The blockbuster exhibit has become part of the modus operandi of modern museums and arts institutions. But what does it mean to present art in this way? What concerns and responsibilities does an institution have as it draws in enormous crowds to look at famous art and artifacts? In this context, do viewers still meaningfully connect with art? As the High Museum, Atlanta’s largest arts institution, prepares for its latest exhibit Frida & Diego—running from February 14-May 12—it seems a good opportunity to reflect on the nature of the blockbuster.
Certainly, art on a large scale and for a large audience is nothing new. “Bigger, greater, more” has seemingly been one credo informing Western art since the beginning. The pyramids, the Parthenon, the cathedral at Chartres, you name it—all of them busted some blocks in their time and continue to do so to this day. Frenchmen famously lined up en bloc to get a glimpse of David’s The Death of Marat. For years, artists clamored to be included in the French Academy’s big annual official exhibition, the Salon, until they clamored to be left out. Modern art itself arrived on our shores by way of a blockbuster exhibit—the much derided, but nonetheless seminal, New York Armory Show of 1913. There has always been the sense that interface with viewers is essential to art and that artistic progress cannot fail to attract a lot of it.
The term ‘blockbuster’ was originally coined to describe a high capacity World War II aerial bomb weighing up to 12,000 pounds. The slang term literally described the damage that the bomb was capable of doing to a city block. Later in the 1950s, the word was applied metaphorically to successful productions that had a big public impact such as hit plays and Hollywood movies. The term eventually migrated to cover almost anything big in the entertainment world: best-selling books, video games, and, of course, exhibitions.
But it wasn’t just movement of the term blockbuster across the cultural landscape in the latter half of the twentieth century, it was a sort of ethos spreading as well. With ever faster communication, rapidly developing media, and advances in technology that allowed for more spectacular productions and faster dissemination of cultural artifacts, viewers began to long for—and receive—the thrill of communal aesthetic experience that included an ever-widening circle of participants. You didn’t just sit alone and fear a shark in Jaws: you could now be frightened with millions of others. Hollywood has always sought to make hits, writers have always sought to connect to readers, museums have always sought to draw in visitors—but a new sense of scale developed.
The first real modern blockbuster exhibit—perhaps the granddaddy model of them all—was the traveling exhibition The Treasures of Tutankhamen, which toured the world in several incarnations (and I believe it still does). Its blockbuster life ran from about 1972-1981 when the exhibition broke attendance records everywhere, gathering all the force of a cultural tidal wave, and sparking a renewed interest in ancient Egypt (and a song by Steve Martin). The exhibition showed the public and curators alike that art didn’t necessarily mean silent, solitary contemplation in mausoleum-like halls. The public could be drawn in; the exhibition of artifacts could collect the cyclonic, significant force of a blockbusting cultural moment. Big and sexy temporary exhibits could entice viewers in a way that ever-faithful permanent collections never could. Since then, many museums and cultural institutions have sought to emulate this model in a familiar format: Big names, big art, get it while it’s hot.
So, with blockbuster exhibits, curators organize exhibitions people want to see, more people look at great art, and cultural institutions end up with big receipts and balanced budgets, which in turn can allow for development and maintenance of smaller profile exhibitions and collections. Everyone is happy, yes? Well…
If nothing else, art critics are experts at finding something to complain about, and sniff it out they did. Critics began to wonder quite seriously about what effect the blockbuster-style exhibit was having on arts institutions and museums.
The critical hand wringing became a collective retch when the Guggenheim Museum in New York hosted Art of the Motorcycle in 1998. Displaying 114 motorcycles from the twentieth century in the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda, the exhibit was a huge hit with the public. However, for some critics, the exhibit crossed an invisible line, especially considering it was sponsored by German car and motorcycle manufacturer BMW. There was even more vocal criticism surrounding the same institution’s retrospective of Armani outfits in 2000 (with Giorgio Armani as a major benefactor).
By the time flashy art dealer Jeffrey Deitch began his directorship at LA MOCA in 2010 with exhibitions of photographs by Hollywood star Dennis Hopper and street art, it seemed the happy, golden age of the blockbuster had come to an end, and a new chilly, wintery age had set in. Several board members of LA MOCA published a scathing letter in the LA Times and left the institution—including the resignation of all artists on its board of trustees—in response to Deitch’s tenure. In an era when banks and businesses were described as “too big to fail,” bigness was also becoming an issue for museums, too. Many curators argued that big and flashy were the only way forward—small and quiet doesn’t win the day. It appears there’s no choice anymore: Go big or go home.
