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Three little letters

Don't call it the Institute of Contemporary Art. It's the ICA, and it has a new home, a new logo, and -- it hopes -- a new identity

It's an experience every home owner knows. You buy a new house, you move to a new address, why stop there?

Giving up Back Bay for the waterfront, the Institute of Contemporary Art enters a much-praised new building on Sept. 17. It's also getting a permanent collection for the first time. Those aren't the only changes.

``What's happening at the ICA is a complete transformation," says Paul Bessire , the museum's deputy director for external relations. ``Not just the building: We really wanted a new identity and new brand."

How new? There was serious talk within the ICA of changing its name. That's not going to happen, though the preferred in-house usage is now initials rather than full name.

That decision is part of a design makeover the ICA is undergoing in preparation for Sept. 17. It includes a new logo, new signage, new stationery, and two new typefaces. The design upgrade, with its bright colors, angularity, and dynamism, provides ``a nice strong badge," says the man responsible for it, Ned Campbell , who took on the assignment for Wolff Olins, the London brand consultants he then worked for.

Most important, the ICA has a new branding statement, a redefining of how the museum sees itself and wants to be seen.

It's an ideal time for such a process, says Roger Sametz , president of Sametz Blackstone Associates , a brand-focused strategic consulting firm in the South End.

``To the extent you can combine real change -- and a new building is real change -- with how you present the organization, then they both benefit. Because what you never want people to do is say, `Oh, that's window dressing.' You lift both sides of the seesaw -- which, while not possible in physics, is possible in communication."

Campbell and Wolff Olins started the ICA makeover in September 2003.

``What my colleagues and I do," Campbell says, ``is help an organization identify the most important things about what it is that they're trying to say and do and help it express them somehow. We never presume to go in and graft an idea onto an organization. It has to come from within. We help locate that, refine it, get rid of all the stuff that doesn't really matter, and focus it."

Wolff Olins had previously done branding work for the Victoria & Albert Museum , the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco , and the Tate Gallery, which the firm helped split up into four different museums under the Tate name.

That's an extreme example of how far branding can go. More commonly, it's simply a clarifying of what an institution does. ``Branding," Campbell says, ``is the idea that you stand for as an organization or institution of any kind. Underscoring that is the belief if you stand for something clear, you stand out."

Campbell came up with a handy coinage to communicate the essence of the ICA: The core of that idea is something called ``The Brink." The Brink is the conceptual place the ICA wants to be -- the cutting edge of art and ideas -- and by coming to the ICA, museumgoers gain access to it.

``The Brink is a little bit of a tricky word," Campbell explains. ``It has an edge to it, and that's intentional. The ICA is an organization that wants to challenge people. But do it in a way that they're comfortable with: a guided challenge. Help people discover new things -- but take you only as far as you're ready. If the ICA is successful, it's a personal journey for anyone who visits there. Each time you go, you might want to do something different, or you might be ready to go a little bit further.

``There's no mandate that the ICA needs to be having some kind of threatening experience," he says with a laugh . ``But Boston fundamentally is a city of ideas, and the ICA can be a forum for ideas, as well as being a leader in presenting the ideas of our time, through artists."

Branding must count as one of the ideas of our time. Long a byword in the commercial world, it has become increasingly important among cultural institutions. Its use is ``burgeoning," says Eric Almquist , a senior partner at Lippincott Mercer , a brand strategy and design firm headquartered in New York whose clients have included such cultural organizations as the National Constitution Center , in Philadelphia, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

``There are more and more arts organizations," Almquist says, ``so they have to signal who they are, what they stand for, and why people should care."

``Lots of cultural institutions didn't necessarily see the value in branding," Campbell says, ``or why they should think about themselves as having a brand. Of course, the big ones were way ahead of the game. The Museum of Modern Art [in New York] has a fantastically powerful brand."

MoMA recently had a rare opportunity to reassess that brand when, as part of a major expansion and renovation, it had to shut down its Manhattan galleries for 2 1/2 years and opened a satellite operation in Queens.

``This is all very juicy stuff for communication designers," says Ed Pusz , MoMA's director of graphic design, who notes that whenever a museum changes its building, the new architecture ``assesses the museum's mission in three dimensions."

``We didn't want to make the mistake, though, of using the architecture as an excuse to change who we were. If anything, the architecture process is really exciting because the architecture team has to ask a lot of the same questions we have to ask."

MoMA, which was putting up its new building on the same site as its old building, did little more than tweak its brand in specific terms (e.g., commissioning a typeface for new signage, making red a more prominent color in its design palette). More generally, it was hoped the new building would communicate a greater sense of relevancy to museumgoers and give the museum a more dynamic identity.

The process at the ICA started with several months of interviews. Brand consulting, Campbell emphasizes, is much more about listening than telling. Views of the museum were sought from staff and trustees, artists who've been associated with it, journalists, politicians, figures in the Boston art world, and, to a lesser degree, museum people elsewhere. The findings were then discussed at Wolff Olins. A summary was prepared and presented to the ICA.

``What came back to us," the ICA's Bessire says, ``was that we were `all over the map,' and that's a quote. To use branding language, our `offer' was not defined, not specific enough. We weren't on people's radar. The programming hadn't really ignited the audience, and we needed to be clearer in terms of what we were offering."

``We then, at that point, went away and started to digest all that we had," Campbell says, ``and came back with some scenarios about how this might be expressed: What is the idea around which the ICA is going to do all its future business?" Thus was born The Brink.

Campbell declares he ``can't wait" for the opening of the new building. He says that both as brand consultant and museumgoer. He knows his job isn't over. ``Brands are organic, evolving things," he notes. ``They do need to change. We've got a lot of it right. The fundamental things are all set in place. When they open the doors and everything starts being put into practice, inevitably we'll want to revisit things."

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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