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Taste or Money?
Blockbusteritis Runs Rampant

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

Is it all about taste or is it all about money? It's taste according to USA Today, which frames the question as:

"Art 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 Or they're throwing over outdated and elitist concepts about art, making it fun, bringing more people into museums, and teaching them to see beauty in everyday objects.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 not barbarians."

This 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 share.

Thus, 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…."

Rather 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.

Roger 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."

Kimball's 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 they simply must have one.

But 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 as well.

There 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.

In 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.

Worse, 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.

Making 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 contemplation?

The 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 mission."

John 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. What struck him about both was the absence of seating and the resulting, quite literal restlessness, a mood that says "Move along now."

The 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"?

Whether for reasons of taste or of money, it does not look that way.

Letters, opinions, reactions, suggestions?
Send your e-mail to mclennan@artsjournal.com

Next week:

Part II: "A Cure forBlockbusteritis?"

Additional Reading:

Blockbusteritis story archive (34 stories)

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