A Major Museum Acquires the Rainbow Flag, and Its History Is Gloriously Colorful

The Museum of Modern Art adds the iconic flag, created by artist Gilbert Baker, to its collection.
Gilbert Baker, creator of the rainbow flag, at a benefit event in 2013. (Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
Jun 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Rainbows illuminated many of the nation's most visible landmarks and blanketed social media networks as Americans celebrated the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage on Friday. At the same time, a small crowd gathered to watch the rainbow flag being installed in a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

It was a "once-in-a-lifetime museum moment," says Michelle Millar Fisher, a curatorial assistant in MoMA's architecture and design department. But the flag's emergence at the museum on a historic day for gay rights was purely serendipitous—curators had been working to add the flag to MoMA's graphic design collection for almost a year.

Its journey to the museum was also somewhat fortuitous, Fisher says. She'd been researching symbols to add to the collection, including the Creative Commons logo, the @ sign, and the recycling logo—all recently acquired—when she stumbled on the work of Susan Kare, who designed logos for Macintosh in the 1980s. "As we were thinking about it, the rainbow [Apple] icon came up and so I researched it. I took it for granted that so many of these symbols just existed," Fisher says.

The rainbow flag being installed at MOMA. (Photo: Courtesy MOMA)

Her research led her to Gilbert Baker, an artist who dreamed up the flag in 1978. A drag queen in San Francisco at the time, Baker felt his LGBT community needed a flag by which to identify and unify itself. It helped that he knew how to sew and had access to a trove of fabric and dyes at a local gay community center, funding from a parade committee, and the help of activist friends including the visionary gay leader Harvey Milk.

So, Why Should You Care? More than three decades later, the rainbow flag is undeniably linked to the LGBT rights movement not just in America but also all over the world. The gay pride parade marchers who were attacked with water cannons and rubber bullets by Turkish police over the weekend were carrying rainbow flags. So, too, were revelers at pride parades in Seoul, South Korea; San Salvador, El Salvador; and Mexico City. Meanwhile, international companies from Facebook to Google have embraced the rainbow and adopted it to show support for LGBT equality.

The rainbow iconography has translated across cultures and languages partly because of its universal design: a simple succession of brightly colored stripes—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple—that together convey solidarity, diversity, and visibility. Fisher calls it a "humble masterpiece," a reference to a 2004 MoMA exhibition of utilitarian but extraordinary American objects.

"When we collect things, context is incredibly important to us, as is the historical moment in which these things are made. But first and foremost, we want the things we have in our museum to have really powerful formal qualities to really ignite people's eyes," Fisher says. "The way [Baker] chose to instrumentalize [the rainbow] in a new context is indicative of some of the best designs out there, including the @ sign. [The rainbow] existed, and yet his work as an artist or a designer was to ask us to look at it again in a new light."

This week, Baker's design has become ubiquitous yet ephemeral, taking the shape of Facebook profile filters and lights projected on city government buildings. But the origin flag now occupies a permanent place in the history of modern art and design. Hanging from a flagpole, it's positioned in the gallery next to another universal icon of connectivity: the power symbol that's used on everything from computers to appliances.