THE BLOCKBUSTER EFFECT
In the rush to create iconic architecture and attract big shows, how far are museums and galleries moving from their core principles? Plus: four regional galleries move into the future.
BY: Richard White
In the spring of 2009, I was in Europe researching how different cities create their own “sense of place.” While in Paris, I couldn’t help but notice the role that large-scale exhibitions and iconic architecture play in creating that city’s identity. Everywhere, there were huge posters reminding visitors of the “not-to-be-missed” blockbuster retrospective exhibitions, all in iconic buildings around the city — Kandinsky and Calder at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Warhol at the Grand Palais, De Chirico at the Musée d’Art Moderne, and Rodin at Musée d’Orsay.
The idea of attracting the multitudes to art and museums with flashy retrospectives, highly publicized historical shows, and the shiny, new curlicued visions of starchitects is nothing new, and in places like Paris, New York, and Toronto, it’s certainly an accepted practice. What’s different now is that the mentality has firmly filtered down to smaller cities, and regional galleries, where curators and executive directors are confronting drastically changing financial futures, and public expectations. Add to that the warp-speed development of technology, and the splintering of the average attention span, and the whole issue takes on a greater significance. As a former executive director and curator of a public art gallery, this intrigues me.
Public art museums and galleries are no longer viewed by politicians and community leaders as places to experience culture — they’re seen as tourist attractions, catalysts for urban renewal and generators of economic development. The proposed relocation of the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon, south of its current location, will create an anchor for the city’s River Landing redevelopment plan. Similarly, the proposed new location for the Vancouver Art Gallery is on the periphery of the downtown core and is linked to a major urban renewal project along False Creek. In Toronto, mega renovations of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario College of Art by architects Frank Gehry, Daniel Libiskind and Will Alsop, have given the city a new marketing brand — “Toronto’s Cultural Renaissance”. Gallery visitors no longer even need to go inside — they can see what all the buzz is about without leaving the street.
This modern era began in 1997 with Frank Gehry’s design for the new branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. What had once been a tourist backwater —a fading industrial city on the fringes of the Basque hinterlands — instantly became the hottest destination in the country, if not in all of Europe. It sparked a worldwide hunger to bring notice and visitors with cutting-edge cultural spaces. This was known as “the Bilbao effect.”
I was once told you should never judge the success of a new building in its first ten years, but should wait until the “lust of the new” has worn off and only then will you will see if the building has captured the public’s imagination and attracted a larger cultural shift.
A good example of this is the Winnipeg Art Gallery, designed by local architect Gustavo da Rosa and opened to much fanfare in 1971. This stark, triangular-shaped building has been compared to the prow of ship — I’ve always thought of it more like an iceberg, yet either way it stands in sharp contrast to the historic Bay store across the street, and occupies an iconic site at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Drive. Now almost 40 years later, though the building has become one of the most distinctive contemporary buildings in Western Canada, it hasn’t really been a catalyst for revitalization.
More currently, it looks like Bilbao is starting to lose its effect. The New York Times recently reported that cities were abandoning, or significantly scaling back plans for grand new cultural spaces. They cite the University of California’s now-cancelled Berkeley Art Museum, with a design by Toyo Ito. The fever for newer, grander, more expensive galleries and museums, part of the wider frenzy of financial “irrational exuberance” of the past decade, has already led to a hangover in the cultural sector. “The economic downturn has reined in a lot of these big dreams and has also led to questions about whether ambitious building projects from Buffalo to Berkeley ever made sense to begin with,” the Times writes.
Internally, executive directors and boards are increasingly focusing on generating more revenue with space rentals for special events, gift shop sales, and onsite dining. Tony Luppino, former executive director of the Art Gallery of Alberta, laments “More and more we are turning our public galleries into special event spaces that host events that have little or nothing to do with the appreciation of art. In today’s museum world, fundraising and event managers’ salaries are often higher than those of the chief curators. What does that say?”
In the galleries themselves, it’s no longer enough to install an exhibition, put up some labels and a curatorial statement, and publish an academic catalogue after the show closes. Curators and education managers collaborate on audio tours, videos of artists in their studios, talks, behind-the-scenes tours and hands-on activity centres all designed to help put art and artists into context for visitors with a thoroughly modern expectation of passive entertainment and education.
“We are more visitor-focused than ever” says Ann Davis, executive director of the Nickle Arts Museum at the University of Calgary. “We’ve learned from educators about how people learn and how to better communicate with our audience. Not everyone learns in the same way, so we have to be more flexible. Some learn by text, some by touch, others by seeing and listening.” Today, visitors to the Nickle can pick up an iPod at the front desk, and wander the gallery, listening to their own personalized tour.
In Tony Luppino’s opinion, the push to be more entertaining is the result of how museums are funded today — less and less government funding increases the need for earned revenue (from memberships, admission, gift shops, restaurants, special exhibition fees). This results in executive directors who have to be more astute marketers with strong public relations skills and curators who spend more time administering travelling exhibitions. Some argue the blockbuster exhibitions with their mandatory exhibition mascots (Andy Warhol or Emily Carr look-a-likes) turn the visual arts into the performing arts or worse, Disney-style experiences.
The flip side of that is clear — travelling exhibitions of art by accessible, pop-culture artists, and curios like the treasures of King Tut capture media attention, which in turn attracts new visitors to the gallery, who are then encouraged to enjoy the other exhibitions on view.
Galleries from the Vancouver Art Gallery to the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon have to successfully balance curatorial concerns — and the need to foster regional art and artists — with the obvious attractions of popular shows. Places like Calgary’s Glenbow Museum have a long tradition of integrating major travelling exhibitions with collection-based shows that reflect a regional interest. The Southern Alberta Art Gallery, in Lethbridge, one of the smaller public galleries in western Canada, has a history of successfully helping to launch the careers of major Canadian artists like Janet Cardiff and David Hoffos with cutting-edge solo exhibitions and uncompromising curatorial practice.
In Brandon, the director and curator of the AGSM feel the pressure to boost visitor numbers, though on a smaller, more regional scale. “We accommodate the pressure through local relevance,” says director Jennifer Woodbury. “For example, the Memorial Cup (junior hockey championship) will be held in Brandon in May, and we’re bringing in a travelling show organized by the Maclaren Art Centre (in Barrie, Ontario) called Hockey Town. It’s hardly a blockbuster, but it will attract a larger audience because it reflects the very current concerns of this community.”
Just as her counterparts are doing in larger centres and bigger, fancier galleries, Woodbury and her colleagues have to balance expectations with curatorial concerns. Amber Andersen, curator at the AGSM, has an interesting perspective. “Just because an exhibition is deemed a “blockbuster” doesn’t mean it’s not challenging or relevant, rather, it touches a chord with the public. I think an important question to ask is, what is it about these exhibitions that make them so popular with the public? I think you can curate exhibitions that are both popular and critical. But an exhibition shouldn’t be curated only because it will be popular — to do so strips the art and the artists of their voice, and namely their power.”
Richard White is the former executive director and curator of Calgary’s Muttart Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of Calgary). He is currently an associate with Riddell Kurczaba Architects, and has written extensively on architecture and cultural capital.