The rush to the box office
Museums are feeding an addiction for shows that put works of art at risk and allow visitors no time to reflect
By Blake Gopnik. Attendance, Issue 245, April 2013
Published online: 28 March 2013
In Tokyo, 758,266 people rush to see the treasures of Holland’s Mauritshuis museum; in New York, 605,586 people view the photos of Cindy Sherman, by Cindy Sherman; 487,716 Parisians consider the American genius of Edward Hopper—these are just a few of the staggering attendance figures for recent exhibitions. Could there be any better sign of the health of our museums?
Unless we’re seeing symptoms of florid illness. Before he retired as the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Philippe de Montebello famously suggested that “museums have become so hyperactive that banners furled and unfurled on museum façades do not indicate, I’m afraid, the glow of health, but rather the flush of fever”. The quaint old notion of the museum as a haven for the contemplation of the art it owns has given way to the museum as a cog in the exhibition-industrial complex. Today’s museums are more or less required to put on an endless list of exhibitions, to satisfy show-addicted visitors, critics (mea culpa), sponsors, trustees, politicians and, especially, bean-counters. De Montebello rang the tocsin back in 2003, but exhibitionitis remains as pandemic as ever. Even a quite partial list of the most important shows at the world’s most important museums (in The Art Newspaper’s The Year Ahead 2012 magazine) now stretches on for almost 100 pages. As I sit writing in New York, the Met is hosting 16 exhibitions in its hallowed halls and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has the same number again, all begging for the public’s attention. For today’s visitor, the first question on entering a museum is “what do you have on?”—as though we’ve all forgotten that the most important thing a museum “has on” is the art it owns.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, Francis Haskell, the late and very great historian of taste, warned in a famous essay that exhibitions “are now replacing museums as the principal vehicles for the transmission of visual culture”, and went on to launch a jeremiad against the change.
Haskell cited the physical risks run by works of art every time they are moved; as recently as 2008, at the National Gallery in London, a panel painting was dropped and broken as workers took down the great “Renaissance Siena” show. We also have to worry about the wear and tear that will diminish every well-travelled picture or sculpture. (Conservators wouldn’t fill in condition reports on every loan if there had never been a thing to note on their forms.)
Haskell also complained that the scholarly justification for a show can be camouflage for the “reasons of politics and prestige as much as of finance” that are its actual, proximate cause. He asked a rhetorical question: “Does anything of lasting significance help to compensate for risks that are too painful to contemplate and for energies and financial commitments that must seem desperately misplaced to anyone who believes that it is the duty of public collections not only… to make their possessions known and understood, but also to care for them with the skill and devotion that are now under increasing threat throughout the world?” We know the answer he expected—and which we still need to consider, 23 years later.
Even conservators, supposed to be the first line of defence against threats to our art, are made to bow to the exhibition imperative. One senior conservator told me about an exhibitions meeting where a show was proposed that would have put works at risk. When she baulked at the suggestion, the curator said that the need for new shows trumped everything else, and that the conservation department would simply have to decide which works would be “sacrificed”. (The conservator quit soon thereafter.)
Of course, there are exhibitions that do make necessary contributions to our thoughts about art, outweighing the hazards. These include MoMA’s current show on the origins of abstraction and “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-garde,” held last year at the Met and in 2011 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), which gave an insight into another crucial moment in Modern art. The list of worthwhile exhibitions is long, but it’s rivalled by the list of pointless shows now being put on. Exhibitions titled “Treasures of…” or “…from the Whatshisname Collection” are really about spreading the lending institution’s prestige or paying for its renovation, drawing crowds to the borrower and, of course, flattering collectors. I counted more than 50 such “treasure” and “collection” shows in The Art Newspaper’s exhibition listings for the single month of January 2012. (I half-expected to find a show called “Secrets of the Impressionist Pharaohs: Treasures from the Bill Gates Collection”.) Just showing the public some half-decent art is now seen as justification enough for a show—as though the unwashed masses don’t deserve the deep thought their betters might demand.
