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See the Standout Face Masks Commissioned by Museums

Category: Alliance Blog
An array of face masks in varying prints, including the messages "Life: Handle with Caution" and "Better Safe Than Sorry."
MOCA in Los Angeles is just one of the museums getting creative with its cultural assets as it protects staff and visitors. Photo credit: Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

One of the main ways museums are starting to look different as they reopen is the ubiquity of face masks. Who would have believed, going into this year, that everyone roaming the galleries and grounds of our cultural institutions would be clad in tight sheets of fabric from ear to ear, that something called “personal protective equipment” would be the predominant fashion trend?

But such is the situation we’re in, and we might as well make the most of it. Museums are modeling that attitude, making use of their distinguishing feature—their cultural assets—to beautify this new fact of life and collect some much-needed revenue in the process.

Here are some of the shining examples of museums that have mined their collections, enlisted exhibiting artists, or cleverly deployed slogans to protect their visitors and staffs in style.

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

Two masks painted with fluid stains of multicolored paint
Photo credit: Claire Ritz

These understated color-field-style masks from the Aldrich are part of a bigger picture—literally. The Connecticut museum commissioned exhibiting artist Laleh Khorramian to make them for its onsite staff and store, which she did by painting a large-format canvas containing a “hidden message” then cutting pieces of it into the mask pattern. In circulating the message in pieces, she means to “invok[e] a daisy chain joined by a collective intention.” These masks are the first edition in a series titled BEAKSHIELD; the museum says future editions will be released over the summer and fall. Available for purchase here.

Peabody Essex Museum

Photo of a person wearing a blue face mask with a stylized nose, lips, and cheeks drawn on it
Photo credit: Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum

Designer Carla Fernández’s masks at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts are a tribute to Mexican artisans. Fernández, who created a work in the museum’s upcoming exhibition Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion, collaborates with Indigenous communities in Mexico to preserve their textile heritage, which has earned her accolades for advancing “ethical fashion” practices. Ten artisans around the country designed the masks, including Guadalupe Candelario & Maria Antonia Pascual in the one pictured here, and the proceeds from sales will go directly to these and other artisans Fernández collaborates with. The PEM Shop is collaborating with Fernández to produce an additional line of masks to coincide with the opening of Made It this fall. Available for purchase here.

Mütter Museum

A person posing in from of hanging prints wearing a black mask reading "Spit Spreads Death" in white lettering, with the name of the museum printed on the side.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Mütter Museum

The Mütter, a medical museum connected to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, promises to be “disturbingly informative,” and its contribution to mask fashion fits the brief. The museum is repurposing a slogan used during the 1918 flu pandemic, “Spit Spreads Death,” into a statement-making accessory for our times. If your tastes tend toward the gothic, this might be your match. Available for purchase here.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Two white masks with black cartoon-style designs on them, one showing activities holding signs with messages like "Black Lives Matter" and another showing a group of women posing.
Photo credit: Courtesy National Museum of Women in the Arts

These bold, cartoon-style masks pay tribute to trailblazers. NMWA—a Washington, DC, museum dedicated to the work of women artists—asked muralist, painter, and illustrator Scarlett Baily to design the masks for its shop. Baily used the canvas to spotlight the “Mujeres Muralistas,” a group of Chicana muralists active in 1970s San Francisco, as well as women who have advocated for racial justice and LGBTQ rights, like Miss Major and Gladys Bentley. Available for purchase here.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

An array of face masks in varying prints, including the messages "Life: Handle with Caution" and "Better Safe Than Sorry."
Photo credit: Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Take your pick! Los Angeles contemporary art museum MOCA rounded up nine participating artists to design its masks: Virgil Abloh, Mark Grotjahn, Alex Israel, Barbara Kruger, Yoko Ono, Catherine Opie, Pipilotti Rist, Hank Willis Thomas, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts. Some designs are one-offs, others repurpose highlights from the artists’ oeuvres, and any of them will make a striking impression at dining patios and corner stores. The masks are made by local denim brand Citizens of Humanity and funded by trustee Karyn Kohl, so all proceeds go to the museum’s operations. Available for purchase here.

New York Transit Museum

A yellow mask with black piping and a design of a human figure wearing an MTA t-shirt and flashing a thumbs up sign.
Photo credit: Courtesy of New York Transit Museum

If you like your statements strong and simple, look to the New York Transit Museum, which tells the story of the city’s feats of mass transportation. The museum has produced exclusive wearable versions of a campaign by the local Metropolitan Transportation Authority to remind riders of its mask mandate, including this illustration of a (presumably) smiley face giving the sign of approval to mask-wearing. Coming soon; visit the museum’s store here.

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