Blockbuster Shows Are Ruining Art Museums

When cultural institutions rely on monster traveling shows like Kusama and Bowie, we all lose.

Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors exhibition curator Mika Yoshitake poses its the Souls of Millions of Light Years Away at the Hirshhorn Museum February 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibition curator Mika Yoshitake poses at the Hirshhorn Museum on Feb. 21, 2017 in Washington. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

They should have called it Kusama: Infinity War. The biggest blockbuster in Hirshhorn Museum history opened in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 23, 2017, and was ultimately seen by nearly 160,000 people before moving on to Seattle, Los Angeles, and now Toronto.* Up next: Cleveland and Atlanta. All those cities were locked in before opening date. They knew exactly what they were getting, much like theaters showing the new Avengers movie.

Blockbusters these days are predictable and highly lucrative. The Hirshhorn saw its membership increase by 6,566 percent as a result of putting on Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, and advance tickets in Seattle had sold out before it even opened there. The David Bowie Is show that’s been touring the world for five years now has been seen by millions; if you want to go to its final stop in Brooklyn, New York, tickets could set you back as much as $2,500.

Infinity Mirrors, then, is not so very far from Infinity War. Both of them rely heavily on whiz-bang visual spectacle and overwhelming social media chatter; both of them use FOMO as a key driver of attendance. And both of them draw more than the institutions that house them.

Today’s blockbuster is different from its predecessors not just in degree, but in kind. Jaws was a blockbuster, but it was also recognizably a movie that could be judged like and against other movies. Infinity War isn’t like that: In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott even declared at the outset that it “shouldn’t really be thought of as a movie at all.”

Much the same is increasingly true of museum blockbusters. They achieve two important goals for any museum: They increase attendance, and they increase revenue. But lately, museum professionals are beginning to wonder whether these shows just create sugar highs that weaken the institution as a whole and foster a junkie-like need to bring in bigger and bigger blockbusters. In an ideal world, museums should be able to attract visitors simply by showing their permanent collections to best effect. If a museum becomes popular by putting on blockbusters, then people start to think of it as a place to check out temporary exhibitions and see no reason to go there at any other time.

Some museum directors embrace that vision as the future they want. Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, oversees an institution with assets totaling $2.2 billion, including an endowment that grew by $87 million in 2017 alone. Yet he maintains that MoMA is “woefully under-capitalized,” and that the museum “should be doing should be ten times what we’re currently doing” in terms of programming. In other words: Events are the new objects. They’re just vastly more expensive, on an annual basis, than the alternative of simply keeping the permanent collection on the wall, maybe with an occasional rehang.

The economics of blockbusters might make sense for giants like MoMA or Disney, whose $4.2 billion acquisition of Marvel turns out, in hindsight, to have been one of the smartest M&A deals of the past couple of decades. The Mouse isn’t stopping there, either: It has now agreed to pay $52 billion to buy most of 21st Century Fox, very much including its X-Men franchise, soon to be incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Smaller museums, on the other hand, and smaller studios, can’t compete in that kind of winner-takes-all world. Blockbusters effectively ratchet up expectations everywhere, to the point at which lower-budget affairs can no longer capture the public imagination. That’s bad for most museums, and it’s bad for the public, too, which will increasingly subsist on the cultural equivalent of junk food.

After all, museums have historically been object-centered places devoted to displaying the world’s most precious artistic treasures. Objects aren’t intrinsically very expensive: Once they’re donated by a collector, all they really need to do is sit there and be beautiful and important. A well-tended, well-preserved collection doesn’t even need to change over time: Look at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, essentially unmodified since 1833, and to this day one of the most delightful and enlightening places one could ever hope to spend an afternoon.

Even enormous museums can play the same game. Uptown from MoMA at the equally well-endowed Metropolitan Museum of Art, CEO David Weiss still feels comfortable announcing that blockbusters “do not reflect The Met’s tradition of embracing exhibitions that combine scholarship with accessibility.” Its Interwoven Globe exhibit from a few years ago, for instance, was based mostly on the Met’s own permanent collection and was utterly revelatory.

Of course, the Met puts on no shortage of blockbusters itself, and the institution even occasionally boasts about how successful they are. But the fact is that the Met is one of a handful of institutions, along with places like the Louvre, the Prado, and Disney World, that has achieved permanent blockbuster status in its own regard. Elsewhere, the outlook is significantly bleaker. The Met’s former director, Philippe de Montebello, is now chairman of the Hispanic Museum and Library, also in New York, which houses a glorious collection of Spanish masterpieces by the likes of Goya and Velazquez. But without high-profile exhibitions or a central Manhattan location it has languished, all but forgotten, for decades—and many other museums are staring down a similar fate.

At least in filmmaking, high-status fare is still enjoying a golden era on Netflix and Amazon if not in theaters. In the museum world, there are no such consolations. And at some point, directors and curators are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the more you feed people Kusama and Bowie, the more oxygen you suck out of the room for everybody else.

*Correction, May 2, 2018: The article originally misstated that the Kusama show opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in February 2018. It opened in February 2017.