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.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Contemporary Art and Conservation Ethics

A useful book has hit the materials conservation literature shelf – not a very large shelf at present, reflecting to my mind the relative paucity of thinking around the philosophy and practice of materials conservation. Entitled Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths, (edited by Alison Richmond and Alison Bracker; Butterworth-Heinemann 2009) it has largely grown out of discussions generated within the Victoria and Albert Museum’s conservation department. It includes an excellent chapter by our own Marcelle Scott of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, comparing the very different history and approach taken to the conservation of indigenous cultural material in Australia with that in New Zealand (to the detriment in her view of the former).

It also includes an outstanding chapter from Jonathan Ashley-Smith (former head of conservation at the V&A) entitled ‘ The Basics of Conservation ethics’. It should be a must-read for all conservators. Jonathan always writes well, if quirkily – his short bio gives an indication of this: “Jonathan first wrote about conservation ethics in 1982 when he was young and his views were rigid and idealistic. He is now older.” His premise is that there is not one set of ethics that fits all conservation decisions and that we should tolerate diversity.

But it is the chapters on the ethical considerations around the conservation of contemporary art that particularly caught my attention. What DO you do when trying to ensure the long term preservation of an artwork when it is made out of, wait for it, film, video, photography, self-lubricating plastic, Vaseline and salt (Matthew Barney or parts of a Jeep Cherokee, peanuts, bottle caps, balsa wood, mai tai umbrellas and aspirin (Sarah Sze)? The answer seems to be to establish a different time horizon, i.e. where conservation normally tries to preserve things in perpetuity, the lifespan for such contemporary artworks might be more like ten years.

I was reminded of the conservation dilemmas around the Anish Kapoor molten wax artwork I saw last year at the Royal Academy in London. Kapoor has just won the gig for a 115 metre high major sculpture outside the new London Olympics stadium. Interestingly he pipped Andy Goldsworthy to the post, and Goldsworthy is featured in this book for a clay installation he undertook in 2007 called White Walls, as an example of an anethical installation. Anethical? I think they mean beyond ethics by which to guide the conservation i.e. neither ethical nor not ethical. Doesn’t help me as a word, I must say, but what I love about it is the story.

Goldsworthy conceived of the idea of plastering a large room with c 8,500 kg of wet porcelain clay, the idea being that the room would 'deinstall' itself, as the clay dried and cracked and gradually delaminated from the wall. The clay would then be recycled and reinstalled in future incarnations, thus linking the successive installations and the memory of each activity. What actually happened is that a process expected to take some weeks started immediately and was almost complete in five days. With it the clay also stripped off five and half years of paint layers, revealing traces of previous installations by other artists. Not only did this create a quite different form of art work, but the large lumps of clay falling with a dull thud became a shocking but compelling piece of kinetic art in themselves.

Now there is a conservation challenge.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Building Museum Revenue

Whilst the worst of the GFC may be behind us, the effects of it are going to be long lasting in the museum sector. No major capital works are in the pipeline, even in the two most likely organizations, the Queensland Museum (now the only Brisbane South Bank institution that has not had major new buildings in the last ten years) and the Western Australian Museum (still reeling from the cancellation of its $450 m Swan River power station revitalization and relocation).
So we are going to have to think more ingeniously about how we drive both capital works and new revenues.
A new book I have come across Museums, Libraries and Urban Vitality; a Handbook (Edited by Roger L.Kemp and Marcia Trotta. McFarland and Co 2008) intrigued me. It gives examples of no less than 43 US urban projects where museums and libraries have been important economic drivers. Particularly interesting is the concept of including museums in broader retail and commercial developments. The Daniel Libeskind- designed wing at the Denver Art Museum includes 56 apartments (known as Museum Residences), and the Newseum in Washington DC also includes apartments and a high- end restaurant. It reminds me of the abortive plan to incorporate a hotel in the new Sydney Cricket Ground grandstand, and then let out the rooms on match days. Whilst that never got off the ground, perhaps this could be one way of funding capital works with our sector, particularly given the location of many of our museums, Brisbane’s Southbank being a prime example.

In regards to new revenues, the buzz word is ‘participation’. Nina Simon of Web 2.0 fame has just released her "Participatory Museum". The forthcoming American Association of Museums conference in LA in May is all about how to get new and younger audiences to interface with museums in innovative, user-generated, participatory ways.

And there is a fascinating new study recently released by the Dallas Museum of Art on the results of a 7 year study on the preferences and behaviours of museum visitors , ‘A Framework for Engaging with Art’. Drawn from 3,400 qualitative surveys, the study concluded there were four types of visitor clusters:
· Observers – those that stand back, having limited knowledge of art, preferring a guided experience
· Participants – those that enjoy learning and the social experience of being in museums and galleries
· Independents – those that are more confident with their knowledge and prefer independent viewing
·Enthusiasts – those who are confident, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and comfortable looking at art, and who are most likely to actively participate in museum programs and be members
What this information has catalyzed is a series of innovative programming strategies and operational changes throughout the Museum resulting in a 100% increase in attendance and motivating over 50% of the Museum’s visitors to participate in its’ programs. Some great revenue creation stuff to build on here.