew I had been introduced to something unique. Posters in general are not often saved. They are meant to be pasted to walls and stapled to telephone poles, rained on, splashed with mud, and destroyed. So any poster that survives is a small miracle. More importantly, the posters that do survive are typically lithographs that were mass-produced for urban centers, places with a large amount of public wall space and a need for advertising. Amos’s posters are the opposite. They are printed via letterpress, a process perhaps best known today for making cute stationary on Etsy. Each piece in a single print run is slightly different, the colors changing as Amos adds new ink. Decades ago, letterpress printing was part of every town’s local visual language — a means of regional communication where large lithographic printing would have been expensive and unnecessary. Amos taps into that intimacy by reviving the practice, mixing vintage and new wood and metal type into layered, eye-catching designs meant to impart information. Much of his early poster work is also the only documentation of certain events in Alabama, particularly Black community gatherings.
There are inherent issues with my wanting to curate Amos’s work, the most obvious being that I am not Black. My background will absolutely impact how I interpret his posters, and presenting that point of view to a large and diverse audience in a public forum is challenging, not least because I know I will make mistakes along the way. Yet, when looking at a niche field within a niche field (I am one of three poster-specific scholars in the country), my hesitancy to curate work because the artist and I are of different backgrounds should not outweigh the need to document an important designer within my area of expertise. Learning from and rectifying curatorial mistakes is part of the process and ultimately benefits the field. My goal is to make sure Amos’s work is broadly known in poster history and presented as accurately as possible so that when a scholar better suited to the material than I comes along, that person has a jumping-off point.
To best situate my research in a place that is more helpful than harmful, I have created some fundamental guidelines when approaching a topic that lies outside of my culture and experience:
- If you have access to designers, spend time with them. Don’t just send them a list of questions and hope for a glorious soundbite that you can shoehorn into your own thesis. Let them guide your thesis. Let them critique your thesis. Listening is your primary job. I’ve known Amos for six years, collected his work for Poster House, and, as you’ll see in the final online exhibition, I spent time with him in Detroit to do my best to understand and present his point of view.
- Talk to members of the intended audience. Posters are often meant for broad demographics of people, but depending on where they are originally displayed, certain communities naturally have more access than others. Find out how they interact with these objects. In considering how to bring people to Poster House to see Amos’s show, his main request was to put his posters in the windows of Black-owned and neighborhood businesses, meeting his audience in spaces where they are already comfortable.
- Make sure all of the people you consult are part of the review process, and compensate them for their time and knowledge.
- Be ready to step aside when someone better for the job comes along, and be active in pursuing that person. Poster historians are few and far between, so I’m currently working on developing inroads with HBCUs to expose Black art historians to the path of poster scholarship.
Finally, to properly present Amos’s work, I must also reexamine the nature of the museum structure and how posters are displayed. No matter how inclusive a space may be or how sincere its outreach efforts, museums present access barriers for many people. And while I am deeply grateful that Poster House is at the forefront of finding active ways to diversify our audience and make everyone feel welcome, we’re still located in Chelsea, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City.
Because of the privilege inherent in elite cultural spaces, exhibitions — no matter how diverse their content — are most often seen by wealthy, retired, white women (the irony of my saying this is not lost on me). Changing that demographic is part of a curator’s job. In the case of Amos’s work, I believe this requires expanding the walls of the museum and bringing these objects to new audiences. My ideal venue for a show on Amos’s posters would be a series of pop up displays in spaces like community centers, church rec halls, high school hallways, subway stations in various cities — places similar to where his work already lives. Throughout Detroit, you’ll find posters by Amos taped to a window or tacked to a bulletin board. His ability to make his pieces part of the visual fabric of a community is what makes them so remarkable in contemporary poster history. He’s found a way to bridge craft with communication, art with advertising. By maintaining their presence within those neighborhood spaces and drawing attention to them as part of mini localized museum presentations, you provide a place of intentional looking and contemplation for the posters, and also a real link between the values of the museum and the audience it wishes to engage. Display the work in places where your audience naturally congregates and this will hopefully lead them to the congregant space that all museums should aspire to be.