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October 28, 2011updated 08 Jan 2016 5:41pm

Are Blockbuster Exhibitions Damaging Art?

By Spear's


Even if reports of the death of the blockbuster exhibition are somewhat exaggerated, it’s true that galleries are having to change the way they stage big shows, says Ivan Lindsay

OVER THE SUMMER, the National Gallery and Royal Academy in London announced their autumn exhibitions, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan (9 November–5 February) and Degas Dancers: Eye and Camera (17 September–11 December). The news, along with the announcement that, to capitalise on the huge influx of foreign visitors expected in London for the 2012 Olympics, the Tate Gallery will stage extensive exhibitions of works by Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch and even Damien Hirst, reopened the debate as to the importance and effectiveness of such exhibitions and whether they remain a viable way to show art to the general public.

While attendances at exhibitions indicate a steady popularity with the public and provide a crucial source of income for museums in the way of admissions, sponsorship, catalogues and sales from the shop, people are tiring of the scrum at such shows. Curators themselves have been complaining of museum fatigue and academics have been suggesting that blockbusters are damaging art. Colin Tweedy, the chief executive of the Prince of Wales’s Arts and Business charity and a trustee of the Serpentine Gallery, claimed in an interview earlier this year that ‘the blockbuster model is killing art… it’s not the right way to see the great artists. In the next five years museums will stop doing these exhibitions because they are too much trouble. It’s an old model. The curators of culture have to think in a different way.’

Tweedy pointed to the recent Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Gallery, which broke records for advance ticket sales but left many visitors disappointed because of the sheer number of people there. ‘Nobody liked it because nobody could see it,’ he said. It is true that if there were fewer than a dozen people in front of a painting on a weekday you were lucky.

In response to this, the National Gallery, trying to avoid what it terms ‘gallery rage’, has reduced the number of admissions at the Leonardo show from the 230 per half-hour it’s allowed by health and safety regulations to 180. Other than making a good soundbite, it is hard to see where the expression ‘gallery rage’ has materialised from, as what is apparent is more a weary exhaustion as art lovers bump into one another, politely apologising as they shuffle around.

The demise of the blockbuster exhibition has been predicted ever since Roy Strong announced in the Eighties that the Victoria and Albert Museum would no longer put on such exhibitions in order to concentrate on developing its own collections. Visitor numbers collapsed along with income, and major exhibitions had to be rapidly reintroduced.

The genre has been around for a long time: the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Crystal Palace attracted more than six million visitors with 13,000 exhibits, and the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition of 1857 saw more than a million visitors for 16,000 exhibits. In 1863 the display of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s wedding presents at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) proved popular, as did the major display of Italian art at the Royal Academy in 1930.

While improved air travel from the mid-20th century has made it easier to move large paintings around, there is a general fatigue among museum directors over the issue of large exhibitions and an increasing resistance from both museums and private collectors to lend. The major risks to an artwork are in transit. The Leonardo exhibition has put together seven of the fifteen authenticated paintings by the artist, which is a credit to the curator Luke Syson, who has recently been poached from the National Gallery by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where he starts in January.

The current writer has no love of the scrums at such exhibitions but will have to go in order to see the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (more often referred to as Lady with an Ermine, above right), the mistress of Milan’s ruler Ludovico Maria Sforza, who was known as ‘il Moro’ or ‘the Moor’. This beautiful painting of a woman turning to her left and holding an ermine, which normally requires a trip to Krakow to the Czartoryski Museum, has always been coveted and, after being stolen by the Nazis, spent some time in the collection of Hans Frank, the Governor General of Poland in the Forties.

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The Portrait of a Man by Raphael, which was also commandeered by Frank from the Czartoryskis at this time, was never seen again, but the Leonardo was thankfully recovered by Allied troops, who found it hidden in Frank’s country home in Bavaria after the end of the Second World War.

Among all the discussions about the future of such exhibitions, what is certain is that they are becoming increasingly hard to organise. Ann Dumas, one of the organisers of the Degas exhibition, has said that an earlier exhibition at the Royal Academy, The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and His Letters, which proved a great success, took more than five years to organise. Curators have to overcome political issues, restitution problems, museum and private collector reluctance to lend, rising costs of insurance where government indemnity cannot be granted, and transport, staffing, sponsorship, security and logistical issues.

They also have to find a new message to try to convince museum directors, owners, sponsors and the public that they have something fresh and new to put across. In describing the current Degas exhibition Dumas says: ‘We hope people will revise the notion that Degas was just a painter of pretty dancers. He was in a way conceptual and an extremely radical, highly innovative artist, in tune with the technological developments of his time.’

DESPITE MUSEUM FATIGUED and rage, the complaints of the public and the forecasts of the demise of the blockbuster, an examination of the figures attending exhibitions published annually by The Art Newspaper indicates that the public are still flocking to the exhibitions that attract their attention, making the careers of successful curators, improving the prestige of the museums involved and drawing tourists to the leading exhibiting cities, such as London, New York, Tokyo and Paris.

The Louvre in Paris is the world’s most visited museum, with 8.5 million visitors per annum. Successful exhibitions regularly attract more than 500,000 visitors, such as Pablo Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (April–August 2010), with 703,256, and Post Impressionism: 115 Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the National Art Centre Tokyo (May–August 2010), with 777,551. With ticket prices often in excess of £10 (the full-price ticket for the Leonardo exhibition is £16), even allowing for concessions, these exhibitions can provide an income of more than £5 million, clear motivation for cash-strapped galleries.

Critics complained in the late 19th century of the astonishing range of exhibitions crowding London at any one time, from major artists at the leading galleries to smaller peep-shows of oddities and circuses. Critics are making similar complaints today. Even if exhibitions such as Monet’s Water Lilies are losing their momentum, it seems the blockbuster is here to stay, and what might be changing is its content. Photographic exhibitions such as London’s National Portrait Gallery’s current show Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits are gaining in popularity and museums are trying to concentrate on drawing exhibitions from their own holdings to cut costs. The Metropolitan’s successful 2010 Picasso exhibition was drawn entirely from its own holdings.

There is no doubt that a pressurised, crowded museum is not the best way to see art, but it does give the chance to see work that is normally difficult to access. A better way to view art is to pick a quiet London gallery such as the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square or the Dulwich Picture Gallery, seek out a couple of paintings by an artist who interests you and slowly absorb them. Try to extract the essential qualities of an artist and articulate what makes a painting special. Major exhibitions, in one form or another, despite their detractors, will remain a feature of life in the cultural capitals, but the best way to study art is still quietly and privately. Degas himself said: ‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.’ That presumes you can see the painting in the first place. 
Leonardo image courtesy of National Gallery. Degas image on loan from the Honorable Earle 1 Mack Collection
Ivan Lindsay is an art dealer and contributing editor at Spear’s

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