Can Michael Jackson Turn the Tide for London’s National Portrait Gallery? Hopes Are Pinned on a Blockbuster

The show may boost attendance and income for a museum facing testing times—but Jeff Koons's sculpture of the singer with Bubbles the chimp will be a notable absence.

US artist Jeff Koons with Michael Jackson and Bubbles Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/GettyImages.

London’s National Portrait Gallery is already selling advance tickets for its summer blockbuster show, which examines Michael Jackson’s influence on contemporary art. The hope is that Jackson’s star power will be enough to bring in crowds—and much-needed ticket revenue—for an institution that is experiencing testing times. 

But when the show opens to eager audiences on June 28, one of the most iconic works inspired by Michael Jackson will be notably absent, artnet News has learned. The NPG has been unable to secure the loan of Jeff Koons’s gilded porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), despite the artist’s wish that it be included.

Last week, the Evening Standard newspaper reported that 24 members of gallery’s staff had taken voluntary buyouts. The figure represents a significant reduction for the relatively small UK national museum, which employed a total of 337 people as of March 2017. 

The gallery “has completed a round of both voluntary exit and voluntary redundancy to streamline our core costs and ensure we are in the best possible shape for the future,” a spokeswoman told artnet News in a statement. She declined to specify which posts had been axed or whether any of the eliminated positions were senior or curatorial roles.

The high-profile show “Michael Jackson: On the Wall,” organized by the gallery’s director Nicholas Cullinan with the cooperation of the musician’s estate, will bring together work by 40 artists including Andy Warhol, David Hammons, Paul McCarthy, Isa Genzken, Kehinde Wiley, and Jordan Wolfson. 

Since Andy Warhol portrayed him in 1982, the King of Pop has become “the most depicted cultural figure in visual art,” according to the NPG. After its debut in London, the show is due to travel to the Grand Palais in Paris, as well as to Bonn and Helsinki.  

A spokeswoman for the NPG says curators tried to borrow one of the four editions of the work, but “they were either already committed for display or deemed too fragile to travel.” The four versions belong to the the Broad in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, and the Dakis Joannou Collection in Athens.

Nicholas Cullinan, the director of London’s National Portrait Gallery.

The show couldn’t arrive soon enough—it opens during Cullinan’s most challenging period as director to date. The former senior curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Tate Modern took the helm of the NPG in 2015. In addition to the recent staff reduction, the gallery’s decision to close to the public for the first time in its 162-year history to host a fashion show provoked debate. (Some said it was a necessary fundraising initiative.) 

The museum is also battling a dip in attendance. From a high of more than two million visitors in 2015, attendance fell to around 1.27 million last year—a dip of more than 35 percent. Trustees likely hope that the Michael Jackson show, coupled with an exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s work scheduled for 2019, will help turn the tide. (The NPG was not the only UK museum to report a drop in attendance last year, but its reduction was more extreme than its peers.) 

During this period, the museum has also mounted a number of critically acclaimed shows, including an exhibition pairing the work of Surrealist French photographer Claude Cahun and contemporary British artist Gillian Wearing. Meanwhile, its ambitious exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits drew 136,000 visitors and is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. 

The entrance of the National Portrait Gallery is due to be made more welcoming. Image courtesy of the Art Fund.

Meanwhile, the NPG’s planned £35.5 million (around $50 million) upgrade, which includes an expanded entrance, temporary exhibition spaces, and a complete reinterpretation of the permanent collection, is going ahead, the spokeswoman confirmed. “The approach and exterior of the building constrains footfall and falls short of many expectations of a modern gallery entrance,” the NPG’s latest business plan states. Due to be completed in 2023, the project will be designed by Jamie Fobert. 

The clock is ticking—a major fundraising deadline is only a year away. According to minutes from recent board meetings, the trustees have set a deadline of March 2019 to raise most of the money. The NPG is currently weighing whether or not to accept a controversial pledge of £1 million ($1.4 million) from the Sackler Trust to support the project. It has already secured major funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for around £9 million ($12.55 million). A key aim of the initiative, called “Inspiring People,” is to boost the gallery’s attendance to a record 2.5 million.

In the meantime, the King of Pop will be on hand to help. 

“Michael Jackson: On the Wall” runs from June 28 through October 21 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. 

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