Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Blockbuster noise in Canberra

So the National Gallery’s Masterpieces from Paris on loan from the Musee D’Orsay has finally closed after a marathon all night opening and an incredible 470,000 visitors. It has eclipsed the National Gallery of Victoria’s previous Australian exhibition attendance record of 371,000 for the 1994 exhibition of, you guessed it, Masterpieces from the Musee D’Orsay. I have blogged before about how good this exhibition was, and I am glad to see what a benefit it must have been to the Gallery’s bottom line. By my calculation, given the break even point was c 250,000 visitors (according to Ron Radford in the SMH April 2nd 2010,) the extra 220,000 visitors at $25 a pop must have provided a neat $5.5m gross profit.

But it raises again the question of the benefits or otherwise of blockbusters. I always used to think that blockbusters started with the Tutankhamen Exhibition at the British Museum in 1972, but for an indepth view of how long they have been around read The ephemeral museum: Old Master paintings the rise of the art exhibition By Francis Haskell.

Haskell shows that the first real blockbuster was the Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam in 1898, though certainly King Tut at the BM eclipsed all records with an incredible 1.7 million people seeing it over 9 months at an average of 7,000 a day. Other outstanding numbers have come from Monet at the Royal Academy in 1990 (658,000), and Titanic at the Florida International Museum in 1997 (830,000).

In terms of their pros and cons, check out a good summary in a paper that David Fleming ( Director of National Museums, Liverpool) gave at ICOM Seoul in 2004. Fleming identifies the pros as:
1) Lots of people come
2) Visitors get the chance to see things brought together, possibly for the first and only time
3) Blockbusters attract new visitors to the museum/gallery, who hopefully will return
4) They attract media coverage, raising the profile of the museum/gallery, and sponsorship
5) They make money ( not a given, but in the National Gallery’s case, lots of it)
6) They promote creativity and scholastic excellence amongst the museum/gallery’s staff.
And the cons as:
1) Blockbusters present a narrow range of subjects and seldom shed new light on history or art history
2) They lead to a dumbing down of the museum and its message, being developed primarily for entertainment rather than educational/cultural value
3) The necessary sponsorship can have unintended negative consequences for the museum
4) The actual experience of blockbusters is a poor one as success leads to overcrowding – this in turn means there can be no meaningful experience, and may dissuade repeat visits
5) The staff effort in mounting them distracts from their core work
6) Blockbusters create a treadmill, raising expectations amongst sponsors, media and the public which may be impossible to meet (interestingly Brian Kennedy, the previous director of the National Gallery dispensed with them , partly for this reason, having inherited a tradition of blockbusters from his predecessor Betty Churcher, fondly remembered as ‘Betty blockbuster ’)
7) Their success may persuade public funding bodies to reduce their support

I’m a blockbuster fan, I must admit, and I’m glad that the National Gallery can justifiably bask in the media and financial glory of this show. But at the same time they need to be acutely aware of the last two points.

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