News and Features

Who Saw What at Art Museums, Worldwide and in Texas, 2011

I’m extremely wary of the entire econo-aesthetics of the blockbuster art exhibition, the touring Broadway musical of the museum world. Case in point: The dreadful King Tut exhibition which, according to The Art Newspaper, is still out there, raking in the shekels. It continues to rank as one of the more lucrative shows around.

So The Art Newspaper‘s annual lists can make for profoundly dispiriting reading. As new DMA director Maxwell Anderson once asked in an interview, why should such a crude, limited metric — attendance — be the sole measurement of an arts organization’s success?

The museums whose annual attendance rank at the top of these things are generally the museums that rank at the top of these things — the Louvre, the Met, the Tate Modern, the National Gallery in Washington — and the top-drawing exhibitions are pretty much what you might expect as well.

Well, actually, not entirely. The great service The Art Newspaper does is provide some context, some data trends. Perhaps most interestingly — especially for the Kimbell and its current The Age of Impressionism exhibition — is that although Impressionism continues to draw big, it and the Old Masters shows no longer dominate the entire field. “Increasingly, contemporary artists figure highly” — including Jasper Johns at MOMA in New York, fashion designer Alexander McQueen at the Met, Picasso everywhere and both MC Escher and Laurie Anderson in Brazil.

What’s also revealing is the frighteningly ramped-up nature of the blockbuster. As The Art Newspaper reports, in 1996, it took an attendance of around 3,000 visitors per day to put a particular show in the top 10. Last year, it required more than double that, almost 7,000 visitors per day. Those figures are revealing in that I don’t think the recent Gaultier fashion show at the Dallas Museum of Art — which the New York Times reported was one of the museum’s ‘top 10′ for drawing 115,000 visitors — will make the cut (for one thing, it ran in both 2011 and 2012 and I haven’t figured out how the Art Newspaper handles such split-year schedules).

What’s encouraging in those top exhibitions, though, is the occasional museum that turned a relatively low-cost rummaging through its permanent collection into a blockbuster,  notably MOMA’s Abstract Expressionism New York.

In any event, you’ve read patiently through all this with one question in mind — did any area museum make it anywhere on to all these charts?and the answer is Yes, on the expanded list of the top several hundred shows (but with no mention of any show from Houston, which makes me mighty curious).

The Kimbell appears twice — for Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea and Picasso and Braque, while Fort Worth’s Modern makes the charts once, for Ed Ruscha.

Meanwhile, the DMA appears four times: for African Masks, Silence and Time, Gustav Stickley, Re-Seeing the Contemporary and, especially, The Mourners. It tells you a lot about scale and economics that the biggest daily attendance out of all those North Texas shows was just 707 visitors — for The Mourners.

Yet The Mourners get a special mention because it was one of the top 10 medieval shows in the world, which is notable just for the list’s existence: “The most significant aspect of these figures is that medieval art has for the first time in three years achieved ten entries, thus halting a serious decline in popular interest in art of the Christian centuries. ” Perhaps it’s because the public prefers looking at paintings, not manuscripts or tapestries. “The exception that proves the rule is, however, the traveling exhibition of the Valois tomb figures from Dijon in Dallas.”