Making the Best of the "Blockbuster"

Referring to an art exhibition as a "blockbuster" is a touchy subject. Art historian Albert Elsen defined a blockbuster as a "large-scale loan exhibition which people who normally don't go to museums will stand in line for hours to see." Summers offer the most obvious window for these attractive, money-making exhibitions to draw in the crowds during peak tourism season and while some argue this exhibition model is dying out, we still find many examples on view this year. Reality in the current economic climate is that museums are forced to find alternative sources of revenue and visibility as cultural institutions face more and more cutbacks, but is it really such a terrible idea to host artists many people know and like?

In a 1980 interview, artist Richard Serra sarcastically remarked about blockbuster exhibitions: "I'm never sure anymore when I go to the Whitney Museum of American Art whether I will see Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing his muscles in the hall or another Edward Hopper retrospective, either one of which is essentially a sales pitch to bring in the masses." When considering the role of museums in society, many agree with Serra that museums should be a space solely for learning, untarnished by commerciality, even if it means the building remains almost empty.

On the one hand, museum curators are considered academics, experts in a particular specialization with the diplomas, language credentials, and lengthy Ph.D. dissertations to prove it. These skills are not disputed, but on the other hand, recent decades affirm a paradigm shift of museum exhibitions. During times of recession, it becomes the norm to evaluate curators based on ticket sales rather than academic worth and so the old dispute rages on: Should exhibitions cater to the masses with monolithic shows featuring blue-chip artists and a shiny new line of gift shop merchandise, or should they present a novel intellectual and aesthetic experience?

Here at MutualArt, we believe exhibitions featuring the most famous artists can both appeal to a wide audience and still be original. Some of this summer's biggest exhibitions attest to the possibility.

While the most typical scenario is that museums spend hefty sums to borrow big names from other institutions -- as in Tate Modern's summer exhibition Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, with most artwork traveling from Norway -- this is not always the case. Sometimes blockbuster exhibitions offer museums a more economical and exciting reason to bring a part of their collection out of storage. This is the situation with Dürer and Beyond - Central European Drawings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1400-1700 exhibition, on view April 3 - Sept. 3, 2012 in New York (pictured above left).

Blockbuster exhibitions admittedly make art more accessible, in the case of Munch at the Tate, saving people the airfare to fly from London to Norway. But in an economic recession, the Dürer model also avoids the costs for the museum in an atmosphere that is increasingly more difficult for artwork loans. Those in Philadelphia, however, may need a vacation themselves from an Impressionist overload with the recent opening of the Barnes Foundation new location, followed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia down the street.

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism art make the quintessential blockbuster show with their iconic work, but some institutions are sidestepping this trap by finding other blue-chip names to feature -- like Joan Miró at the National Gallery of Art and Roy Lichtenstein at the Art Institute of Chicago. The National Gallery of Art is the sole U.S. venue for The Ladder of Escape on view in Washington DC May 6 - Aug. 12, 2012. While we may be familiar with Miró the Modernist or Miró the Surrealist, we seldom explore the political commitments of this Catalan artist who lived through two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the Franco regime. A new perspective is shown of this familiar artist earning raving reviews, and after Miró's Peinture (Etoile Bleue) (pictured above right) fetched a record-breaking sale of $37 million at Sotheby's London on Tuesday night, the crowds are sure to come.

Also reported to avoid the cliche is Chicago's Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective at the Art Institute until Sept. 3, 2012 (pictured left), before moving on to the National Gallery of Art in DC and Paris' Centre Pompidou. This is the first retrospective of the beloved pop artist since his death in 1997, and visitors will not be disappointed with more than 100 paintings spanning half a century seen in a new context.

In the contemporary art realm, Gerhard Richter is one of the top-selling living artists, as evidenced by the recent $25 million sale leading last-week's Art Basel fair. Currently the exhibition Panorama offers a retrospective of his work at Centre Pompidou, but its easy to ask, what is the exhibition offering that's new? This artist, who sold $200 million in auctions in 2011 alone is seen everywhere, and this exhibition has been travelling since its debut last year in London. Maybe contemporary art lovers should instead make their way to the Brooklyn Museum to explore the exhibition of Keith Haring's pop-art and graffiti-based work at Keith Haring: 1978-1982 before it closes on July 8. The Brooklyn Museum attempts to show the seriousness of the artist's often-reproduced art by including his journals complete with code-writing and diagramming, to provide further insight into his thought process.

Perhaps summer blockbusters do not deserve their bad reputation after all, as shown by Dürer, Miró, Haring, and others exhibiting this summer. Desperate economic times call for desperate measures and just because a museum is a place of learning doesn't mean it should remain empty. We see this summer that it is in fact possible to host the biggest names and still present something novel, pleasing art snobs and novices alike.

Written by MutualArt's Christine Bednarz

Do blockbuster exhibitions compromise the integrity of museums?  What is the purpose of an art exhibition? Which summer blockbuster are you most looking forward to seeing?