Flashback to 2015: MoMA Acquires the Rainbow Flag
In celebration of Pride Month, read an interview from 2015 with the late Gilbert Baker, creator of the iconic Rainbow Flag.
Michelle Millar Fisher, Paola Antonelli
Jun 2, 2023
This article, presented in celebration of Pride Month 2023, reprints an interview that originally appeared on Inside/Out: A MoMA/MoMA PS1 Blog on June 17, 2015.
We’re thrilled to announce that MoMA has acquired the iconic Rainbow Flag into its design collection, where it joins similarly universal symbols such as the @ symbol, the Creative Commons logo, and the recycling symbol. Artist Gilbert Baker created the Rainbow Flag in 1978 in San Francisco. Just a few days ago, he met Michelle Millar Fisher in MoMA’s offices to record an interview for the MoMA Archives, part of which is transcribed here.
We’re proud the MoMA collection now includes this powerful design milestone, and there’s no more perfect time to share this news than during global celebrations for Gay Pride Month.
Michelle Millar Fisher: Were you interested in vexillography before you designed the Rainbow Flag?
Gilbert Baker: Vexillography is a very big word! Vexillography is really the high science and art and understanding of flags and their history, the academic word for flag making and heraldry. No! To a degree, it all began in 1976. That was the bicentennial of the United States and that year in particular I began to notice the American flag—which is where a lot of the Rainbow Flag comes from—in the sense that all of a sudden [I saw] the American flag everywhere—from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the Gap and tchotchkes.
And I thought, a flag is different than any other form of art. It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a just logo—it functions in so many different ways. I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands. [The Rainbow Flag] doesn’t say the word “Gay,” and it doesn’t say “the United States” on the American flag but everyone knows visually what they mean. And that influence really came to me when I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.
So the American flag was my introduction into that great big world of vexillography. But I didn’t really know that much about it. I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco. I knew how to sew. I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the Rainbow Flag because up until that we had the pink triangle from the Nazis—it was the symbol that they would use [to denote gay people]. It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexillography, this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had….
You were 27 years old when you made the first flags. Much has changed for the gay community between then and now, and this flag has played a large role in that. What do you think the most important effect of this design has been?
Much has changed for some, but as a global vision, we are way far away from where we need to be. We are still dealing with huge, massive resistance, even here in our own country, even here in our own city, even in our own families. What the rainbow has given our people is a thing that connects us. I can go to another country, and if I see a rainbow flag, I feel like that’s someone who is a kindred spirit or [that it’s] a safe place to go. It’s sort of a language, and it’s also proclaiming power. That’s the phenomenal [aspect] of it. I made it in 1978 and I hoped it would be a great symbol but it has transcended all of that—and within short order—because it became so much bigger than me, than where I was producing it, much bigger even that the U.S. Now it’s made all over the world. The beauty of it is the way that it has connected us.
You had a team of about 30 volunteers who helped make the first flags. Do you remember who any of them were? Can you tell us a little about any of them?
Sure! I want to give them all credit—there were so many people involved. Let’s go back to the fabric, where it starts. I think I got $1,000 from the parade committee, Cleve Jones, who later became an important activist for AIDS, was my friend, he ran the media committee for the parade and he helped me get the money—I said the flag would help visibility, create a story.
The Rainbow Flag is currently on view in MoMA’s garden lobby.
@ at MoMA
How do you “acquire” a symbol that’s been around for hundreds of years? In 2010 MoMA attempted to answer that question by adding the “@” symbol to the design collection.
Jan 19, 2023
MoMA staff consider the impact LGBTQ+ individuals have had on history via works from the collection.
Jun 7, 2018