Why Are Fashion Blockbusters More Popular Than Art Exhibitions and What Can We Do About It?

We spoke to the curators who made these shows happen.

Cindy Sherman and Marc Newson for Louis Vuitton.
Photo: Karl Lagerfeld for Bazaar, via Business of Fashion.
Flavia Frigeri <br> Photo: via Ludwig Museum

“Savage Beauty” drew record numbers in both the US and the UK
Photo: via cnn.com

“Savage Beauty,” the exhibition of the late British fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen’s work, drew record visitor numbers and critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, attracting 1,154,552 visitors at the New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art and London’s Victoria and Albert, combined.

Similarly, the exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass” at the Met attracted record numbers of visitors and was extended due to popular demand. Over 500,000 visitors flocked to the show featuring the stunningly intricate and theatrical work of contemporary Chinese couturier, Guo Pei, alongside work influenced by Chinese aesthetics from Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, and McQueen.

Another memorable recent blockbuster show is “Matisse Cut-Outs,” exhibited firstly at Tate Modern in London, then at the MoMA in New York, in 2014, which proved to be the Tate’s most popular exhibition ever, and was loved by critics and the public alike.

However, in terms of visitor figures and column inches it appears that when it comes to the blockbuster exhibition, fashion seems to capture the imagination of the public significantly more than art. But why? After all, many big-name designers contend that fashion is not art.

“Fashion for me is a creative endeavor but it is not art,” Tom Ford once said, and Miuccia Prada was quoted in the 2012 Metropolitan Museum’s show “Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli: Impossible conversations” as arguing: “I always said, for me, fashion is not art.”

Taking things a step further, Karl Lagerfeld told the Telegraph in 2012, “I am against museums and exhibitions in fashion. One woman said to me—‘In my world, the world of art’—so I said: ‘Oh, don’t you make dresses anymore?'” Though the multi-tasking designer has clearly changed his mind since, and a show dedicated to his work opened in Bonn, Germany in March.

What does that say about our relationship to fashion if we are apparently fascinated by seeing it presented in museums?

We spoke to three of the top curators behind some of these shows to get their perspectives.

Claire Wilcox <br> Photo: via <i> Showstudio </i>

Claire Wilcox
Photo: via Showstudio

Claire Wilcox, Senior Fashion Curator at the V&A and Curator of “Savage Beauty,” Chair in Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion

Claire Wilcox has long been making waves in the exhibiting of fashion in a museum settings. After joining the V&A, she started the Fashion in Motion event, which saw catwalk shows taking place in the stunning environs of the museum, with an inaugural collection presentation by Alexander McQueen, in 1999. And in 2001, she curated the game-changing exhibition “Radical Fashion,” with many more to follow.

This was against the backdrop of rapid social and technological change.

“Both Fashion in Motion and ‘Radical Fashion’ were inspired by these changes, and in the case of Fashion in Motion, the desire to break free from traditional methods of museum display, by using the museum as venue rather than vitrine,” she said in an interview with artnet News this week.

Wilcox finds that fashion has an approachability that can be missing in the art world, even when it comes to major institutions and large-scale exhibitions.

Savage Beauty's cabinet of curiosities <br> Photo: via ibitimes.com

Savage Beauty’s cabinet of curiosities
Photo: via ibitimes.co.uk

“Fashion is a mirror of our times, and it is therefore interesting to study, collect and display,” she added. “Fashionable clothing, whether historic or contemporary, connects the spheres of manufacturing, commerce, consumption and taste and thus can serve as a kind of cultural barometer.”

However, “Savage Beauty” was unique in that many of the people who worked on McQueen’s catwalk shows helped put the exhibition together.

“What made the exhibition so impactful was the fact that we worked so closely with so many of McQueen’s closest friends and collaborators,” Wilcox emphasized.

Flavia Frigeri <br> Photo: via Ludwig Museum

Flavia Frigeri
Photo: via Ludwig Museum

Flavia Frigeri Curator, International Art at Tate Co-Curator of “Matisse Cut-Outs” at Tate Modern

“Matisse Cut-Outs” was Tate Modern’s biggest selling exhibition, ever. Many viewers found it a transformative experience with many reports of people feeling relaxed, and lifted by the work.

When working with a select area of an artist’s oeuvre who has such a huge, and valuable body of work, one of the main challenges can be securing the artworks needed for the exhibition.

Henri Matisse <i>The Parakeet and the Mermaid</i> (1952) <br> Photo: via Newsweek

Henri Matisse The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952)
Photo: via Newsweek

“We were dealing with very rare and precious artworks and in many cases we knew that these artworks were the crown jewels of many collections around the world,” said Frigeri to artnet News.

Henri Matisse is a well-known, and much loved artist. His work seems a natural fit for a retrospective at Tate Modern, but Frigeri believes it was a fresh angle that drew museum-goers to the exhibition in their droves.

“Most people know Matisse, but they were excited to see a side of Matisse that they weren’t necessarily that familiar with,” she explained. “I think that excitement about an artist that you know, but there’s still more to learn. The second thing that made it very popular was that it was a very colorful show, with very recognizable motifs and people like that…I think it’s Matisse plus the cut outs. It was a good combination.”

But there was no conversation about the potential success of the show in the initial stages. According to Frigeri, exhibitions at the Tate are more about bringing something to the art world, than breaking visitor records.

“When we set out to make these exhibitions we don’t necessarily think, “we are making a blockbuster exhibition”, we are more thinking that we are making a contribution.”

Valerie Steele

Dr. Valerie Steele
Photo: Aaron Cobbett

Dr. Valerie Steele is a fashion historian, curator, and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York

The bottom line is that however much we love to look at art, everyone gets dressed in the morning.

“I think the basic reason why the public really loves fashion exhibitions is that they are much easier than an art exhibition. Everybody feels capable of having an opinion about fashion.”

However, the consensus on “Savage Beauty” is that although it took the fashion exhibition to another level, the factors that lead to its success would be difficult to repeat.

“…The McQueen shows, both in New York and in London, are kind of exceptional, it goes way beyond your normal fashion exhibition, or even your fashion blockbuster exhibition. He was always so emotional, so visceral and they captured a lot of that feeling in the exhibition.”

<i>Gothic: Dark Glamour</i> by Dr. Valerie Steele <br> Photo: via valeriesteelfashion.com

Gothic: Dark Glamour by Dr. Valerie Steele which accompanied the 2008 exhibition of the same name
Photo: via valeriesteelfashion.com

But while one could make the assumption, in the wake of the success the McQueen show, that the atmospheric mise-en-scène of the exhibition could influence future shows, Steele doubts that this would take off in the art world.

“I think there will undoubtedly be attempts to add drama and theater to art exhibitions, but you are also going to find a lot more constraints than you would in fashion exhibitions. Historically, in fashion exhibitions, a lot of freedom has been given to the curator, or to the designer when he or she is alive, to create it. I think most of the artists would be thinking, Why are you trying to make something exciting around the work, why not focus on the work?”

“People really identify with fashion, people can come in with a lot of knowledge, like a fashion student or a designer, or they can come in with no knowledge, and they can all at some level identify with the idea of wearing clothes. They can think, “I’d love to wear that” or, “I’d never wear that”.”

It seems that the consensus is the that fashion has the popular vote. At least for now.

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