New York Galleries Divided Over Blockbuster Shows

MoMA attendance falls, while the Met’s sky-rockets: and all thanks to the ‘Blockbuster’. But is it worth it?

In terms of attendance, last year proved a bad one for the Museum of Modern Art, with attendance dropping 11 % to 2.8 million… but a great one for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with admissions rising to a record 5.6 million! This disparity within New York has been put down to the ‘Blockbuster’ exhibition, with MoMA struggling to maintain its numbers after the massive success of major exhibitions by Tim Burton and Marina Abramovic in the previous year. Equally, the Met’s figures can be attributed to the exhibition of outfits and accessories by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

It seems, then, that general-interest events are back in a big way, offering museums and galleries with a make-or-break proposition: ‘Dumb down to secure those crucial admissions figures; or remain lofty and risk becoming utterly irrelevant’. In the words of Lisa Dennison, a Sotheby’s executive and former director of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; ‘We may be seeing a return to the era of the blockbuster’.

The 660,000 people that came to visit ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ made it the 141-year-old Met’s eighth-most-popular exhibition. But even these statistics are dwarfed by those of MoMA’s Tim Burton show which attracted 810,511 visitors: for MoMA this was a boom year contributing to a record 3.1 million visitors in 2009-2010. But is this trade-off worth it? In other words, is there an intrinsic value in simply going to a museum – irrespective of content? Dennison comments on how ‘There is a temptation to do exhibits that are crowd pleasers or blockbusters’, but maintains that ‘The secret is balance.’

Then again, perhaps we ought to forgive these antics given the economic climate, as ‘Blockbuster’ shows have undoubtedly given museums and galleries a chance to weather the current storm. Attendance is vital for the survival of museums, affecting revenues at all levels from the box office, to food, retail and membership. And the Met and MoMA do appear to have bounced back from the recession remarkably well. Remember, for instance, how, in 2008-09, the Met was compelled to cut 14% of staff: well now, incredibly, they have a $1.3 million operating surplus for last season. Similarly, MoMA clocked a $2.7 million surplus last season, enabling it to buy the building of the neighbouring American Folk Art Museum in order to expand.

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