Cultural critic Camille Paglia (who isn’t in the habit of sugarcoating her take on things) recently summed up some of the frustrations about the changing face of museums in a recent interview, in which she described a revisit to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon for consideration in her latest book Glittering Images.
“Let me tell you,” she told me, “it was damned hard to stand in front of that painting. I kept being shoved aside by hordes of aggressive European tourists flashing their cameras at it. Major museums have turned into circuses where contemplativeness is rare indeed.”
The High Museum has been no stranger to the blockbuster exhibit phenomenon. From 2008’s The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, recent MoMA partnership exhibitions Picasso to Warhol and Fast Forward: Modern Moments, and the upcoming Girl with the Pearl Earring, big temporary exhibitions are enormously popular with viewers and an ongoing part of the High’s mission, though they’ve often been the subject of criticism that such exhibitions have received elsewhere. The new exhibition of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, two of the most famous artists of the twentieth century with individually appealing work and fascinating biographies, joins a long line of exhibitions, and it’s expected to be a major draw for the museum in the early months of 2013.
High curators first became interested in hosting a major Kahlo exhibit about ten years ago, and specifically displaying Kahlo’s work alongside her beloved collection of retablos, small folk paintings of saints and miracles that were once popular in Mexico. It was soon discovered, however, that the retablos never left their own block, Kahlo’s famous former residence, the Casa Azul in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City. Even without the retablos, organizing such an exhibit proved to be enormously challenging because the artist’s work is always in demand for some blockbuster somewhere.
“Works by Frida Kahlo—she only did, we think, about 150-250 paintings—are incredibly difficult to borrow,” says David Brenneman, the High’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions. “Everybody is borrowing them all the time.”
With the cooperation of several Mexican institutions and some key loans, the High, along with the Art Gallery of Ontario, which first hosted the exhibit, was able to assemble the largest joint exhibition of Kahlo and Rivera works ever.
“We realized this was a unique opportunity,” says Brenneman. “These major Mexican institutions were making their collections available in a way that hadn’t been before. These are artists we’ve wanted to show for a long time. We have to jump on certain opportunities when they present themselves. There’s really no choice … Doing a blockbuster for the sake of a blockbuster isn’t what we’re doing. We’re doing great art we hope a lot of people will see. We want as many people to come to the table as possible.”
The museum expects and wants a lot of people to come see the art—it’s part and parcel of the High’s mission.
“If we didn’t have the special exhibitions, I suspect our galleries would be very quiet,” says Brenneman. “One of the side benefits of doing these exhibits is that it feeds people into our permanent collection. I believe that it stems in part from the phenomenon of ‘If it’s always there, I’ll always have time to see it in the future.’ There’s no compelling need. If it’s only here temporarily, people feel a much greater sense of urgency to come to the museum.”
Like all of its fellow blockbusters, the exhibition comes with its share of audio guides, apps, videos, a gift shop, a film series, and festive events—all to guide visitors’ experiences and establish a personal connection with the art. And, for the first time, a High exhibition and all its materials will be bilingual (English and Spanish), a perhaps overdue development in a rapidly changing South.
There’s no two ways about it: Kahlo and Rivera’s work together at the High is a fantastic ‘can’t miss’ art event, one that will reach out to a huge number of viewers with exciting, significant work that will be here for just a short time.
But still… In 1943, when Frida Kahlo painted her Self-Portrait with Monkeys—key painting in the new exhibit—it seems unlikely she ever imagined her image would one day also be on T-shirts and billboards, the side of buses, tote bags and mouse pads. Or that the canvas itself would attract a non-stop flow of visitors—families and school children, tour groups and art lovers—filing past in droves of hundreds, even thousands, hour after hour, day after day, for months at a time. There’s a huge machine designed to package, circulate and expose that image around the world, and still Kahlo unceasingly stares out at the passing crowds with that imperious, quiet, private, almost perversely intense gaze. The fact that so many of us are eager to gaze back at her has simply become, for better or worse, another part of the picture.
Museum doors should, inarguably, be opened wide. People, and preferably a lot of them, should see art. But there’s also pressing legitimacy to concerns that the lingering quietness and independent meditative contemplation that are the solace and fertile ground of art viewership are being trampled by the new format—the crowded, corralling experience of the blockbuster. It’s a challenging moment indeed if the art and its mode of presentation are at odds.
Note: Brenneman helpfully points out that those who want a quieter, more contemplative experience can come at off-peak hours, generally early in the week and in the afternoon, after the school groups are gone. Come earlier in the exhibition’s run as opposed to towards the end, as word of mouth recommendations get out and viewers realize the exhibition’s clock is ticking.