Sunday, September 24, 2023 Sep 24, 2023
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ARTS Chips off the Old Blockbuster

The big shows are packing the museums. But what ever happened to art for art’s sake?
By David Dillon |

You stand in line for five hours as the wind-chill factor drops to minus-20. Your cream cheese and olive sandwiches splinter in your pocket, your toes become only a memory. The woman behind you describes how two boys tried to snatch her purse, while in front, a man complains about having to pay a scalper $20 for his ticket. “But what could I do?” he asks. You envy friends who became members of the American Bar Association or the Harvard Alumni Association, just to get to the head of the line.

Just as you begin chapter 10 of Rich Man, Poor Man, the museum door opens and you’re swept inside, like a surfer caught between giant breaking waves. Closing fast from the rear are 100 leaderless Cub Scouts; up ahead are three busloads of green thumbs from the Sunnyvale Garden Club. Linger too long in front of the goddess Selket and the scouts will get you; rush ahead and you’ll disappear in a thicket of canes and tote bags. The lines outside the restrooms are only slightly shorter than those outside the museum. You’d love a cup of coffee, but you can’t get within 100 yards of the restaurant. The only refuge is the museum shop, where they probably don’t even take cash.

What started out to be an aesthetic experience has turned into a crash course in survival techniques. Everybody makes it through the Tut show eventually, but how many will want to go back a second time?

In a time of soaring costs, dwindling endowments, and belt-tightening measures like Proposition 13, art museums have had to go public in big ways just to keep the doors open. They can no longer depend on a handful of benefactors to make up deficits and underwrite ambitious exhibition programs. One solution: big shows like Tut, Pompeii, “The Splendor of Dresden,” and many others. Museum directors hope that by drawing in huge crowds, blockbusters will generate good will – and thereby broaden museums’ perilously narrow bases of support.

“Big shows are only part of what a museum is about,” says the Dallas Museum of Fine Art’s director, Harry Parker. “But they are an important part, because they tell the public that we have something here for everybody, not just a select few. Since Pompeii opened, we’ve noticed many new Zip codes turning up in the membership lists, and corporate donations have increased because employees are more aware of what we’re doing. On balance, the show has been a major plus for the useum.”

Other directors, like Alan Shestack of the Yale University Art Gallery, take a dimmer view.

“We’re still recovering from our 1976 exhibition of 18th- and 19th-century American paintings. The show cost $500,000 to produce – half our annual budget – and wore everyone out physically and emotionally. The building was overcrowded, the toilets didn’t work, security was impossible. After an initial period of exhilaration, the show became an ordeal. I know this sounds elitist, but there is a maximum number of people a museum can accommodate in one day before the aesthetic experience becomes nil for everyone. I don’t know exactly what that figure is, but I know it’s less than the 30,000 a day that are streaming through the Met.”

The blockbuster controversy is partly an elitist-populist debate, and partly a matter of cold cash. The National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, the government agencies that underwrite most of the big shows, are committed to making the arts relevant to as many people as possible. They insist that the blockbusters be distributed throughout the country, and with a few exceptions like the Met : and the National Gallery in Washington, a museum that ’gets one doesn’t get a second immediately thereafter. It’s a sensible policy, and judging by the box office, it works. “The Treasures of Tutankhamen” will play to over six million people before concluding its run; the Met expects “The Splendor of Dresden” to attract over one million visitors in 10 weeks. With Pompeii alone, the DMFA may surpass its annual attendance figure of 300,000.

Increases in membership are equally impressive. Thanks to Tut, membership at the New Orleans Museum of Art jumped from 3000 to 22,000. The current membership is 9000, a net gain of200 percent. The DMFA hopes to keep about 25 percent of its 10,000 new members, about the average nationally. 2500 times $25 sounds like a lot of money until one realizes that most of it is eaten up by the initial processing costs. Museums rarely make money on general memberships until the end of the second year, so it’s the repeat business that’s crucial. And that, presumably, is dependent on the quality of the experience a museum provides. Even the most conservative museum directors are not in favor of keeping the public out. What they are asking is whether a 30-sec-ond peek at Tut’s burial mask or a Pom-peiian fresco will make a visitor a serious supporter of the arts in general or merely a consumer for more blockbusters. Museums that focus only on head count are in danger of backing into show business.

Hype obviously separates the blockbuster of today from the big travelling shows of a few years past. Half of the objects in “The Treasures of Tutankhamen” were exhibited in the United States in the Fifties, when the term blockbuster meant “big bomb.” The show was popular but not “the art event of the century.” The same with “Peru’s Golden Treasures,” which drew very modest crowds to the DMFA 15 years ago but may attract 200,000 in New Orleans, where it has been packaged glamourously enough to catch the eyes even of Gray-Line and Holiday Inns.

