The lure of the blockbuster

April 21 2015

Image of The lure of the blockbuster

Picture: TAN

I love a blockbuster exhibition, and I love smaller offbeat ones too. Many bemoan the prevalence of the former these days, but as Charles Saumarez Smith points out in The Art Newspaper,* blockbusters have always been with us. Do read the full article, which looks at the history of the blockbuster from the 19th Century in Britain. But Charles focuses onto his experience of such shows at the Royal Academy, of which he is Chief Executive:

In the past two decades, our most successful exhibitions have been the two Monet shows held in 1990 and 1999, which attracted 7,003 and 8,597 visitors a day respectively. The Van Gogh exhibition in 2010 drew 4,785 visitors a day; David Hockney in 2012 drew an average of 7,512 a day; and “Manet: Portraying Life” in 2013 drew 4,359 a day.  

What conclusions can one draw from a historical analysis of exhibition numbers? Statistically, exhibitions by the Impressionists have always come top, not just in Britain and the US, but most of all in Japan. The Pre-Raphaelites are also popular, as was evident when we exhibited Waterhouse in 2009, and when Tate Britain showed “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” in 2012. In recent years, we have demonstrated that contemporary artists can be as popular as the Impressionists. The Hockney exhibition was a mass cultural phenomenon, not only in London but also, more surprisingly, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, wh ere the show again got more than 500,000 visitors in a city with a population of only one million.

While we study our visitor numbers, and have to, this does not preclude trying to ensure a varied exhibition programme. We try to develop a portfolio of exhibitions in which the more commercial shows subsidise the loss-leaders. This year, “Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined” drew 167,906 visitors; an average of 2,332 a day. Anselm Kiefer drew 184,910; an average of 2,341 a day. What the bald numbers disguise is that both were particularly successful in drawing new visitors to the Royal Academy.

*which has a zippy new website - looks nice.

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