Art and the Global Economy

John Zarobell
University of California Press
Chapter 2, Museum Exhibitions in the Era of Globalization, Pages 64 to 67

1 The Allure and Mechanics of the Blockbuster

…. For collecting institutions, the blockbuster is a way of winning recognition of the significance of the collection. You may have walked by that painting the last time you were in the museum, but now that you see it in its proper context, you understand its significance and world-class standing. It is also, quite frankly, a cash cow, and though it may be quite expensive to organize, it will drive so much traffic to the museum that proceeds from new memberships, ticket sales, and auxiliary services, such as shops and restaurants, can more than offset any deficits from the fiscal year. This popularity that yields so much income has resulted in a number of transformations that have significant implications for museums (Alexander 1996). Even institutions whose collections are major tourist attractions have been transformed by the development of an exhibition program that is reliant upon blockbuster-like success to sustain the growth that has resulted from previous blockbusters.

The number of blockbuster exhibitions has increased significantly as a result of globalization. Both the spread of information across previously differentiated cultures and the increased network that allows art works to be transported safely to a much broader area than previously conceivable have increased the scope of the blockbuster phenomenon considerably. This has implications for every art museum, and it has produced something of a backlash. As Blake Gopnik wrote in the Art Newspaper, “The quaint old notion of the museum as a haven for the contemplation of the art it owns has given way to the museum as a cog in the exhibition industrial complex” (Gopnik 2013, n.p.). Since the number of works available for blockbuster exhibitions has not increased, the number of loan requests for works of art has skyrocketed (Barker 1999; McClellan 2008). This dynamic forces collecting museums to determine what the best interest of the art work is and to square that against their own exhibition ambitions. While conservators and collections managers sometimes cry foul, reciprocity is the name of the game: every loan request accepted yields a favorable approach to one’s next loan request, while every loan request refused opens the door for the next loan request to be rejected on similar grounds.

One doesn’t have to be an economist to figure out that the more exhibitions succeed, the more they will be proposed, and further, the more in demand works of art that might be put to such uses are, the more difficult and expensive blockbuster shows will be to mount as time goes on (Moss 2011; Waterfield 2011). It seems almost an impossible conundrum until one remembers that collecting museums are always seeking new funding streams, and that funding a blockbuster exhibition, whether as an institution or a private organization, is very likely to yield a profit no matter how much it costs. Blockbusters have thus become a global business model, changing museums from within and without.

The idea of the blockbuster exhibition may be a relatively new development (the term began to be used in the United States in the 1970s), the roots of the blockbuster go further back, at least to the nineteenth century. The Crystal Palace Exhibition, held in London in 1851, began a tradition of World’s Fairs, originally designed to highlight advances in manufacturing and trades, but that also featured the works of artists and designers (Csaszar 1996–97; McClellan 2008). The first section under the rubric of Fine Arts appeared at the 1855 Exposition universelle in Paris and drew throngs of visitors to both monographic galleries of prominent French artists (Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, among others) and to an  international competition for contemporary paintings and sculpture from around the world (Mainardi 1987). As time went on, photography and architecture were added to such exhibitions, and the popular event called the international blockbuster thus has a long and storied history (Barker 1999).

The 1990s seem to be the decade when blockbuster exhibitions came into their own as a universal phenomenon in art museums. During these years, the number of major shows spiked, drawing countless new visitors to exhibitions worldwide. Some examples would be the Cezanne retrospective held at the Grand Palais in Paris, the National Gallery in London, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In Philadelphia, the number of visitors over the summer reportedly topped 777,000, at an institution that usually welcomed that many visitors in an entire year (Csaszar 1996–97). Not to be outdone, the Art Institute of Chicago organized a Monet exhibition the same year that drew 965,000. In Sao Paolo, the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, normally attracting 70,000 visitors a year, hosted a Monet exhibition that brought in 435,000 in 1999 (Sepulveda dos Santos 2001).

If we think of the blockbuster exhibition as a crowd-pleasing show promoted to attract a broad range of visitors, its rise tells us something about the maturity of art museums with universal collections. Museums had previously focused on serving as regional cultural bastions for the limited number of those interested in art, but then Thomas Hoving of the Metropolitan Museum, among others, had the pioneering idea of putting on exhibitions that would increase the museum’s prominence and bring in new attendees (Hoving 1993).

A little known fact is that many major museums around the United States, and indeed the world, were the permanent result of a temporary exhibition. The Philadelphia Museum of Art began in 1876, as a result of the Centennial Exhibition hosted in the city that year. When the time came to close up the show, many exhibitors donated their wares to the city and the art works were housed in a building built for the fair, Memorial Hall (Brownlee 1993). Similarly, the De Young Museum in San Francisco was originally built as part of the Panama Pacific Exhibition held there in 1915. The trend continues to this day. The China Art Museum that opened in 2012 in Shanghai was built for the 2010 World Expo, where the building – then called the China Pavilion – was a gargantuan modern pastiche of Chinese temple architecture.

In two years, the state transformed it into a museum housing modern and contemporary Chinese art. Since many museums began as the permanent residue of blockbuster exhibitions, it is a sign that they have come of age as a cultural force when museums begin to stage their own blockbusters….

John Zarobell is assistant professor of international studies at the University of San Francisco and has held curatorial positions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

© 2017 by The Regents of the University of California

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