Coming Soon: Largest Museum Exhibition of Classic Movie Posters

Lights! Cameras! Artwork!

Wildly colorful, fun and informative, this exhibit of rare movie posters at The Norton Museum of Art is the largest ever museum exhibition of classic movie posters, all from one enormous private collections. Titled Coming Soon: Film Posters from the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection, this multi-media exhibition has more than 200 posters, slide shows, film clips and lobby cards from comedies, musicals, Westerns, sci-fi thrillers, dramas, and more spanning from the turn of the 20th century to the late 1980s.

“I came to love and collect movie posters based on the artwork,” says collector Cleveland who now has over 2,000 posters. “The knowledge about the actual movies came later for me. I started in 1976 by scouring flea markets and old theaters. The fascinating thing is the variety of sizes, types and materials. One of the rare items I have is on display is a show of vintage glass slides. These were shown on the screen before movies to show people coming attractions, as movies back then were only in theaters for a few days not weeks like they are now. There were some very famous artists recruited in the early years like Al Hirschfield to make these posters. It was a prime marketing tool and they often had different images as well as sizes for one film to appeal to a variety of audiences.”

Coming Soon: Largest Museum Exhibition of Classic Movie Posters
Posters in Coming Soon Film Posters from the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection

The exhibition is divided into several narratives of Westerns, Foreign Films, Comedies and more and includes posters from iconic films Casablanca, The Godfather, Singin’ in the Rain, North by Northwest, and Grand Hotel, and cult classics Barbarella and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Particularly fascinating are the foreign posters from countries like Poland who had their own artists create posters just from the titles, as they felt the American posters were propaganda. The result is images that are more flights of the imagination than anything having to do with the actual images from the film, as if an abstract realist had been given free rein on a title. The colors and detail are gorgeous, though posters must also contain information on the studios and other production info.

“The theaters received a small credit on the next batch of posters if they returned the current ones, but often they just threw them out,” Cleveland says. “Then if they did keep them they stored them in a basement that sometimes got flooded and moldy. That’s what makes many of them rare. I still look every day for new posters. It’s a lifelong thing for me. This exhibition is a landmark event for the art form, which has not been granted the respect of a stand-alone show. Film posters have always been mixed with costumes, scripts, props, and other ephemera in previous exhibitions about movies. Most film buffs think all the art is on the screen, but I believe the best posters can represent the soul of the movie itself – and communicate volumes about the essence of the film.”

The curators of the show, Matthew Bird and Norton Assistant Curator J. Rachel Gustafson, realize that to present such a show in museum it has to be presented with information and background on the artform itself. One diagram picks apart the components that make up a successful poster, and give the artistic techniques – pastel, oil painting, water color, photomontage, and air brush – as well as printing techniques – lithography, hand-stenciling, off-set printing, and photographic reproductions – that artists have used to celebrate and promote iconic movie posters.

Coming Soon: Largest Museum Exhibition of Classic Movie Posters
Singin in the Rain 2 Coming Soon Film Posters from the Dwight M. Cleveland Collection

Even a film still from a movie has been altered in way to fit the criteria of a posters “job description.” It has to grab the public’s attention, tell a story, depict a foreign world, promote the movies stars, and of course sell tickets – all in a single poster. Even with changing digital technology, today’s film posters do the same work the earliest ones, using paper and ink to connect a film to its audience.

Movies are a worldwide phenomenon, so ‘Coming Soon’ includes posters from around the world, illustrating how other cultures view the United States film industry. Posters in the exhibition come from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Additionally, posters of advertising films that were produced abroad in Germany, Mexico, and Russia are exhibited in the exhibit to illustrate the global reach and popularity of filmmaking. Film clips play on several screens throughout the show, giving insight to how the poster connects to the film.

The exhibit is on view now through October 29. Classic films related to the show will be screened at the Norton through the fall at the popular weekly program, Art After Dark.

If you visit, check norton.org for more information on this exhibit and other programs at the museum.