Blockbuster Shows Are Ruining Art Museums – When cultural institutions rely on monster traveling shows like Kusama and Bowie, we all lose.
Slate | Felix Salmon
They should have called it Kusama: Infinity War. The biggest blockbuster in Hirshhorn Museum history opened in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 23, 2017, and was ultimately seen by nearly 160,000 people before moving on to Seattle, Los Angeles, and now Toronto.* Up next: Cleveland and Atlanta. All those cities were locked in before opening date. They knew exactly what they were getting, much like theaters showing the new Avengers movie. Blockbusters these days are predictable and highly lucrative. The Hirshhorn saw its membership increase by 6,566 percent as a result of putting on Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, and advance tickets in Seattle had sold out before it even opened there. The David Bowie Is show that’s been touring the world for five years now has been seen by millions; if you want to go to its final stop in Brooklyn, New York, tickets could set you back as much as $2,500. Infinity Mirrors, then, is not so very far from Infinity War. Both of them rely heavily on whiz-bang visual spectacle and overwhelming social media chatter; both of them use FOMO as a key driver of attendance. And both of them draw more than the institutions that house them.
Today’s blockbuster is different from its predecessors not just in degree, but in kind. Jaws was a blockbuster, but it was also recognizably a movie that could be judged like and against other movies. Infinity War isn’t like that: In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott even declared at the outset that it “shouldn’t really be thought of as a movie at all.” Much the same is increasingly true of museum blockbusters. They achieve two important goals for any museum: They increase attendance, and they increase revenue. But lately, museum professionals are beginning to wonder whether these shows just create sugar highs that weaken the institution as a whole and foster a junkie-like need to bring in bigger and bigger blockbusters. In an ideal world, museums should be able to attract visitors simply by showing their permanent collections to best effect. If a museum becomes popular by putting on blockbusters, then people start to think of it as a place to check out temporary exhibitions and see no reason to go there at any other time…read more
Image: Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibition curator Mika Yoshitake poses at the Hirshhorn Museum on Feb. 21, 2017 in Washington. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images