23rd May 2008
Art museum blockbuster hits are now as common as they are for other venues that sell tickets, such as film concerts and theatre. Only Ticket sales define the blockbuster’s success, not reviews or the current price of the artists work at auction.
Blockbuster museum shows are a recent development, considering the length of the history of art. It all began in 1976 when the King Tut exhibit drew more than 8 million people to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thomas Hoving, the Met’s museum director at the time, is credited for this innovation. Hoving publicly says that “It’s not true “I stole the idea from the Europeans. But I’ll say it was my idea.”
Thomas Hoving has a special knack for recognizing a good thing, especially when it comes to art. He continued launching blockbuster style shows and changed art museums forever.
Art museums considering what shows to include during a year can be compared to a hungry person. The best and biggest, in NYC that would be the Met and MoMA can afford to eat in any four star restaurant. The may even be comped, or at least served a free drink or desert. The perks and prestige decline along with the stars of the restaurant until one reaches a small local museum, or university museum. The small museum – not necessarily small on space but small in membership and budget, is hungry to drive in new members, patrons and viewers, but lacks the wherewithal to mount or even lure a major show. Galleries even have the noshies, now snacking by mounting their won museum type shows, which can even travel to co-sponsoring galleries in other cities. There are now museums in non-major cities that have no permanent collection, but instead basically exist as a space for traveling or specially curated shows of borrowed works.
For museums, blockbuster box office hits bring in money, obviously in ticket sales but also visitors who become members and donors, plus auxiliary sales at the museum’s restaurants and shops. A hit show encourages galleries and artists to think highly of the museum, thus perhaps upping the museum’s place on a waiting list for an artist’s work, and this is especially important for a slightly smaller museum. The money that blockbusters earn can allow a museum or curator to mount a show for a less popular but significant and influential artist.
For the art world, the influence of blockbuster shows reaches beyond museums.
Who else in the art world is impacted by blockbuster museum shows?
Galleries — Many top tier galleries today became such by recognizing and promoting the work of their artists who then became well recognized and acclaimed. Some of the out-of-towners who come to see an art show also visit galleries and openings locally. Galleries have found ways, including creating shows with an artist and artist they represent that references a recent museum show. This can be a natural spin-off as artists have always been influenced by other great artists, living or long deceased. .
Curators – Curators create shows and group shows. Some have full time jobs at museums but most are independent. Any curator who mounts a blockbuster hit reaps career recognition and rewards.
Collectors – The answer is relevant for collectors who by patronage can encourage museums and galleries to help create box office hits for the artists in their collection. Plus, knowledge being power, for all but the very top collectors – the ones who create their own museums or endow museums with their collections – it is far easier collect an artist’s work when there is no waiting list or that list is small.
Art Critics – A brilliant review can make a critic’s career or keep it on top. Campaigning an editor for the assignment to write a piece on an upcoming show, especially when a magazine, newspaper, website, etc., has several reviewers can land one a plum spot and recognition, especially if that show becomes a blockbuster. Discovering an artist or group of artists and championing them has helped make careers but also given a place in art history to critics such as Clement Greenberg.
The Public – A well curated museum show – and one of the elements of a blockbuster is that it is well curated and presented – is informative and allows people to intensely experience the work of an artist or group of artists whose works are related. Works are often brought together from many of the world’s art collections, both private and public that can for possibly the first but certainly for a limited time been seen together. Plus, since works are lent by private and corporate collections, they are not usually available to be seen by the public.
Contemporary Artists – Most artists are influenced by other artists’ works, including that of other artists who are living but also those long deceased. Major shows or retrospectives can have a great impact. On a contemporary artists work, and since most of the best art schools in the USA are located within easy travel distance of major museums, a blockbuster show influences the next generation, too. This
Local Businesses – The tourists who come to see a blockbuster museum show impact the local economy. Tourism is lucrative for many businesses, including those that normally appear outside of the travel and hospitality industries. More tourists means more people customers for hairdressers, barbers, dry cleaners, and all kinds of shops, especially those near the museum, which all benefit.
Cities such as Florence and Paris are deservedly proud of their artists and the art in their churches and public collections, which they have successfully used for hundreds of years to draw tourists. The phenomena of a city drawing tourists to see art in a collection that has little if any connection to the city itself other than for the brief time it is on display in a show, basically began in the Twentieth century, and came into fashion after the original King Tut show. For a smaller museum a blockbuster show ca be on a smaller scale, but if the artist or work catches the public attention, and the show is well curated it can impact a entire community, even the art world at large, plus if the show is for a living artist’s work, it can amazingly skyrocket a career.