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Ah, Manet: Blockbuster in Content, But Not As A Draw

I don’t know when I fell in love with Manet’s work. Was it when I first saw The Railway? Olympia? A Bar at the Folies-Bergère? The Balcony? In the Conservatory (below, left)? I once had a poster of The Grand Canal of Venice (Blue Venice). Or was it when I saw them all together, in 1983, when a sweeping exhibit in honor of the centenary of his death, organized by Charles Moffett and Francois Cachin (and with a catalogue to match), was on view at the Metropolitan Museum?

In_the_Conservatory_ManetAlas, being one of my favorite artists does not mean Manet is a household name. So I have watched from afar the Toledo Museum of Art’s recent Manet: Portraying Life exhibition with my fingers crossed for its success. The show was a joint production between Toledo and the Royal Academy in London, and it brought together some 40 portraits by Manet — the first show focused on his portraits. Toledo has long owned one of the best, Antonin Proust, from 1880 (see it here), and it borrowed the rest from museums around the world. When I mentioned the exhibit to a New York-based art connoisseur last spring, he told me Toledo couldn’t do it — so precious are Manet’s pictures — before I could finish the sentence saying it had. Kudos to Toledo.

After that buildup, how did it do? Measured by attendance, not as good as hoped. The Toledo Museum tells me that the exhibition drew just shy of 47,000 people, a tad below the target of 50,000, during its run from Oct. 7 through Jan. 1.  On the other hand, critics liked it and 94 percent of the 2,972 visitors who filled out the museum’s exit survey rated it “Excellent” or “Very Good.”

manet-artThe museum is undertaking a thorough evaluation of the exhibition, but in the meantime, here are some things Toledo says it has learned:

  • Because of Manet, the museum opened, for the first time, on New Year’s Day (warming my heart) and “We are most likely going to be open on New Year’s Day from now on because of the positive response from the public and good attendance.”
  • “We sold more than 1,000 Museum memberships during the run of the show, including 113 memberships at the $1000 or above level, adding to our existing base of 6,500 members.”
  • “Our retail store and café did exceptionally well, with gross revenue increases of 33 percent (retail) and 52 percent (café) respectively over the same period last year.”
  • “Nearly 20 percent of our attendance came in the last seven days of the show. Overall Museum attendance in December (37,757) was the highest since the opening of the Glass Pavilion in December 2006.”
  • About 75 percent of our visitors came from Ohio, the rest came from 38 states and several foreign countries.

The museum says it faced a headwind in the media because of the presidential election, with Ohio being perhaps the swing state at stake. “It was impossible for us to get on television and lots of potential visitors simply were overloaded with media,” the press office said.

Two more bits of context:  Color Ignited: Glass 1962–2012, which did not require tickets (Manet did) and ran for about the same time, drew 40,306 last summer. And The Egypt Experience:Secrets of the Tomb, which ran over nearly 14 months and was ticketed, drew 39,906. So Manet, less sexy than Egypt, usually, still did better.

I know this won’t discourage Toledo from organizing serious shows in the future. But I wish Manet would receive the recognition from the general public that he so deserves.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch (bottom)



  1. Josh Reynolds says:

    I have been dealing in paintings for over 40 years and election years are a nightmare … always.
    Manet is a brilliant presence among the Impressionists but perhaps not to the public at large. Considering the exhibition was in Toledo I am impressed that they picked up 113 $1,000. memberships. Go Toledo!

  2. Carol Fineberg says:

    It is interesting that there are no stats shared involving visits from middle and high school students and teachers (public, private, publicly supported charter schools). As a kid who grew up in New York, I had exposure to Manet numerous times on both class visits and independent trips to the Met. And as an arts and humanities educator (working with schools but no longer teaching in them) I remember vividly the great Manet show at the Met and the opportunities for teachers to learn more about this extraordinary artist. As a result, I never had the usual problem of mixing up Manet and Monet! More important, I began to look at paintings in a different and more informed way. I wonder what was done for teachers and students in Toledo.

  3. The real success is that they built their membership; this is a hard task given the economic climate and they therefore added 113K into their coffers which is great. Though I didnt see the show and hope to see it in London-easy to get to London from NYC than Ohio these days-the catalogue which I did buy demonstrated that this is a brilliant show by an equally brilliant master and the real pity is that it did not come east to NY, Philadelphia, Boston or Brooklyn?

  4. Judith. exciting news coming on Tuesday! ‘EXHIBITION: Great Art on Screen’ is launched – and the first 90-minute in -depth film to hit the screens will be the above-referenced MANET exhibition from the Royal Academy, London. We’re not filming live (it undermines the editorial and makes it too frivolous), there will be much more time on the paintings, biography of Manet and expert opinion. This is a monumental task and in the face of broadcaster indifference, we are focusing solely on cinemas. More at but Judith, I’ll send you a private preview copy! I value enormously your blogs and will value enormously your comments. Phil G.

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