The 'Art' of the Blockbuster Exhibit

The ‘Art ‘ of the Blockbuster Exhibit


The popularity of blockbuster exhibits has given pause to many serious art aficionados. The name itself—‘blockbuster’—seems incongruous, raising up noisy, even rambunctious crowds clamouring to see a chief event. In add-on, ‘blockbusting’ has an alternate significance of profiteering, which surely does small to add decorousness to the juncture. The primary job may be that the chief event isartSerious art frequenters do non breeze through exhibits at breakneck velocity, and many would abound at the idea of being hurried through a show. There are a figure of unsolved issues inherent in the construct of blockbuster exhibits. There are telling statements in favour of them, and every bit convincing—sometimes rather vituperative—arguments against them. This paper will look at some of the major statements for and against what seems to hold become an recognized gallery event in this century.


A immense portion of the art world—and one might even reason, the individual most of import factor that keeps art alive and preserved—is money. However, it is a subject seldom touched on. It about seems as though to speak about art and money in the same conversation somehow detracts from, or denigrates, art itself. Most people know that amounts with multiple figures are about ever involved in any treatment of art or art-related subjects. However, most of them seem to prefer non to hear about it. It is as though art exists on a different degree of world for many people. And since the art ‘business ‘ has tended to be less commercially inclined than other concerns, it has merely helped to further this separation between the concern of art and the plants of humanistic disciplines themselves. When museumgoers and other art frequenters are non invariably reminded that museums need a beginning of gross to maintain operations fluxing swimmingly, it is easy to bury the demand exists at all. Interviewed on the topic, Andrea Rich, president of the Los Angeles Museum of Art, put it this manner: ‘People who love art do n’t wish to see that there ‘s a concern behind it. . . . They like to believe there is a great subsidy from the sky to let us to make this without bear downing these monetary values. I wish it were that manner, excessively — but it ‘s non ‘ ( quoted in Dobrzynski, 1998 ) .

Museums, excessively, have grown more witting of fund-raising demands. As Dobrzynski points out, museum conservators and plan managers ‘have begun to look around, seeing that symphonic musics, theatres and athleticss centres [ are ] bear downing high admittance monetary values as a affair of class ‘ ( Dobrzynski 1998 ) . Recognizing this may hold had something to make with the addition in the figure of blockbuster exhibits every bit good. Looking at art as a signifier of amusement for which compensation is due may non popular with some, but it is surely a valid position: a service is provided ( in this instance, amusement ) ; a fee is charged—only now that fee is closer to the monetary value ranges charged at other events.

Not merely is at that place a concern behind art—it is an expensive concern. The last two decennaries have seen a crisp addition in art monetary values. This does non merely intend that the plants of art themselves have become more dearly-won ; the apparently infinite figure of inside informations involved in seting together a show have increased every bit good. Most people realize that there is a great trade more to mounting an exhibit than hanging pictures on a wall and printing tickets—but do they recognize the existent extent of the attempt involved? Insurance for the graphics itself must be considered, every bit good as extra security throughout the continuance of the exhibit. Those are two major disbursals. Add to this inside informations such as shipping—and once more, sing against bad lucks en path ; planing and publishing up catalogues ; advertisement ; ticket design and printing ; design and production of exhibit-related points. Finally, there is the cost of the points to be displayed: pieces are frequently culled from a figure of aggregations, private and public, and the fees exchanged are kept up secrets: ‘Participation fees, the term used for sharing the closely restrained costs of forming and borrowing plants, have besides risen steeply ‘ ( Dobrzynski 1998 ) .

Furthermore, it is non merely that monetary values have increased in recent old ages. It is besides that the rise in cost has forced managers and conservators to concentrate more attending on budgetary affairs. Harmonizing to Dobrzynski, ‘before costs rose so much, museums mostly ignored pricing scheme or set ticket monetary values on a seat-of-the-pants footing, partially because they did non seek to tie in the money spent on an exhibition with what it brought in’ ( 1998 ) . But these yearss, museums are turning far more sophisticated and financially cognizant, and they are recognizing that to remain afloat, they need to bring forth an income.

Puting the Precedent: ‘Early ‘ Blockbuster Exhibits

Some consider the first King Tut exhibition, in 1976, as the case in point for what we now call ‘blockbuster’ exhibits ( NPR ) . Others believe this type of exhibit truly became a portion of the art scene two decennaries subsequently, with the 1996 Cezanne retrospective in Philadelphia. That exhibit, which attracted about 550,000 people at a rate of more than $ 15 per ticket ( Dobrzynski, 1998 ) , seemed to put the tone for future exhibits. More and more museums toyed with the construct, with the format, with the selling, and of class, with the monetary value. And when it continued to pay off, the construct spread.

