Blockbusters: Too Big to Fail?

The death of the mega exhibition has been predicted for years. So why is it still very much alive?

By Giles Waterfield | From issue 224, May 2011
Published online 19 May 11 (Features)

Is the age of the blockbuster exhibition over? Charles Saumarez Smith, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, remarks that its demise has been predicted ever since the beginning of his career in museums in the 1980s, when Roy Strong announced that there would be no more big exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in order to allow concentration on the collections. When visitor figures plummeted, the decision was reversed.

Pulling in the crowds at “Banksy versus the Bristol City Museum” in 2009

The consensus among museum professionals and exhibition organisers is that the large-scale exhibition is here to stay, “as long as the public continues to attend and as long as the museum needs the exhibitions for its financial balance” in the blunt wording of Didier Ottinger, the curator in charge of programming exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou. The demand from the public remains high, the benefits in terms of revenue and publicity for museums and exhibitions spaces remain constant, but what is generally changing is the style of exhibition. In general the criticisms levelled at such events—the wear and tear on artefacts and on curators, who often argue that they are unable to concentrate on their permanent collections because of the demands of temporary displays—are robustly brushed aside by museum directors. Dynamic directors believe that objects are more at risk on permanent display or in storage than they are on their travels, and that the good curator loves to combine care for their collection with exhibition organisation; as Saumarez Smith puts it: “I think there is an element of myth about exhibitions acting as a distraction from the task of interpreting collections. In my experience, able and energetic curators want to do both.” Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), has shown his confidence in the power of the temporary exhibition by master-minding the construction of the Resnick Pavilion, a triumphalist warehouse-like building by Renzo Piano, covering an acre of exhibition space where anything between one and five exhibitions can be organised concurrently, and where visitors to one show will be lured into seeing the others. Long live the blockbuster, seems to be the message.

Well, up to a point. The term “blockbuster” is not a popular one. “I hate the word,” remarks Govan. Mark Jones, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (VA), claims he does not know what it means. It’s not the most attractive term, derived from aerial bombardment by a bomb that could demolish an entire city block, transferred to the movie industry in the 1950s to describe a mega-successful popular entertainment, and adapted to the visual arts in the 1970s when Thomas Hoving initiated a series of high profile temporary exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though Tutankhamun, which travelled round the world attracting vast crowds and publicity in the early 1970s, is often seen as the first blockbuster, the genre has a longer ancestry. The 1851 Great Exhibition in London, with its thousands of exhibits and six million visitors, and the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857 which attracted over a million (considerably higher figures even than the crowd-pullers of recent years) could certainly be seen in this category, though they were hardly offering entertainment. The display of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s wedding presents at the South Kensington Museum (now the VA) in 1863 was the most successful exhibition in the museum’s history. The 19th century, which witnessed the growth of staggeringly ambitious world fairs, was a period of huge if sometimes rather incoherent exhibitions, attracting enormous crowds. In the early 20th century the fashion for huge shows declined although the display of Italian art at the Royal Academy in 1930, which assembled the finest works from all Italian museums to the dismay of curators unable to resist Mussolini’s commands, was certainly in the blockbuster league. Air travel transformed the possibilities of international loans in the mid-20th century, just as the railways had made large-scale national loans possible in Britain in the mid-19th century.

The reason why museum directors reject the term is that nowadays they see temporary exhibitions as an enterprise that is much more than merely transporting works of art from one venue to another to raise money. Certainly the style of event is changing. The “Treasures” phenomenon—“The Splendor of Dresden” (National Gallery of Art, 1978) or “The Vatican Collections: Papacy and Art” (the Met, 1983)—followed the example set by Hoving. These events, often surrounded by exuberance and razzmatazz, arguably served a useful purpose at a time when works of art in eastern Europe were difficult to access by anyone on the other side of the Iron Curtain. They appear to be now on the wane, although the De Young Museum in San Francisco did score a knock out success recently with its two displays of late impressionism and post-impressionism works from the Musée d’Orsay, both of which sold out, to the benefit of borrower and lender. David Bomford, the acting director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, believes that the style of large-scale monographic exhibitions that has been a regular feature of museums’ programmes will become increasingly difficult to put together. Faced by continuing requests to lend major works to a cycle of single-artist displays, “museums are beginning to suffer from loan fatigue, and we are very unlikely to see another great Manet monographic exhibition”. The number of historic names guaranteed to draw the crowds is in any case limited—Vermeer (Rembrandt may be a declining brand), Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Velázquez, the major impressionists and post-impressionists, Picasso—and the supply of their works is obviously limited too (though not limited enough, in some cases). London’s National Gallery is characteristic of most major galleries in choosing only to lend, and indeed borrow, when it is sure that the loan will contribute to art historical or scientific knowledge.

