November 27, 2017
Collecting Contemporary Posters
One element of our permanent collection that I’m particularly proud of is our growing archive of contemporary posters. And yet, almost every time I mention this to other people in the poster world, I am invariably asked why I would want to do that.
The assumption is that the posters of today lack the artistry of those from 100 years ago. And in many cases, that’s true – your average subway poster isn’t created by a single artist and hand-pulled on a lithographic stone. It is instead designed by committee on a computer and printed via photo offset like most everything else we have printed these days. And most of these poster “creations” are interchangeable crap. Yes, crap.
But that doesn’t mean that the soul of the poster is dead. If it were, why would we have publications like Lurzer’s Archive or Campaign; why would the Cannes Lions exist? They all celebrate excellence in contemporary advertising, and a large portion of that still uses the poster medium to entice, titillate, and beguile its audience.
And that’s where I start looking for posters for our collection. I contact the best and brightest, the award-winning and the newsworthy. Yes, posters still make the news! Just type “posters” into Google and click on the news tab, and you’ll see two or three articles a week (yes week) about posters that have shocked, scandalized, offended, or excited someone, somewhere. Most recently, I can think of three articles I saw reporting on a rock poster show which opened at a new arts venue in San Francisco, a series of political ads which offended half the population of Hungary, and a re-evaluation of wartime STD warning posters on the famed Atlas Obscura.
Most importantly, though, these posters act as windows into the more nuanced aspects of society. Like ads from the 1880s, they don’t always reflect or announce the monumental moments of our time. Instead, they shine a light on products, events, and ideas that may not ever make the footnotes of history, be it by promoting a no-name band that played once in a bar that was only open for a month or advertising a medication that would get taken off shelves a year later. They are the details, the texture, of our daily lives – and that is why collecting the best posters of today is essential for preserving the memory of what it was like to live in a given place at a given time.
Below you will see a slideshow of some of my favorite recent acquisitions, all of which have been heralded as standout examples of contemporary graphic design. As they hail from every corner of our planet – from Berlin to Dubai, Tokyo to San Paulo – they illuminate how different cultures present and digest information through the poster medium.