However, while there may be a cardinal exhibit that marks the beginning of the blockbuster ‘movement’ , the factors that led to its even being possible were developing all along. In his book,Narratives from the Crypt,Richard Feigen reflects on half a century of art collection and dealing. He describes what he calls ‘the changing of the guard’ , the gradual alteration in leading from coevals to coevals that led to museums being run by trust donees who had small or no involvement in art. That, combined with the economic effects of the Viet Nam War, temporarily stunted the growing of museums. Under the protections of legal guardians whom John Hess has described as ‘ignorant about art’ , determinations were made by managers whose dockets may hold been driven as much by fiscal addition as anything else ( Hess, 1974: p. 3 ) .

Arguments Against: Cultural Elitism

Feigen notes his reaction to seeing streamers in forepart of the Metropolitan Museum in 1997. The first read ‘HAUTE COUTURE’ . A few yearss subsequently, the second was in topographic point: ‘FABERGE IN AMERICA’ . ‘The grand establishment was now prosecuting crowds and large money with manner and kitsch disguised as high art’ ( 2000: p. 109 ) . In instance one might believe this were an aberrance of some kind, he describes the streamer, precisely one twelvemonth subsequently, denoting an exhibit of fashion designer Versace’s work, observing that though Versace was really gifted, ‘the inquiry remains as to whether couture is a serious topic for a great museum’ ( 2000: p. 109 ) . Doubtless, it was an event sure to pull crowds, scheduled after Versace’s sensational and ill-timed decease in Florida.

Feigen’s reaction here brings to mind the ‘profiteering’ definition of the blockbuster construct. Capitalizing on a sensational slaying is nil new, particularly from yellow journalisms. But the Versace exhibit was a spot much for some who have a instead purist attack to art. Still, worry about the pick of exhibits was non baseless. There were some who worry that the tide would turn the other manner, and that merely the greats would happen their manner into major shows ‘Museums should non merely plan what is popular, lest the consequence be all shows about Monet, new wave Gogh, the Impressionists, Picasso, Egypt and gold ‘ ( Dobrzynski 1998 ) .

‘Super-sized ‘ Art

Much of the concern about artist choice seems to hold died down these yearss. In its topographic point, there are other concerns, such as specifying the mission of the museum: what, precisely, are museums seeking to make? Although a straightforward reply to this inquiry is non easy to happen, there are still legion sentiments about methodological analysis, peculiarly in footings of size. Are museums, and creative persons, seeking to ‘super-size ‘ art? There are those who think museums are seeking to make excessively much. ‘Nowadays, museums build bigger edifices and raise immense impersonal add-ons to house uneven aggregations. . . . Museums are going architectural attractive forces in and of themselves. But is bigger better? Is more more? ‘ ( Saltz 2004 ) .

Surely the inclination of society these days—at any rate, of popular culture—would have us all believing the bigger, the better—but why does art necessitate to follow that tendency? Tristram Hunt, excessively, bemoans the curatorial world’s inclination to ‘super-size ‘ and offer ‘ever more high-profile impermanent exhibitions’ ( 2004 ) . Part of the intent of a museum, after all, is to supply an country of repose, a puting free of distraction, so that the attending is where it should be: on the art. Yes, it is a topographic point that welcomes the populace, but that need non intend it has to gratify to the lowest common denominator. A museum has a deeper map, notes Hunt ; it is ‘a topographic point of contemplation free from the mundane maelstrom’ , ‘a populace sphere with a different ethos to the marketplace’ ( 2004 ) .

There are issues more complex than mere size, nevertheless, as Saltz goes on to indicate out, and they have to make with the nature of art itself, and an individual’s relationship with it. ‘Too many conservators seem to desire to learn or prophesy to us ; many are more interested in being humanitarians than in making good by art. It ‘s as if they do n’t believe art is up to making people on its ain ‘ ( Saltz 2004 ) . The literature, negotiations, and commentary made available by museums are meant, of class, to enrich the experience—but how much is excessively much, and when does commentary turn into ‘preaching ‘ ?

