A researcher colleague wanted to call it the “Great Museum Cartel.” We were working on a RAND report on the visual arts, and it emerged that the vast majority of visitors, operating funds, endowments, and donations accrue to the top ten museums in the country.
Yesterday bought more confirmation of the winner-take-all pattern, when The Wall Street Journal reported that MoMA “attracted its highest-ever number of visitors, 3.09 million, during its 2010 fiscal year.” That’s up a quarter million from last year and a half-million from the year of reopening. Attendance is now double of what MoMA’s saw in its old building. Tourist numbers and memberships are also up.
Of course, there is fodder for doubters. While it’s heartening to see critical stalwarts Marina Abramovic and William Kentridge draw in the neighborhood of half a million visitors–more than the annual attendance of many respectable museums–the big numbers are partly linked to exhibitions with “strong public appeal,” with Tim Burton and Water Lilies clocking in well over 800,000 visits. Whatever the case, MoMA’s popular formula is working.
The larger question is whether such success is replicable, or even desirable in every respect. Another recent report about crowd-pleasing fare at a major New York museum, in Brooklyn, didn’t reach the same conclusion. What seems to be happening is that the biggest fish are capturing more attention, while medium and small organizations struggle to keep their numbers up. This pattern is holding true not just in museums, but also with galleries and art fairs, as recent lines outside Gagosian’s historical shows and the huge throngs at Art Basel pointedly demonstrated.
What can we read into these trends?