Cure for Blockbusteritis?
to Cure American Art Museums of the Blockbuster Syndrome
any given year, some art museums have huge attendance at blockbuster
exhibits that for one reason or another - be they Cezanne
or motorcycles or Armani - strike a chord with the public.
Other museums, meanwhile, have much smaller attendance at
worthy and intellectually original exhibits that are neither
blockbusters nor sensations.
big attendance means big revenue, the pressure toward obeying
rather than shaping the public taste in art grows ever larger.
You can fight city hall rather easily, to tell the truth,
but you can't so easily fight the market. And, in recent years,
as arts organizations have tried to justify their value with
economic impact studies designed to show their popularity
and relevance, a fat box office becomes even more important.
those who surrender to it tend to make virtue of their necessity.
The debates about popular culture invading "high" art are
old now. Even so, when complaints arise
about popular art displacing high art, the complainers are
dismissed as elitist.
complaints arise that even the high art shown has become boring
by over-exposure, elitism is again the counter-charge: Our
circus may be boring to the pampered few, comes the reply,
but not to the suffering many, who have yet to see the circus
certainly, however, the elitism-populism debate obscures a
deeper tension. The market system just described - roughly,
the American system - is
one in which the rich museums get richer and the poor get
rich, however, do not want to defend the system for that reason,
any more than the poor want to complain about it for that
what would be the effect if at the end of a given year, American
museums all turned their revenues over for equitable redistribution
by an agreed-upon arbiter? In that case, no outré curator
need be banned from mounting a righteous exhibit on, say,
professional wrestling, but no museum's bottom line would
fatten up if such a show packed them in.
In America, yes, but not everywhere. A system combining artistic
laissez-faire for the curators with a socialization of the
revenues would create in the United States a semblance of
the current French system.
France, which has been taking stock of its own museum scene
this month as the eminent Françoise Cachin retires after seven
years as Director of the Museums of France, a remarkable redistributive
function is performed by an entity called the Réunion des
is understood that the largest Parisian museums - the Louvre,
Versailles, the Musée d'Orsay - will always have disproportionately
high revenues, but a péréquation des entrées, a carefully
regulated annual redistribution of attendance revenue, permits
the richer few to subsidize the poorer many all around the
the richest museums are not entirely happy with this arrangement.
An explosion in the construction and renovation of provincial
museums in France has simultaneously increased the need for
the RMN and increased resistance to it.
fortunately, museum support has increased at the municipal
level and though the Direction des musées de France already
provides the provincials an amazing 40% of construction costs
and 50% of art acquisition costs, many of these institutions
centralized system, as a result, is under pressure from both
sides. And yet even if the French system is showing a few
cracks, it remains an interesting model.
that any proposal to create such a system in the United States
would be dead on arrival at Capitol Hill, revenue-strapped
American museums in a big city or a metropolitan region might
still choose to create some semblance of it on their own.
things stand, every museum has to get up and boogie every
year or risk being thrown out by the market bouncer. But if
revenues could be pooled, then this year museum X could do
the wrestling show boogie, while museum Y did a whisper-quiet
the end of the year, they could pool their revenues, and next
year they could exchange roles. An insane idea, of course,
but perhaps no less insane that the current high-stakes, big-budget
competition for a population of middlebrow American museum-goers
that simply has not grown apace with museum construction.
choice, in short, may not be between sanity and insanity but,
to quote Benjamin Franklin, between hanging together and hanging
separately. Pooling revenues may not be the best and certainly
is not the only way to hang together, but the cash-strapped
museums of the United States are separately no match for the
author's name is withheld by request.
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