Blockbusteritis Runs Rampant
Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan
it all about taste or is it all about money? It's taste according
Today, which frames the question as:
museums these days are pandering to the lowest common denominator,
confusing popular junk with high art, and failing their
mission to set standards and educate the public. Or they're
throwing over outdated and elitist concepts about art, making
it fun, bringing more people into museums, and teaching
them to see beauty in everyday objects. Either the barbarians
are at the gate, or they're already in, and, hey, they're
view might be considered the received wisdom, but an emerging
alternative dichotomy says that it's all about money - not
a culture war at all, then, but simply a battle for market
Ian Hunt offers a "back-of-the-envelope
thesis" in The Independent that "more spectacularised
forms of exhibition-making such as the Royal Academy's "Apocalypse"
have not had a beneficial knock-on effect on audiences for
a show such as [Brice] Marden's [at the Serpentine Gallery]
and might even be taking away from it…."
than bringing "more people into museums," blockbuster shows
like "Apocalypse" - in which, for example, Jeff
Koons' "Balloon Day" alone cost $1 million to produce - may
simply be bringing a larger portion of the same number of
people into the richest few museums.
Kimball in New Criterion sees us
perhaps nearing the end of a period in which "the curious
logic that subordinated aesthetic to political considerations…meant
that while possessing a museum became a badge of social respectability,
'respectability' itself had become a deeply suspect idea."
attachment to respectability aside, there is no quarreling
with his observation that many towns and campuses that once
did nicely without an art museum have lately concluded that
must have one.
has the growth in these new facilities been matched by any
growth in the aggregate audience for art? Australia's National
Association of Visual Arts reports
a 16% decline in income for artists during the decade
1988-1998, a decade during which the number of artists grew
at an annual rate of 5% and a museum construction boom occurred
are clearly more artists and more museums, but are there so
clearly more art-lovers and - not least - art-buyers as well?
The UK's Manchester City Art Gallery will reopen in 2002 after
a four-year, £25 million facelift. In the interim, the Tate
Modern, which expected 3.5 million visitors in its first year,
has been surprised by attendance of 4 million.
view of this, should the Manchester Gallery raise its attendance
estimate by an eighth or more? Perhaps,
but perhaps not. A close analysis of Manchester's 1998
attendance (just before closing for renovation) showed that
the 250,000 annual attendance consisted in good part of the
same 30,000 people attending again and again.
Ian Hunt's thesis might suggest that the success of the Tate
Modern, rather than portending comparable success for the
Manchester Gallery, will siphon off some of those 30,000 regulars
unless the Manchester can come up with the millions necessary
to "spectacularise" its offerings.
it in the fin-de-siècle museum world seems to require not
just a strong collection but a deep well of venture capital,
rather in the manner of the movie industry. "The
art exhibition has become one of our favourite treats,"
reports The Guardian. "Orgies of hype and merchandising,
blockbuster shows are the cultural equivalent of a royal wedding
or the World Cup - spectacles that make us feel part of a
community of chat, deciding that, yes, we really do all feel
that late Monet is as fascinating if not more so than the
Monet of the 1870s."
In this joust of giants, the venture-capital stage - already
upon us in the globalization
of Thomas Krens' Guggenheim enterprise - is the stage of mergers
and buyouts. But as the big merge into the bigger, will
the small perish as their share of a finite audience shrinks
below the survival level? And at that point, should it be
reached, what will happen to scholarship and even to simple
assumption on either side of the Kulturkampf divide, to give
that hypothesis its due, seems to be that the importance of
learning is doomed to shrink. As The New York Times
notes: "A more fundamental question [but not really a question
for the Times]…is how much the [redesigned British]
Museum's rush to modernize itself will threaten its scholarly
Walsh, emeritus director of the Getty as of October, 2000,
has spent the first months of his retirement visiting museums,
including, in particular, enormous new facilities such as
the Trade Fair Palace in Prague and the Tate Modern in London.
struck him about both was the absence of seating and the
resulting, quite literal restlessness, a mood that says "Move
cultural struggle, then, may be broader even than that between
art-as-entertainment and art-as-contemplation. What does the
typical visitor seek in a museum? Is everyman's ideal exhibit
exciting, or is it calming? If this is overwhelmingly the
era of the exciting exhibit, then is there a future at all
for museums, especially smaller museums, whose message is
not "Move along now" but "Calm down"?
for reasons of taste or of money, it does not look that way.
opinions, reactions, suggestions?
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Part II: "A Cure forBlockbusteritis?"
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