Is it curtains for the blockbuster exhibition?
The numbers are in. According to The Art Newspaper's yearly survey, Ai Weiwei is officially the world's most popular artist. His travelling show Root attracted over 1.1 million visitors across four Brazilian cities. Scrolling down the Top 20 list I see some of the usual suspects: Van Gogh is there, of course, as is the crassly commercialised Treasures of Golden Pharaoh show. King Tut's belongings first went on an American tour in 1976 as the result of a political deal brokered between the US and the Egyptian government. Soft power at its finest and, lo and behold, the modern blockbuster show was born.
But this is 2020, a pandemic is raging dictating new rules and changing the way we live our lives. And let's not forget about climate change, that'll remain a pressing issue long after we will have put COVID-19 behind us. And I have questions, many questions. How will museums tackle the challenge of crowd management at a time where social distancing may become part of the 'new normal', how will they address the question around the bigger work force needed to make it all possible, will they be able to afford the expensive media campaigns to promote the events as well as the high costs to cover the artworks' insurance? And although this is likely to only benefit the bigger museums, is there an opportunity to refocus on existing collections? What role will social media and digital solutions play in this drastically changed scenario? Last but by no means least, what of the environmental impact of these thousands of globetrotting objects being flown from one museum to the other and the millions of people who move with and for them?
I may be wrong, but I am getting a sense that the blockbuster exhibition model as we know it has run its course. Who knows, this unwelcome pause might well end up being the catalyst for the museum world to think of new, safer and more sustainable ways to facilitate access to art. And for us art lovers to perhaps think more freely about what it is that we expect from the art show experience and from museums as a whole.
Ai Weiwei poses in front of his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015.
Photo: © Dave Parry Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London.