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28th May 2008

What Creates an Art Museum Blockbuster Hit?

The public came to see the King Tut exhibit in 1976 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art because they were curious, but also to be inspired by the splendor of it all. That original show drew more than 8 million people. It was the original museum blockbuster hit that inspired a trend that has become a part of almost every art museum’s agenda.

Considering the number of international art museums that exhibit special shows to entice their community members and tourists to travel through their doors, only a few are actual box office hits in any given year. Just as Hollywood measures its box office hits based on variables, such as budget size and comparisons to other similar product, so do museums and the art world. The ticket box office for a huge hit in a small city might could seem tiny compared to a huge hit at the Met, but the size of the venues, the budgets and the local community are all taken into account when determining a hit – or miss.

Museums promote their shows by touting that their special shows are a one time, or limited event. The King Tut show revealed the recently discovered tomb contents to the American public for the first time. It was a rare and limited event. Every two years the Whitney holds its biennial, always a hit, although some years more so than other.

When Christo and Jeanne Claude’s exhibit the Gates was on view people flooded into Central park to see and walk under and between the billowing saffron colored gates. Yes, it was spiritual with the metaphor of gates and the billowing saffron material but it was also slam dunk rivetingly different for Central Park and it was well known that the installation was temporary. The installation did not have to be temporary based on the materials used. The structures were constructed to withstand any stresses that the public, including rowdy teenage boys could inflict. The billowing material could have been replaced whenever needed. However, an ongoing exhibit quickly becomes commonplace and a temporary one is an even. That The Gates would never be resurrected in Central Park made them a must see destination.

How limited an event is any specific show really?

When a curator and team has diligently worked to assemble from collectors and museums all over the globe many of the finest works from a great, but long gone artist, that is a limited show.

When a show is assembled from works in another museum, for example the Van Gogh Museum that show is certainly not as limited, even if it is the first time ever shown in the USA. Why? Because although traveling to NYC is possibly less expensive and more convenient for many Americans, especially those on the East Coast, people can also go to Amsterdam to see the works at the van Gogh Museum, once they return.

Yet, people flocked to the recent van Gogh shows. Vincent van Gogh is a box office star. Why?

Researching all of the museum shows that are acknowledged blockbuster hits, almost every one had a spiritual or religious component. We do not think of Vincent van Gogh as a religious painter, but he did and his religious passion communicates in his strokes and works, even when his imagery is secular. Monet passionately painted the light, which as a somewhat devout Catholic he knew resonated with spiritual meaning. Warhol. Who we now know was religious throughout his life, threw our media and values back at us, giving them meaning while questioning the meanings we had previously assigned to the post war society first exploding with images thanks to new and emerging technologies.

Every blockbuster hit seems to have had a spiritual component that reaches and inspires people.

Obviously, but not usually commented upon, there was a religious or spiritual component to the King Tut exhibit. The beliefs of King Tut and his society are not those of almost everyone who attended the shows in the USA, but how that society looked at death fascinated people. Death is the entry to the beyond and usually involves a person’s spiritual beliefs and understandings.

When a person has a product that is valued, word of mouth recommendations follow. There is a huge difference between learning to appreciate or recognizing the value of a product and having it impact you so you are inspired. The King Tut exhibit inspired those who saw it and they told other, who told others… Momentum builds and one has a hit. It happens for products, movies, music groups and museum shows. It happens for products that work best to do the job they are supposed to do.

Art that inspires us and changes how we see our world is the key ingredient for a big box office show.

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