Still, exhibitions are seen in a very positive light, and not just as sources of revenue from admissions, sponsorship and sales from the shop. From the days of the early 19th-century exhibitions at the British Institution in London, exhibitions have offered the chance to study the work of major artists and to introduce the public to new areas of knowledge: for me, an outstanding example was “German Art in the Twentieth Century” at the Royal Academy in 1985, curated by Norman Rosenthal. For Mark Jones, “exhibitions are the lifeblood of scholarship in the VA.” The VA’s exhibition programme is predicated on the assumption that it will sustain and promote research and acquisitions, deepen understanding of such recondite figures as Thomas Hope and Athenian Stuart, and “enable scholars to concentrate on subjects which would not otherwise be the focus of attention and which the public would not otherwise get to see, understand, and enjoy”, as he puts it. At the Centre Pompidou, recent displays on Matisse and Munch have drawn large crowds while enabling the publication of substantial new scholarship. In many cases, exhibition catalogues (often dismissed as a secondary medium, usually on intellectually snobbish grounds based on outmoded notions about the status of the printed book) have proved some of the most successful means of publishing new research on works of art. The Met has a long tradition of balancing large popular exhibitions with more specialist (and absorbing) studies of, say, Tilman Riemenschneider or Augustin Pajou.

The current economic climate has also encouraged museums to concentrate on their own collections, a cheap and effective solution. The Met’s 2010 Picasso display attracted over 700,000 visitors (making it internationally among the five most visited events of the year): it played safe by choosing a big name but every work in the exhibition came from its own collection, most of them works on paper which had seldom if ever been exhibited before. At the VA, “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes” was the successful major autumn exhibition of 2010, enriched by the daring use of new media (an important factor in the success of an exhibition, as Govan points out)
, and with the great majority of the exhibits drawn from its own holdings. Currently at MoMA, two of the most prominent shows, on abstract expressionism and German expressionism, derive entirely from the museum’s collections. This style of rigorous consideration of what an institution can achieve by using its own resources may prove to be one of the most positive results of the current downturn.

Fashions change. “Royal”, “Imperial”, “Palaces” along with “Treasures” and arguably “Impressionism”, all key elements until recently in the title of a blockbuster, are losing their attraction for a younger, more forward-looking public that is, concurrently, ceasing to visit the style of mother-attractive “heritage” offered by Colonial Williamsburg or the English country house. For these audiences, water lilies have begun to droop even if sunflowers blaze as brightly as ever. A closely related development is the rise in visitors for contemporary art exhibitions, a phenomenon that reflects the rejection by many university students of art history of the art of the past in favour of the modern and contemporary. Marina Abramovic, whose electrically exciting presence transformed an already intriguing monographic exhibition at MoMA in 2010, attracted well over half a million visitors, while the ambitious display of William Kentridge, “Five Themes”, at the same venue, attracted almost equally large crowds.

An outstanding contemporary artist can attract huge attendance figures at venues other than MoMA, whether it is Chihuly at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, or Banksy at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. The Saatchi Collection—free, well-sited in the King’s Road in London, and ambitious in its programming—is one of the few British galleries to feature regularly among the top scorers. An interesting development in this past year is that contemporary art exhibitions and notably biennials, have scored huge successes in Brazil, particularly at the Centro Cultural Banco da Brasil. This is a part of the world that until lately has seldom featured strongly in league tables of visitor figures: although major exhibitions have been organised in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo for 40 or so years, it is only very recently that the venues have begun to organise themselves with sufficient professionalism to enable the promotion of their achievements internationally. Clearly, Brazil is set to play a major part on the international contemporary art stage.

The most popular media are changing too. At London’s National Portrait Gallery, the most crowd-pulling exhibitions are invariably photographic. Very recently, photographic exhibitions have begun to feature among international major successes: “The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture” and “Cartier-Bresson” both drew large crowds at (inevitably) MoMA in 2010. In the past four years Michael Govan has quadrupled the number of photographic displays at Lacma, realising the impact made for example by William Eggleston’s work, which was crowded with visitors on its recent showing at the museum. Though photographic exhibitions raise complex questions about the aura of the work of art, they define one way in which the large-scale or “blockbuster” may be developing. Another interesting development is the rise of the ambitious curated exhibitions of 20th-century work, including numerous loans and archival material, by commercial galleries: prominent recent examples have included Picabia at Hauser and Wirth, London in 2006, and Roy Lichtenstein at Gagosian, New York in 2010. Ostensibly at least the works are not for sale: these galleries, for whatever reason inspired them, are becoming major new players on the exhibition circuit.

Critics in late 19th-century London complained of the stupefying number of exhibitions on view in the capital. Visitors to a major capital city might make the same complaint today. If the blockbuster in the style of Hoving is losing momentum, the large-scale exhibition culture is as strong as ever, and often more inventive and long-lasting in its benefits than in the recent past. And if those water lilies stay floating at home for a while, that will be a great relief.


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