When art imitates entertainment

Thousands of us will queue to see the Cezanne, but are blockbuster shows simply about merchandising? Paul Vallely reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
We have not yet got as bad as they are in Chicago, where art-lovers were not long ago queuing at 4am to get into an exhibition of paintings by Monet. But gallery fever is seizing the British. No sooner have we said goodbye to the Africa exhibition, which attracted 250,000 visitors to the Royal Academy, than we are preparing to queue for a glimpse of Cezanne. The exhibition that has attracted the highest advance ticket sales ever opens at the Tate today.

Blockbusters are not new. The first in the UK and still by far the biggest was in 1972 when The Treasures of Tutankhamun attracted some 1,690,000 in nine months. It is still the single most successful exhibition ever held. But after a period in the Eighties when blockbusters fell away, partly because of rising insurance premiums, they are back with a vengeance in the Nineties. This year, as well as Cezanne, we will have William Morris at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Last year, almost 700,000 went to see the Hankyu show. In 1994, we had Picasso and the Glory of Venice, which between them attracted more than 500,000. The decade began with Monet, which was seen by 658,000.

It is not just a British phenomenon. Blockbuster exhibitions are global products. The touring collection of paintings from the Barnes Collection under the legend From Cezanne to Matisse has been seen by 2,693,687 in Paris, Ontario, Tokyo, Fort Worth, Philadelphia and Munich. Even the lesser- known Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte drew 792,000 recently in Paris, Chicago and Los Angles. Half a million queued for Mondrian in the Hague, Washington and New York.

Art is big business; galleries are the hubs of the new cultural economy. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum is the city's single biggest tourist attraction, with almost 5 million visitors a year.

It was at the Met that the blockbuster was first conceived. Tom Hoving, the museum's director during the Sixties, sat down to invent a formula thatwas an alliance of museum, design and marketing to draw in the public in large numbers. He wanted something thatdidn't have to be scholarly, just fascinating to that sector of the public which Sir Roy Strong, the former director of the V&A, calls, without disparagement, "Daily Mail readers and other members of the culturally aspiring class".

The result was The Treasures of Tutankhamun, which barnstormed round the United States before ending up in London. "It changed everything," recalls Sir Roy. "Suddenly, there were Portakabin loos outside the British Museum and nothing was ever the same. Art was transformed into a cultural commodity for the mass age."

Since then, two types of blockbuster have emerged. Behind one, some foundation of scholarship lurks still. Beneath the other lies nothing more substantial than the nostrums of the marketing men.

The Cezanne show will clearly do something to advance scholarship. Bringing together 200 works that have never been seen together can have a unique function, says Giles Waterfield, of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a little gallery outside the blockbuster league. Most of all, he says, "It is simply illuminating to see two related pictures side by side, and to see the whole range can give you a more profound understanding of a painter's work than you could ever get from seeing them in a number of different places over a 15-year period." As a result, some of the best writing in art history is to be found in the catalogues of such exhibitions.

By contrast, assemblages such as The Treasures of the Vatican (which drew 856,000 in New York alone) simply transfer artefacts from one location to another. That approach reached its nadir in the UK at the beginning of the decade when the V & A under Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, in a shameless attempt to be popular, put on two gruesome exhibitions: Majesty (on the royals) and Sporting Glory. Both were flops.

What is common to both types of blockbuster is their cost. The Africa exhibition is on its way to Berlin, then to the Guggenheim in New York. It might cost pounds 250,000 to remount such an exhibition. Then there is the conservation issue. "Conservation staff are getting anxious about the increasing movement around the world of very fragile works of art," says Stephen Callaway, former curator of prints and drawings at the V&A.

The loan on each exhibit has to be renegotiated for each venue. Individual pieces may have been included because of goodwill established between two institutions over previous loans. Cezanne in London will contain at least one work that it did not in Paris: Portrait of a Smoker was obtained from a possessive museum in Mannheim because London had lent it a Turner exhibition. Conversely, London often fails to attract really big exhibitions - the Matisse in 1994 and the Barnes Collection last year - because until the new Tate opens at Bankside the British capital does not have a suitable venue that is big enough.

Even in the best shows there is a tension between marketing and scholarship, which is not always creative. The marketeers deny that they have undue influence. "At the regular planning meetings, if I see a dead duck I make my opinion known, and it is listened to," says Andrew Hamilton, chief PR at the British Museum. "But the initial ideas come from the curators."

Do not look for such fastidiousness from the new breed of art entrepreneurs emerging in the US. Men such as James Broughton, who staged five hugely profitable Wonders of ... shows, on characters such as Rameses and Napoleon, use techniques familiar to promoters of rock concerts. Based in Memphis, Tennessee, his "mega-shows" tour medium-sized American cities with great success. His first, Treasures of the Tsars, injected some $34m into the Memphis economy. As a result, Broughton, who gets a 90 per cent cut from merchandising sales, is paid $80,402 a month - and is said to be the highest- paid museum director in the US.

But it is not such extravagances that prompt caveats about the blockbuster in British art circles. Nor is it a sense that they have a detrimental impact on smaller galleries. "On the contrary, I think they stimulate interest in art, and as a result more people come to places like us," says Giles Waterfield. "The trouble is that often they are too big to take in."

Often there are just too many people. "We get a lot of complaints that it's often torture looking at these big exhibitions," says Laura Suffield, editor of Art Newspaper. "It's not just that people don't get quality viewing, in the Chicago Art Institute during the Monet people were reporting that it was difficult to breathe."

Don't say you haven't been warned.

Admissions

Assuming all of the 330,000 tickets are sold (price pounds 7), admission will raise pounds 2,310,000 for the Cezanne exhibition. In Paris, 640,000 visited. The Tate sold 6,000 advance tickets on Tuesday alone. The Monet exhibition in 1990 attracted 658,289 while the Africa exhibition, which has just ended, attracted 250,280. The largest blockbuster was The Treasures of Tutankhamun, with 1,690,000 visitors in nine months.

Sponsorship

A major sponsor often means the difference between an overall profit or loss, especially at galleries that have no government grant. Deals are often complicated, involving sponsorship in kind and contracts with various firms. A sponsor's money tends to fund publicity rather than increase the scale of the show. Often directors are contractually obliged to mention a show's sponsor whenever they speak to the media.

Planning

It usually takes about five years to plan a blockbuster exhibition. It involves lengthy negotiations with a range of owners. The pictures in the Cezanne have travelled from Tokyo, Washington, New York, Zurich, St Petersburg, Copenhagen, Marseille and Philadelphia as well as the National Gallery and a clutch of private collections. Curating it is a feat of international diplomacy. The Cezanne is curated by all its venues: it comes to London from Paris, and will go on to Philadelphia.

Sales

Catalogues (pounds 35 in the case of Cezanne) are usually bought by one in 10 visitors. Sales of the Cezanne catalogue are fast approaching pounds 2m. Museums channel visitors through their shops. At Cezanne, you can buy scarves, crockery, jigsaw puzzles and wine. Cezanne babygros are being manufactured for the Philadelphia show.

Transport

Innovations in transport, security and preservation, such as climate and humidity control, have made it safer to send works of art around the world. By the end of the Eighties, Manet's jet-setting "A Bar at the Folies- Bergere" had safely travelled over 56,000 miles.

Insurance

The death of the blockbuster exhibition was predicted in the Eighties because important works were becoming so valuable that insurance premiums were becoming prohibitive. Under the 1980 Government Indemnity Scheme, the Government acts as insurer for works brought into the UK from overseas for public exhibition.

Comments