In add-on to this, there are museums which now offer commentary displayed on picture proctors, which are placed, of course, near to the work of art itself. This evidently detracts from the art itself, and from the sing experience as a whole. But even without a picture show, the written affair provided comes under fire by some. ‘One gets the feeling that for many people in charge of museums and exhibitions these yearss, art is non plenty. Its powers of communicating are non to be trusted ‘ , notes Roberta Smith ( 2000 ) . It does at times seem that people no longer cognize how to detect without some extra input ; this is the consequence of social scheduling: an inability to believe fresh ideas, chiefly because of the outlook that those ideas will be provided for you. ‘Putting outstanding illustrations of it on position without either extended commentary or high-concept production values can no longer be justified ‘ ( Smith 2000 ) . This may do one wonder what the point of art is, or what it has grown to intend. Is it simply a sage fiscal investing? Is it a ‘trapping’ of civilization? And are today’s witnesss incapable of measuring it without the aid of commentary?

The Curatorial View

Of class, conservators and plan managers see the add-on of commentary as an educational tool, or an enhancement—but decidedly as a asset. Harmonizing to the frailty president of instruction and public plans and senior conservator of modern and modern-day art of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ‘ ” by exposing the museum-going audience to exhibitions that present art in relation to its societal, political and historical context, the populace will turn to value graphicss as more than timeless, transcendent or cosmopolitan objects of beauty that speak for themselves ‘ ” ( quoted in Smith ) . One might react here that the populace does non necessitate to be patronized, and that moreover, we are absolutely able to set art in its societal, political and historical context—or not—of our ain will. As Smith remarks, ‘what she does n’t state is that instead than contextualize things in a manner that might let the objects to talk for themselves, or the viewing audiences to believe for themselves ‘ ( 2000 ) .

Subterranean Motivations: Membership

An admitted subterranean motivation is admitted by some museum decision makers, who believe that blockbuster exhibits will at least acquire people in the forepart door—and closer to rank. Members get a few particular privileges for their fees, and in that sense, they pay for themselves with a few visits. ”Membership leads to a high-quality relationship, ” said Malcolm Rogers, the manager of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. ”We do n’t desire people to be exhibition drug addicts ; we want them in all the galleries ” ‘ ( quoted in Dobrzynski 1998 ) .

Recommendations for Change

To counter the high monetary values of blockbuster exhibit admission—or at least to do them worthwhile, it has been suggested that museum implement ways to heighten the visit itself. For illustration, widening the day of the months of the exhibit might ease the force per unit area people feel to see an exhibit before it is gone. The possibility of widening museum hours during particular exhibits is another thought that might do the experience non merely more accessible, but the visits themselves might be less engorged. And, eventually, there is the thought of having smaller exhibits that would still pull a crowd ; this would promote visits to other parts of the museum, and limit the defeat of wading through multitudes of people for drawn-out periods of clip.


It appears that museum functionaries are turning sophisticated about the costs of seting on exhibits ; many are making profit-and-loss analyses to find what works best. In add-on, they are looking at other signifiers of amusement as manner of measuring their ain admittance monetary values. Hence, it appears that blockbuster exhibits have a healthy hereafter. The unsolved issues sing blockbusters seem improbable to happen speedy or easy declarations. Compromise is ever possible, but misrepresentation is a more likely solution.

Are blockbusters here to remain? It seems most likely they are. They are, after all, successful selling. Possibly a name alteration would pacify those who find it hard to acquire past the unmanageable word with its indelicate dual ‘b ‘ . The name itself—‘blockbuster’—somehow seems to degrade the experience for many. In add-on, it does look to raise up unpleasant images, such as big, strident groups of over-enthusiastic fans. And there is the alternate significance of profiteering, which adds no entreaty at all. For if it is true that art lovers despise speaking of money, it may be every bit true that they’ll allow themselves to be duped into believing that a new exhibit name means the art world’s compulsion with money is at an end—and so we can all acquire back to the point, which is art.


Dobrzynski, Judith. 1998. ‘Blockbuster Shows and Prices to Match ; Museums ‘ Costss Just Keep on Rising ‘ .New York TimesNovember 10, 1998. Retrieved from

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Feigen, Richard. 2000.Narratives from the Art Crypt: The Painters, the Museums, theCurators, the Collectors, the Auctions, the Art.New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Hess, John. 1974.The Grand Acquisitors.Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hunt, Tristram. 2004. ‘A latte and a Picasso to travel ‘ .The Observer,February 15, 2004.

NPR transcript, ‘King Tut ‘ . Retrieved electronically from

hypertext transfer protocol: // storyId=4675421

Saltz, Jerry. 2004. ‘Living Large ‘ .

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Smith, Roberta. 2000. ‘Memo to Museums: Do n’t Give up on Art ‘ .New York Times,December 3, 2000.


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