Can you cook up a blockbuster? This is what one curator in a prominent London institution (no names) came to ask me, for a series of interviews that may or may not result in the magic formula for big box-office success. There are various ingredients you need for the cauldron of course; a big-name artist, a spectacular debut or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a press deluge and an overstuffed gift shop.
Getting thousands of people through the doors of an exhibition every day used to be so easy – bring in Monet, Matisse, Picasso or all three (Motisso?) – and listen to the cash registers ring out. Nowadays the hugely increased financial pressures of staging such mega-exhibitions – from insurance and shipping to marketing and advertising – mean that the anatomy of a blockbuster show is having to change.
Later this year in London there are a couple of old-fashioned crowd-pullers – terracotta warriors and China coming to the British Museum and Tutankhamun at the old Millennium Dome (now ‘The 02’ venue) – but these are tried and tested recipes. Some museums are now resorting to what I call ‘Stealth Blockbusters’, which on the surface promise the big names and jaw-dropping experience, but can often deceive through clever titles or curating by the back door. For example, the Royal Academy (which has cancelled ‘The Arts in Latin America 1492-1820’ from its autumn slot, because it can’t afford to ship the 250 pieces from LACMA) has recently put on ‘The Unknown Monet’ and ‘Impressionists by the Sea’, which were worthy, scholarly shows with few outright masterpieces. However, once given the sheen of blockbuster glamour and the catchy title, they hit the headlines – and presumably their visitor targets.
Robert Storr put it well before unveiling his Venice Biennale: ‘Once you have enthralled the public enough to get them through the doors, one of the greatest tasks of museums and curators is disenthralling.’ But how long do we wait before we come stomping out of our museums demanding our money back for misrepresentation?