A reader writes, apropos of my posting
on crowds at the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Manet and the Sea”:
An ex-student of mine is now a senior staffer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I ran into
him at the catastrophically crowded Da Vinci drawing show of last spring,
having just come from the much better crowd-managed blockbuster at MOMA
Queens. I none-too-gently asked him how the Met could have done such a
ruinous job of anticipating and managing the Leonardo mania. His theory:
Philippe [i.e., Philippe de Montebello, director of the Met] wanted it that way.
According to this gentleman, Philippe thought
it looked bad for the museum that the Jackie O fashion display should be
most crowded show of recent times, much more popular than the epic Vermeer
show alongside at the same time. It was thus in the Director’s interest
that an exhibit of “fine” art should also give the Met that appearance of
all the world wanting to see what it had to show. Crowds, publicity,
all this for a hundred tiny pieces of paper from a long-dead Italian (when
was the last blockbuster drawing show?) – this at least was his theory.
it been more managed, the appearance of popular frenzy would have been
less dramatic, his thinking went.
Whether true or not, the fact is the Leonardo show was the most egregious
example in my experience of body count burying art. The Met made it even
worse by encouraging the use of magnifying glasses, thus ensuring even
battles for the one favored viewing position that would end up blocking
everyone else. As you know, the Met hasn’t ticketed a blockbuster in
and whatever we might think of the phenomenon itself, a ticketed
(assuming a reasonable allotment of tickets per hour) sure beats a
That’s why I blog. How can I top a letter like this? The Italians have a saying: Si non e vero, e ben trovato (roughly, “If it’s not true, it ought to be”). Whether or not de Montebello really had such considerations in mind, consciously or otherwise, who can doubt that the Blockbuster Mentality permeates and contaminates the thinking of all similarly placed museum executives?
Once again, I’m not saying that All Blockbusters Are Bad. I am, however, saying something less clear-cut but more important: Bigger Isn’t Better. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, and the difference matters–a lot.