The Gray Market: Why Blockbuster Museum Shows Aren’t Actually Solving the Attendance Problem (and Other Insights)

Our columnist uses the National Portrait Gallery's upcoming Michael Jackson show to address the false promises of blockbuster exhibitions.

Yayoi Kusama. Photo © Yayoi Kusama, courtesy Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai; David Zwirner, New York and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, taking a hard look at whether one popular solution actually solves a pressing problem…

The entrance to London’s National Portrait Gallery. Image courtesy of the Art Fund.


On Tuesday, my colleague Javier Pes reported that London’s National Portrait Gallery will be forced to present its upcoming blockbuster exhibition, “Michael Jackson: On the Wall,” without Jeff Koons’s porcelain-and-gold paean Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). All four editions of the sculpture “were either already committed for display or deemed too fragile to travel,” per an NPG spokesperson.

But I’m less concerned about any damage done to the museum by an absence in one blockbuster than to the damage likely being done to the museum by the multiple blockbusters in its long-term strategy.

To recap, year-on-year attendance figures showed that visitors to the NPG declined by a stomach-knotting 35 percent in 2016. And while I can’t say for sure, the museum’s recent activity seems to suggest that the threats to its continued operation are mounting high and hard.

Last week, 24 NPG staff members agreed to contract buy-outs, according to the Evening Standard. Since the entire institution employed only 337 people as of March 2018, the move equated to a seven percent reduction in personnel. A gallery spokeswoman said the NPG wanted to “streamline our core costs” en route to becoming “as efficient as possible.”

For the first time in 162 years of stewardship, the NPG also voluntarily shuttered to the public for a single Monday in February to become the literal runway for the debut of a new Erdem line. The gallery normally receives about 5,000 visitors on an average Monday, according to estimates (although no exhibitions were on view at the time). When reached for comment about the unprecedented (though hardly “Black or White”) move, a spokeswoman for the institution stated that the NPG “is a charity and has to self-generate over 70 percent of the funds needed” to operate.

Meanwhile, all of these warning signs are emerging against the backdrop of a high-stakes, £35.5 million capital campaign to fund “an expanded entrance, temporary exhibition spaces, and a complete reinterpretation of the permanent collection.” The gallery has raised at least £9 million so far, but the trustees have set expectations that “most” of the money must be in by March 2019.

So what’s the disconnect with the public, in the museum’s opinion? In a recent story about the worrying year-on-year declines in attendance at the NPG and London’s National Gallery (whose visitorship decreased by 17 percent in 2016), The Art Newspaper had this to say:

Attendance at national museums is increasingly dependent on temporary exhibitions, with nearly half the NPG’s visitors coming to see specific shows. A spokeswoman for the institution pointed out that it had held two blockbusters in 2016: “Vogue 100,” a show of photography published in British Vogue over the past century (it drew 152,000 visitors, making it among the most popular exhibition in the gallery’s history) and “Picasso Portraits” (136,000 visitors). However, there was only one blockbuster last year, “Cézanne Portraits” (also 136,000 visitors).

Here’s the problem, though. A growing arsenal of evidence suggests that struggling museums relying on blockbusters to cultivate loyal visitors are like terrible husbands relying on opulent gifts to cultivate stable marriages: The people they want to keep engaged aren’t actually showing up for them, just for the perks. Even worse, every short-term “success” in their scheme only makes the target audience that much harder to impress the next time around.

High Museum director Rand Suffolk. Credit: Cat Max Photography. Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art.


Data on exhibition-based arts nonprofits suggest that two things tend to be true about a blockbuster-centric strategy. First, as soon as an institution tries to reduce the number of extravaganzas on its calendar, visitor numbers tend to retreat to where they were before the first blockbuster. (If you want the visual, click through that last link and scroll down to the chart titled “Attendance by year.”)

To state the obvious, this is exactly what the NPG spokeswoman was referring to in TAN’s excerpt above. Atlanta’s High Museum also recognized the same distressing phenomenon in its attendance records in 2015. According to my colleague Julia Halperin’s conversation with High director Rand Suffolk, “Most locals didn’t think of the museum as a place that fostered regular, repeat visits. If the blockbuster shows didn’t appeal, they had no reason to go.”

