Engineering the (stealth) blockbuster

Unknown MonetCan 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?

3 thoughts on “Engineering the (stealth) blockbuster”

  1. Contributors to this salon enjoy certain insider privileges, such as free entry via our press or VIP cards. None of us, in all honesty, should ever need to be “stomping out of our museums demanding our money back for misrepresentation”. But perhaps Ossian is asking us to be “stealth” punters, advocating for the rights of cultural tourists whose admission dollars are extracted by false promises. “I went to the _____, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”.

    The word “blockbuster” is interesting. It connotes mass culture. Hollywood makes blockbusters, or tries to. But rampant sequel-itis, hoping to cash in on a successful formula or a bankable star, will often fail at the box office. In Hollywood’s eternal present, where you’re only as good as your last film, there’s hardly ever a sure thing. Is it possible to engineer this in a museum context? or might striving for a “hit” ultimately undermine the very institution it wishes to help?

    Would there be any restrictions of subject? Ossian cites exhibitions of broad historical scope or a concentration on the Motissos. But I’m just a modern guy (like Iggy Pop). Can a blockbuster also appeal to an audience for contemporary art, or is that audience just too small to guarantee an adequate revenue stream? I’ve been back several times to see the Richard Serra at MoMA, especially the three new works. Their sheer size and weight seem ready to bust through any block, were they not supported by the museum’s famously reinforced second floor. MoMA is promoting the Serra show as the consummate marriage between institution and artist, but will the numbers bear this out? Or will the museum draw its summer crowds with other offerings, like Dan Perjovschi’s wall of existential cartoons, Christian Rattemeyer’s inspired curation of Minimal and Postminimal drawing, or the sculpture garden?

    “Engineering” can be problematic if it deserts art and instead panders to borrowed interest and mass acceptance, or to fulfill the mandate of various corporate sponsors, with shows of motorcycles or Giorgio Armani or work from sunny Brazil installed in the heart of Inquisitorial darkness (to court Jean Nouvel). Am I unfairly carping on the Guggenheim? The Brooklyn Museum once organized a show of hip hop paraphernalia. The Whitney currently has Summer of Love, crowd pleasing psychedelia, with Janis Joplin’s Porsche in the sunken courtyard and two floors of rock concert posters. If you look carefully you can also see some brilliant work there: Öyvind Fahlström’s ESSO LSD signage, Linda Benglis’ paint pour, a Jordan Belsen film. But the art seems an afterthought to the packaging of the show, the marketing.

    Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a museum is too many deals, too much engineering, too great an interposition between the audience and the artwork. The architects Herzog & de Meuron, who might know something about structure and its discontents, organized a show called “Perception Restrained” last summer at MoMA, in which the art (drawn from the museum’s permanent collection) was jammed together, entombed, barely visible, viewed with mirrors. It was a perverse institutional critique, a caricature of what can happen to the museum when engineering and the blockbuster mentality take over.

  2. Steven comes from many angles toward a central tension of the artworld in the free market – promoting cultural offerings without eclipsing them via the very marketing meant to draw crowds in.

    Even among galleries – expressly commercial entities – being perceived as being too “commercial” is seen as a black mark among artworld peers. And for museums it’s even trickier: on the one hand, they are expected to take the institutional high road of art above commerce; on the other hand, their leaders are expected by their boards and sponsors to hit their numbers just like for-profit businesses.

    It’s a very delicate balance and one that is not always perfectly struck. But that imbalance cuts both ways: for every “stealth blockbuster” that under-delivers on its marketing promise, there are many, many shows that never reach the audience they should due to under-promotion. Of course, part of the problem with blockbusters is that they suck up so much press coverage and so many brain cycles in the artworld’s attention economy that such “sleeper” shows sometimes never actually wake up.

  3. Indeed. Blockbusters in any medium are easily consumed, heavily promoted, mass-market phenomena that, whilst no doubt gratifying, often leave senses and timetables of the average visitor little room for anything else. Good for the Big Museums that host them. Not necessarily good for anyone else trying to attract eyeballs.

    I quite like the notion that we may be seeing fewer mega-shows that appear at all the museums around the world. It will bring back the excitement of going to a new city to see a show in the only place it is on. And in our home towns, it might allow all of us, not just contemporary art fans, the time and mind-space to seek inspiration elsewhere.

    But back to Ossian’s original point: this still leaves the big-institution curators with the problem of inventing good reasons why people should come through the doors, of course. Goodness, maybe they will have to be creative instead of relying on the usual big-names …

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