Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Block Buster


In 2012, I wrote a Missive about “the End of the Blockbuster” which focused on small exhibitions.  If you look at the art news today many museums are trying to do Blockbusters according to their means.  Marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death this year several institutions are giving him homage worthy of a great artist.  However, not every museum can afford the costs of transporting and insuring great works of art. 

I am not sure when the term “block buster” was first used but I believe it was in the late 1960’s when Thomas P.F. Hoving became director of the Metropolitan Museum and he created the exhibition, “In the Presence of Kings”.  Obviously, there were blockbusters long before the 1960’s but by then it was much easier for people to travel from far and wide to see a show and, therefore, could attract a larger crowd.  I am sure they began already in the 18th century when the Princes of Germany opened their treasure houses to the public.  In 1930-31 when the great medieval treasure known as the Welfenschatz came to Cleveland there were long lines and here is an image from a 1948 exhibition at the National Gallery of Paintings from the Berlin Museums.


In an on line publication, The Conversation.com, I found an article from 2014, “What Happened to the Blockbuster Art Exhibition”.  It reminds me that another amazing young museum director, Carter Brown, at the National Gallery competed with Hoving to do blockbusters. The competition added to the drama and certainly helped attendance.  

According to the article, “In the Presence of Kings, was a rather haphazard assortment of paintings, sculptures, coins, furniture, crossbows and other bric-a-brac from the Metropolitan Museum’s own collection – all possessing some sort of tenuous link to royal ownership.”   While I remember the show as spectacular, I am sure I was seduced by the novel theatrical installation using lush fabrics and royal colors of red and purple.  I even remember the show’s introduction with a crown shown on a revolving stand. The technique borrowed from automobile shows was not serious enough for conservative curators of the time… and art should always be taken seriously… I certainly hope not.  Here is an image of Tom Hoving with a Sasanian head from the 4th Century AD which was in the show.


Though “In the Presence of Kings” was a great popular success the article quite rightly expresses the fact that there are serious financial considerations for the series of blockbusters it initiated.  Even for in-house shows where the many departments to work together (a political challenge), the more elaborate and installation the greater the cost.  In my opinion, however, putting together an exhibition is only half the battle.  You have to first prime the pump with sponsorship.  When my wife was doing International exhibitions for the Portland Art Museum, I asked why they were spending up to $3 and a half million on organizing a show when they could rent a travelling show for a fraction of the cost.  The development officer explained that local pride made it easier to gain support from benefactors for shows organized by their home museum than touring exhibitions organized elsewhere. 

A curator doesn’t just think up a show and do it.  After approval of the director comes review by a committee of exhibition decision makers, be they the marketing department, other curators or another peer group. It takes a village, --I mean a team of dedicated professionals.

If it is not an exhibition of in-house material, loans have to be secured.  This requires visits to the venues of those loans to be sure they are actually what they seem to be in the literature. Then it is up to curator to convince the lending institution that their show is worth the risk of the loan.  It helps if the curator’s institution has already lent to the institution that has the desired work of art.  In other words, literally, “You Owe Me One”.

The curator has to work with the development officer to see how to raise the funds to ship and ensure the loans and cover the travel feeding and housing of the couriers which are now almost always required these days. The registrar has to work with the registrar of the other institution on the safest way of transporting the piece The couriers get to travel but they have to stay with the object at all times, whether it is days and nights on a truck or on a cargo plane making sure the work is not left on the tarmac at the airport.

There is work with the designer to make sure the art looks its best in the installation and at the same time doesn’t outshine either the point of the show or a more important work of art.

After that, of course, you have to let people know that the show is on via public relations and advertising.  You need to capture the imagination and one way to do it is with a great title such as “Behind the Red Velvet Curtain” or “In the Presence of Kings” or a well-known work like Vermeer’s  “Girl with a Pearl Earring” from the Dutch Royal Collection made even more famous  after the book and a movie came out.  When it was lent to the Frick Collection, they had lines waiting to get in.


I guess I could sum it up that no matter the quality of the works in an exhibition, if you can’t sell it, it won’t attract crowds and then the question is, was it worth doing. When Philippe de Montebello was director of the Metropolitan Museum, he kept a balance, alternating or overlapping scholarly shows and popular blockbusters. It gave different audiences what they were looking for. There was always something new at the Met that would give them a reason to come.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for the peek into the "mechanics" behind the mounting of a BLOCKBUSTER museum-show. Good one!

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  2. Accumulations in art galleries are quickly changing and there is a fast turnover with the things being sold in the Art galleries as individuals surge around to purchase what has been highlighted over the most recent half a month.Custom framing

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