Second, as analyst Colleen Dilenschneider concludes from data by her cultural consultancy, IMPACTS, “Organizations often need to pay more money in order to hit that same, first-time blockbuster exhibition spike” in attendance the next time—and likely even more the time after that, ad infinitum.

To return to our analogy, once you’ve salvaged the marriage with dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant, maybe the next time you need to shell out for a gaudy watch—then a five-star vacation package, then a new car, and on and on. It’s couples therapy by game show prize. Eventually, you’re going to lose. And then what?

This leads back to what I thought at the time was a fairly astonishing claim in a January 4 blog post on the Met’s change in admission policy by the museum’s president and CEO Daniel H. Weiss. While describing why the Met chose not to pursue certain popular counterproposals to its controversial price hike on non-New Yorkers, he shot a poison dart into the prospect of ushering in special fees for special shows (emphasis mine).

We decided against charging for exhibitions for a number of reasons. First, such a system encourages the museum to produce “blockbusters,” which do not reflect the Met’s tradition of embracing exhibitions that combine scholarship with accessibility. Those types of exhibitions are also very expensive and are not a reliable source of revenue that can be either predicted or accounted for in long-range budgeting.

Unless I’m misinterpreting, then, Weiss’s comments suggest that Dilenschneider’s data gels with findings by arguably the world’s most prestigious museum. After meticulous analysis to inform a decision they knew they would be axe-murdered for in the press and the popular imagination, the Met decided against separately ticketing for special exhibitions because blockbusters—the type of shows a museum is incentivized to produce under that policy—are so pricey that they can’t even be counted on to consistently make money, let alone anchor a responsible strategic plan for the museum’s future.

In a Financial Times feature just a few weeks after Weiss’s even-toned blog post, James Bradburne, director of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera, used more dystopian language to address the same concerns. In his words, “We lost our way in the ‘80s when directors were forced to use blockbusters to drive a museum’s economy by increasing visitor numbers.” Almost 40 years later, blockbusters are “cannibalizing” even some top-flight institutions, which use these high-stakes, high-visibility programming boosts as a “drug” to temporarily escape deeper problems.

So what are museums like the NPG supposed to do, especially if their trustees are expecting visitor numbers to increase?

James M. Bradburne in Florence, Italy. Photo Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Pinacoteca di Brera director James M. Bradburne in Florence, Italy. Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images.


Bradburne makes an insightful distinction that helps point the way forward. “In Italy, people confuse an excellent collection with an excellent museum,” he says. “The Getty collection is second-rate—sorry if I offend my friends—but it’s a great museum. They do things with the collection that we are barely imagining.”

He equates it to “the difference between having the score of Mozart and playing it. The museum is the performance of the stuff in your collection, not the collection per se.”

Extending the analogy, every performance also hinges on having, and deploying, the right players. In her data analysis, Dilenschneider points to the demonstrated positive relationship between improving visitors’ interactions with museum staff and increasing visitors’ stated willingness to return to the museum sooner—independent of what attractions are on view.

Similarly, the High Museum dramatically improved its community resonance by shifting its programming away from blockbuster exhibitions, marketing the museum as a commons for activity rather than a cathedral of objects, diversifying its staff (including, crucially, at the docent level), and adjusting its admissions fees (though not quite in the way you might think). The result? A tripling of its nonwhite audience between 2015 and the close of 2017.

By no means am I saying that any of this is easy. Sustainable solutions to any major problem are as elusive as a clean paparazzi shot of the blanket-covered face of Michael Jackson’s infant son. But for the NPG and other increasingly blowout-dependent museums to survive in the 21st century, their leadership—their trustees most of all—will need to recognize that the answer to their attendance troubles probably isn’t securing a key work like Michael Jackson and Bubbles for their next blockbuster. It is, or at least starts with, telling the whole blockbuster model to “Beat It.”

[artnet News]

That’s all for this edition. ‘Til next time, remember: The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

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