By comparison, the recent Cezanne show, an art event of the first magnitude, was virtually ignored by the media because it lacked an easy P.R. hook. Almost by definition, a blockbuster needs a gimmick, and, if possible, words like “treasures,” “wonders,” and “splendor” in the title. Tut had this plus the allure of a boy pharaoh, an ancient civilization, and archaeological skullduggery. Unbeatable. Pompeii cashed in on everyone’s fascination with cataclysms, as does, to a lesser degree, “The Splendor of Dresden.”

Each of these shows can be justified in conventional aesthetic terms – exquisite objects, impeccably displayed. But as the clamor for spectacular shows increases, as it clearly will, so will the temptation to puff up every exhibition into a blockbuster, regardless of the nature and quality of the art involved. “The Other Egypt: The Arts of Nubia and Sudan,” a beautiful but scholarly show, is being ballyhooed as the Son of Tut, a disservice both to the art and the public. Haitian Art, due in New Orleans in September, is already being sold in terms of witchcraft and voodoo. Who knows what will happen once the Chinese really get into the act? Then there are the paintings of Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. The list of potential blockbusters is endless. One would assume that museums would stop short of outright prostitution, yet when the Chicago Art Institute agreed to chip away a section of its facade in order to hang a Pompeii banner, anything became possible.

Another way to measure the impact of the blockbusters is to observe the expanded role of museum shops. Once considered mainly a service to members and visitors, many shops have become supermarkets selling everything from chic toschlock. The Met shop grosses between $6 and $7 million annually, and during the combined visit of Tut and Dresden it looked like a branch of Macy’s: Visitors could shop, snack, and never even have to see the show. In a normal, non-blockbuster year, the DMFA’s shop takes in about $100,000. This year, the Pompeii market alone is expected to gross nearly $400,000 from the sale of laurel-leaf necklaces ($1500), Pompeii putti ($30-$110), playing cards, puzzles, ash trays, and even small satin pillows with a silk-screened image of Lucius Mammius Maximus. If the weather holds and deliveries are on schedule and there are no strikes, the shop will sell 15,000 posters, 43,000 catalogues, 15,000 t-shirts, 4000 mugs, and who knows how many “Pompeii is a Blast” bumper stickers.

Instead of being just an additional source of income, the shop is paying most of the museum’s cost of bringing Pompeii to Dallas: It’s the key to solvency. Commenting on this national trend, Mitchell Wilder, director of the Amon Carter, says, “The need for the dollar is becoming so urgent in some museums that they’ve decided to let the shops do pretty much what they like. They’re getting so heavily into retailing and merchandising that one begins to wonder if museums are more interested in counterfeit art than the real thing.”

The impact of all this on the internal operations of America’s museums is still difficult to determine. Smaller museums like the DMFA have had to remove their permanent collections in order to accommodate the big shows, a situation that angers many regular supporters. Conservation and scholarship, two cornerstones of a serious museum, also tend to suffer during blockbusters as everyone’s attention is directed to tours and promotions. So does staff morale. “I wasn’t hired to sell tickets or sweep floors or unplug toilets,” says one curator in New Orleans, “but that’s about all I’ve been doing for the past eight months. Big shows can demoralize a staff by making it unclear what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Says another: “We’re all under tremendous pressure from directors and boards to come up with a show that sells, as though that were the only thing that mattered. Nobody seems to be asking if these big shows are really increasing visual literacy. We’re in danger of forgetting that art is supposed to be life-enhancing and not just a series of jolts to the nervous system.”

Hardest-pressed may be curators of contemporary art, who could find it difficult to make a case for tough, original shows, which will be expensive and almost certainly won’t draw large crowds. For a few dollars more, a museum could acquire a road-tested show that would put it in the spotlight, and quite possibly in the black. The pressure to be popular is making it difficult for all but the wealthiest museums to offer balanced exhibition programs.

How far can a museum go in promoting the arts without turning itself into an exhibition hall? This is probably the key question raised by blockbusters. By making museums more dependent on marketing, advertising, and public relations personnel, the big shows are increasing costs to the point that the only way to stay afloat may be to have another, and another, and another. New Orleans made $80,000 on Tut, which it put into a building fund, but may have to dip into its operating budget to pay for “Peru’s Golden Treasures.” Still, it has two more big shows scheduled for this year and is considering several others for 1980-81. The DMFA, which has no more blockbusters lined up, hopes to break even on Pompeii, whereas both Los Angeles and Chicago reportedly lost money on Tut.

But if the financial risks are high, so arethe aesthetic ones. There is certainlynothing wrong with marketing the arts,provided the appeal isn’t always to thelowest common denominator. Yet as museum programs become more a part of acity’s convention package, the greater thechance that artistic decisions will be madeby the Chamber of Commerce instead ofthe museum staff. Lost in all the hoopla isthe traditional idea that the most important art experiences are usually privateand solitary – one viewer and one objectin dialogue. As visitors to Tut, Pompeii,Dresden, and the other big shows havediscovered, mobs make this kind ofdialogue difficult.