Neues Bauhaus? Social change led by art, catalyzed by branding

Asparuh Georgiev
Feb 20 · 6 min read
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Back in 1919, the art and architecture school Bauhaus was founded in Germany. Established in response to the Second Industrial Revolution, the academy later grew into a movement that dreamed of building a better world through the arts.

Today, we are living in the age of a new wave of industrialization. Oddly enough, a new philosophy using art for social change, similarly to Bauhaus, is picking up pace. Why are we seeing the same phenomenon arise again?

Our purpose-driven and human attention economy is also driving new challenges in culture consumption for the contemporary arts industry.

For cultural brands to remain relevant in the future, they will have to do more than just present exhibits. They will need to connect to larger purposes and people.

The founder of Bauhaus, German architect Walter Gropius, viewed the path of the second industrial revolution as purposeless in the early 20th century. Along with other proponents of the modernist school, he thought machines took the soul out of production and would render artistic disciplines socially irrelevant.

To prevent the arts from becoming obsolete, the architect came to envision them as a way to respond to people’s ever-changing needs.

The arts were to follow a purposeful, utilitarian design to be useful to society. Simplicity and usefulness replaced Art Nouveau and its decorative style. Fine art was made more functional by uniting it with practical disciplines such as architecture. Gropius ultimately believed the arts could be forces that improve people’s everyday lives.

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The Bauhaus Building

Fast forward to today’s 21st century. 100 years after Bauhaus was set up, we are at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial revolution.

The digital realm is allowing for a countless number of brands fighting for limited human attention in a world of infinite content and entertainment. AI is now making paintings and composing symphonies.

As with previous mechanization waves, many questions and concerns arise for the arts. Firstly, in our media-filled world, cultural spaces face a competition larger than ever before to attract attendance and attention. Secondly, robots could potentially devalue some professional creative roles or make them even obsolete.

Our economy today is also becoming increasingly purpose-driven. Consumers are seeking meaningful brands. More and more individuals aspire to work purposeful jobs and solve major challenges like climate change. Combine this purpose-led mindset with the contemporary struggles of art and we can partly understand why it is being used once more to inspire change in society.

We are observing today an old story in a new frame. The artistic world is fighting again for its significance and its role in society but in the context of new machines and under a novel artistic mindset called ASC (Art for Social Change).

For many modern artists, their work is just about self-expression. Any change produced in the audience is an accidental by-product. An alternative philosophy today is ASC.

One of the latest ASC examples that made headlines is the exhibition “Uprising: The Power of Mother Earth, currently held in Mackenzie Art Gallery. On display are paintings by artist Christi Belcourt exploring the interconnection of nature and humanity. Inspiring action for protecting the environment is crucial for the artist as reflected in a statement made by her during a discussion panel at the exhibition:

“We are living in a time of great uncertainty and ecological collapses and climate change. We are living in a time when there exists green technology, but there does not exist the will to move us forward in that direction.”

Instead of aiming for their work to be at the forefront, ASC professionals rather urge audiences to think about social issues and enable a determination to solve them.

Belcourt, for example, presents a collection that inspires empathy for a universally valued entity in our world: nature. By using such issues to which people can relate, artists and audiences can then connect on a middle ground.

Once again, just as with Bauhaus, we are seeing a new, more purposeful approach to art. Such a shift is going past artists only. Cultural institutions are now also to follow through with a new role for their brands, becoming less self-oriented.

As we are living through the age of the Purpose Economy, we must ponder what art institutions are for. What purpose are they serving?

In the beginning of this year, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) chose “Museums as Cultural Hubs” as a theme for International Museum Day 2019. This viewpoint hints at the future transformation of art spaces.

Artistic organizations are turning into platforms for cultural conversations. While maintaining their primary missions of being repositories for material culture, they are now actively connecting with local communities and broader social issues.

Cultural brands are starting to realize they need to go beyond themselves. Galleries and museums can no longer afford to serve merely as buildings for displaying paintings or talk only about their own interest in art. 21st-century cultural institutions are now committing to ideas larger than themselves in the pursuit of a better world.

Through a brand purpose, they can position themselves as catalyzers of social change. A key question then for the near future of branding art spaces is: what purpose is your brand serving? Answering this question will not only set a guiding direction for change-making exhibitions, where social issues and cultural topics are discussed. It will also help attract younger audience segments, such as purpose-driven Millennials, and keep the focus on visitors. Art brands can then serve as connectors between people and ideas.

Mackenzie, the Canadian art museum mentioned earlier, shows this in practice. Considering Mackenzie’s brand belief that “art has the power to change the world”, Christi Belcourt’s eco-oriented artworks are not just another beautiful exhibition. It is an active move by the brand in stimulating change by prompting conversations about environmental degradation.

Last year, the Canadian gallery updated its brand proposition to “engaging people in transformative experiences of the world through art”. Such human-centered mindsets could also well become a game-changer for captivating audiences. One where experiences are at the heart of cultural brands.

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Living stories through art: from experiencing the journey of emigrants at the Irish Emigration Museum EPIC (on the left) to inspiring climate action in our daily life through installations made of recycled plastic waste at Arcadia Earth Museum in New York (on the right)

Historically, cultural audiences have been passive observers and consumers of art. Yet nowadays, art is about going a step further. It is about inspiring people to feel and experience stories.

Such a shift in the role of cultural institutions is driving them to reinvent their static brands for the brave new world by embracing more emotive and people-centered identities.

Take, for example, the London Symphony Orchestra which rebranded its visual language for the 2017/2018 season to reflect the movements of its musical conductor. Such an identity added a sense of dynamism, action-filled experience, emotional power and a human touch — all relevant factors for cultural spaces and brands to attract audiences in this decade.

In today’s increasingly digital world, people are also growing unhappy with their relationship with their smartphones. Younger generations, especially Millennials, are seeking and craving real-life experiences and live events. They want to do more than just share stories for likes on Instagram.

Such trends present an opportunity for the arts and culture sector to embrace being the offline alternative to the virtual world of entertainment by engaging people in all the human senses and organizing more non-traditional events. This could entail brands becoming more human-centered and experiential.

The starting point on that road is for cultural institutions to understand they need to move beyond being solely curators that tell a story.

Art brands need to enable storyliving. They can make people live narratives about the brand and the exhibits. Visitors could be induced to explore themselves in the presented muses, to empathize with a relevant cultural topic in an exhibition or even to feel and experience the artworks together with their stories.

That way, cultural spaces could use branding to catalyze social change by transforming people’s inner worlds. The first step, yet, for art organizations is to understand their purpose and ask “What story do we want people to experience?”.

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