A midlife name change is always a touchy proposition, even more so when the changer is a grande dame celebrating a centennial.

That’s the status of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which last week rechristened itself “Mia” (pronounced ME-ahh), trotted out a new logo and dropped the final “s” from the moniker by which it had been known since 1915: Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Among local artniks and even the national press, the name change prompted some incredulity, eye-rolling and the inevitable Mamma Mia jokes. The typical reaction was, if a name ain’t broke, why fix it?

Why? Because “branding” rules public images. Marketing theory holds that the right brand will clarify a message, boost popularity and increase market share. And a name is the heart of a great brand.

By coincidence, the museum’s rebranding coincided with the opening of a smart little show, “beyondBrand,” at Form + Content gallery in Minneapolis through Sept. 5. Together they illustrate the opportunities and pitfalls inherent in relying on branding to manipulate public opinion.

Minneapolis Institute of Art

When it opened in 1915, the gray limestone museum was intended as just the first phase of an ambitious neoclassical complex that was to include a symphony hall, an art school and other cultural amenities. It was dubbed the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to encompass all of that.

Times changed and none of the other buildings materialized. Children’s Theatre and Minneapolis College of Art and Design now share the block, but are independent organizations. The much-expanded museum now dominates the site, offering everything from Old Master paintings and sculpture to photography and video, an Art Deco car, American Indian beadwork and contemporary pottery. Last year it attracted more than 750,000 visitors, a record.

Even so, the “s” befuddles people, said director Kaywin Feldman.

“They don’t understand that we’re really not a museum of all the arts, we’re an art museum,” she said. “They found it confusing.”

Enter Pentagram, a New York-based “global design and branding firm” that the museum hired to refresh its image. Changes include converting its former nickname, MIA, which is unfortunately associated with soldiers missing in action, to the more upbeat Mia, which in various languages means “mine,” “my own,” “beloved.” At the moment, it is also the country’s sixth most popular girl’s name, according to Babycenter.com.

The museum also jettisoned its blocky old logo for a rounder typeface, Mia Grotesk, that will be used in all publications, banners, posters, ads, website and other material. Color was often added to the previous logo, but the new one will be strictly black-and-white, Feldman said.

While institutional brands often benefit from updating, much of this seems contrived and unnecessary. The font change is no big deal, but a new name that requires a pronunciation guide is likely to be a hard sell. The best nicknames evolve naturally, like that of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, aka MoMA.

Likewise, dropping the “s” from “Arts” seems oddly old-fashioned and exclusionary. If anything, “Art” subtly implies just one hoity-toity thing, not the rambunctious mix of “Arts” that the museum actually offers.

Form + Content

As the title implies, “beyond­Brand” is skeptical about branding as a marketing tool. It set out to critique the phenomenon, but falls short of that ambition and offers instead a sample of insightfully conceived, socially conscious designs.

Organized by Twin Cities designers Jay Isenberg and Lynda Monick, the show features posters, broadsides, illustrations, photos, pamphlets, a sculpture and a video by 22 artists from around the country. Their topics include gun violence, diversity issues, America’s malign “exceptionalism,” hydraulic fracking, the abilities of the “disabled,” refugees, the Iraq wars and the uplifting dreams of ordinary Minneapolitans in their own words.

In “The Great Trash Wave” Minneapolis-based Russ White reinterprets Hokusai’s famous image by adding the hideous trash — bottles, tire, rope, dolls, clothes — that now pollutes the world’s seas. He dedicates some money earned from sales of the print to the Plastic Ocean Project, a nonprofit that educates people about plastic pollution.

Bill Jeter, who describes himself as a Manufacturer of Meaning, creates a powerful poster and arresting sculpture about the English language’s taboo utterance, the N-word, “whose usage can get you praise, hatred, hired or fired depending on time, context, and circumstance.”

Inspired by Thomas Paine’s revolutionary-era missive “Common Sense,” Todd Thyberg produced a contemporary “American Manifesto” whose alarming statistics about U.S. pollution, militarism, food abuse and other issues should be a wake-up call to a nation that ranks 51st in life expectancy.

And then there is Jordan Darby’s droll chart depicting a “Causal Hierarchy of Human Suffering,” starting from “Total Ignorance” and rising to “Pride” through a depressingly hilarious catalog of contemporary ills ranging from infomercials and Internet speed dating to Ponzi schemes, war and bureaucracy.

If the show sounds like a huge bummer, it’s not. Often done as personal projects, these are the thoughtful, often witty, always well-informed observations by smart designers who are willing to go beyond the reductivist consumerism of “branding” to engage ideas visually. Their memorable efforts are well worth a long look.

 

Noon-6 p.m. Thu.-Sat. through Sept. 5 • free • Form+Content Gallery, 210 N. 2nd St., Mpls. • 612-436-1151 • formandcontent.org