“For fear of seeming stodgy and old-fashioned, museums embrace entertainment—and I resist the notion of art as entertainment,” says Alexander Nagel, a professor of Renaissance art at New York’s Institute of Fine Arts (the CalTech of art history). One of the first courses he offered at the institute wasn’t on the art he loves and studies, but on the perils of the exhibition industry. (Disclosure: I gave a guest lecture on that course.) Works are being put at risk because they are being thought of as “frictionless and portable” images, like jpegs flowing down a wire, rather than as physical objects with a presence that makes demands on us. “Works of art are being sped up to the pace of mass communications, but that’s unrealistic and in fact pernicious,” Nagel says. He started planning his course soon after the financial meltdown of 2008, because he saw parallels between a deregulated Wall Street and the manic exhibition industry, both gripped by short-termism and oversimple notions of gain. The exhibition industry has turned art into a tradable service commodity—into a profit-making “event”, like the launch of a Hollywood movie—and jettisoned the notion of art as a durable cultural good.
As Haskell once pointed out, Spaniards waited for the better part of a day to get access to the mass “event” of a Velázquez show in the Museo Nacional del Prado, even though most of the pictures were normally on view in the Madrid museum’s uncrowded halls.
“We’re very cognisant of the energies exhibitions can bring,” said Colin Bailey, the chief curator of New York’s Frick Collection, when I met him at his museum, “and of course we’re aware of the effect that has on admissions.” The Frick is an unusually wealthy “house museum” that was once a symbol of the permanent collection at peace with itself, but has now had an active exhibition schedule for a while. The list includes landmark shows on figures such as the great Renaissance sculptors Andrea Riccio and Antico, and others on audience favourites such as Van Gogh and Picasso, which have little to do with the collecting of Henry Clay Frick but produce the novel sight of queues at his mansion’s gates. Bailey talks about the transformative power a serious exhibition can have—who could doubt it?—but also about how the Frick’s exhibitions “maintain a liveliness” in an institution with a century-old permanent collection that might otherwise come off as static.
Jeffrey Weiss, a senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, has long worked to restore the balance between collections and exhibitions. At the Guggenheim, his focus is the great Panza Collection of Minimal and conceptual art. “Exhibitions are the tail that wags the dog, now—or maybe they’re just the dog,” he says. Curators know that scholarship, and even art, may sometimes be neglected in the rush to build shows, “but we can’t afford not to do these things, so we look the other way”, he says. “Everyone has to stop feeding the industry, or no one will.” He explains that the condition is so systemic that it doesn’t even rise to consciousness as a “hot-button issue” when curators meet—especially because curators, too, have come to be measured, and to measure themselves, by the shows they put on and the crowds they draw.
Kerry Brougher, the chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, once told me that museums, now presided over by corporate board members and professional managers, have come to be treated “like a company that somehow needs to always be growing in order to appease its stockholders”, with exhibitions as the sole fuel for growth, and attendance as its measure. (One director has referred to shows as his museum’s “product”.)
Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, describes the “permanent state of emergency” that museums suffer once they are seized by exhibition frenzy, as shows spawn infrastructure that demands further shows. He cut his own museum’s exhibition programme by a third, he says, so his staff could refocus on the slower, more sustained business of tending the collection.
I think the damage done by the exhibition-industrial complex is even greater than any of the specifics mentioned so far. The utter dominance of exhibitions in our museum culture has profoundly changed the act of looking at art. When a great art object is doing its best work, there is a difficulty, an imponderability, a resistance to language that can force its viewers to do the hardest thinking they’ve ever done. A wander through a great permanent collection is a spur to that kind of experience, because the art just sits there, daring you to match wits with it. (My future as an art historian was sealed during a week spent in the Prado’s collection in my teens, in utter ignorance of what I was seeing, and in ever-growing fascination.) Permanent collections let you discover a work you know you’ll come back to again, Penny says, “and when you do, you expect to find something else in it”. In a special exhibition, however—or in exhibitionised permanent collections, which are becoming the norm—the art comes prepackaged around a theme or conceit to which it does obeisance. As a visitor, you’re asked to figure out where the art fits into the show’s argument, as though each work is part of the solution to a larger rebus. Once you’ve done that figuring out, you’ve finished with the work and can rush on to the next, or on to the next show on your list. The museum as library, where you choose what and how you will see, is being replaced by the museum as amusement park, with visitors strapped into the rides.
“It is a terrible thing to feel that you can never sit quietly and contemplate a great work of art,” Penny says. “What some people understand by excitement can be a problem.”
The writer has been the staff art critic at the Globe and Mail, the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine, and publishes his Daily Pic at BlakeGopnik.com and TheDailyBeast.com. He is at work on Andy Warhol: A Life as Art, to be published by Ecco for HarperCollins
To read the full 2012 attendance figures survey in Section 2 of the April edition, which includes exhibition rankings, extra features and analysis, subscribers can log in to our digital edition, or new readers can subscribe now for immediate access.
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