Ever since it opened in 1987, the Menil Collection has purposely kept a low profile. Built in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood in Montrose, the Menil’s Renzo Piano–designed main building is about as unobtrusive as a museum can be, set well back from the street to conceal its scale and painted in what has come to be known as Menil grey. From the beginning, Dominique de Menil insisted that the museum eschew wall text, audio guides, banners, clearly visible signage, and multi-media marketing campaigns—all the things we’ve come to expect from cultural institutions.
So recent drivers on the Southwest Freeway may have been surprised to see a series of billboards advertising the Menil’s new René Magritte exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, which opened last week. Although it runs print ads (including one in Houstonia), the Menil has never embarked on a major marketing campaign—until now. Prompted by the Magritte exhibition, which the Menil organized in partnership with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, the museum engaged local marketing firm ttweak—the creators of the “Houston: It’s Worth It” campaign—to launch their first-ever publicity blitz.
Okay, blitz is a bit of an overstatement; you still won’t see any television ads touting Magritte’s paintings of levitating boulders or men with apples hiding their faces. In keeping with the Menil’s minimalist aesthetic, ttweak confined itself to designing four billboards and a series of ads for websites, newspapers and magazines, and the backs of many Houston pedi-cabs.
Vance Muse, the Menil’s director of communications, said the marketing push was a way to introduce more Houstonians to the museum’s cultural riches. “It’s a way to remind people that, yes, the Menil is here—it’s quiet, it’s tucked away, hiding in plain sight,” Muse said. “There are a lot of people moving to Houston, and we want them to know about the Menil. So, we thought: let’s do some billboards.”
It seems particularly appropriate that the Menil chose to launch its inaugural marketing campaign to promote the Magritte exhibition, since the Belgian artist supported himself at various points of his career by doing graphic design work for advertisements. When the Menil approached ttweak about the idea, the firm’s co-founder and principal, David Thompson, was immediately hooked.
“This is the perfect town for this exhibition, because Houston is completely surreal,” Thompson said. “There’s no better place to talk about paradox, and seeing interesting things juxtaposed against one another.”
Together, ttweak and the Menil began brainstorming concepts for the campaign, including the idea of having a skywriting plane spell “Ordinary” (taken from the exhibition’s title) in giant letters above the museum. Ultimately, that idea was abandoned in favor of an equally cheeky, but more traditional approach. Inspired by Magritte’s famous 1928–29 painting “Le Trahison Des Images” (“The Treachery of Images”), which features a painting of a pipe above the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), ttweak designed billboards featuring Magritte paintings accompanied by the phrase “This is not a Magritte. See the original at the Menil through June 1.” Ttweak also designed a micro-website for the exhibition, mysteryoftheordinary.com, and “This Is Not A Bar” coasters, which can be found at Liberty Kitchen, 13 Celsius, Mongoose Versus Cobra, and Lowbrow.
Thompson said that the hardest part of designing the ads, which were created by ttweak graphic designer Molly Cumming and copywriter Abbey Marks, was fitting all the required attribution information about the paintings into the ads without cluttering them up with too much text. Although he’s proud of the campaign, Thompson gave much of the credit for its success to the artist whose paintings are featured so prominently in it.
“It’s not us at all,” he said. “It’s René Magritte.”