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Monday, 26 March, 2001, 07:23 GMT 08:23 UK
Are blockbuster exhibitions killing art?
Monet's Waterlilies
Monet's Water lilies - the definitive blockbuster?
By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy

The highly-regarded British art historian Francis Haskell recently traced the history of exhibitions in The Ephemeral Museum - a book completed just before his death.

Haskell put forward the idea that blockbuster exhibitions have become so important that they are taking over the traditional role of museums.

Botticelli's illustration of Inferno (Hell)
Botticelli's illustrations of Dante's Divine Comedy are together for the first time in 500 years
Museum directors, he said, are now judged by visitor numbers and publicity first and foremost, with scholarly knowledge no longer a pre-requisite for museum directors.

"The ideal modern director is likely to be someone well connected, with a flair for publicity," he wrote.

Visitor numbers as a criteria for success is a creditable idea in any democracy, but is it the way to have the best art exhibitions possible?

Last word

Haskell talks about Old Masters exhibitions in his book - work by Rembrandt, Vermeer and the like - but it is a small step to include contemporary blockbusters like, for example, Monet at The Royal Academy in 1998.

That show was enormously successful and was presented as the last word on Monet's late paintings.

The Guggenheim Museum, New York
The spiral walkway of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Guggenheim, New York
Unfortunately it could not be the last word, since Monet's important final works are housed permanently in Paris.

The blockbuster exhibition always requires a degree of hype, otherwise it would not be an event and would not attract a big enough audience.

In a reminder of the mixed nature of such shows, Haskell describes how Italian fascist Mussolini transported a range of Italian treasures to a London exhibition in 1930.

It was a propaganda triumph, attracting 540,000 visitors to Burlington House.

Hype

But some exhibitions deserve the hype, such as one currently at the Royal Academy of Arts.

It is showing an exhibition of Botticelli drawings, on loan from the Vatican and Berlin galleries.

Rightly, it is being trumpeted as an unmissable event.

Benito Mussolini in 1942
Mussolini engineered a magnificent blockbuster of Italian masters for London in 1930
Because they come from a variety of collections they probably will not be gathered again in the near future.

In fact, they will not be going to Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as planned because the Vatican fears legal wrangles over reproductions.

Ossian Ward of The Art Newspaper selects The Genius of Rome at the Royal Academy as another example of a "good blockbuster".

"What's brilliant about this exhibition is getting these works together and seeing even one of them is worth paying the entrance fee," he said.

But Ward does feel that some attempts to make art "glitzy and glamorous", for the sake of it - like Sensation at the Royal Academy or Century City at Tate Modern - just do not work.

'Idiotic attitude'

As art critic Jonathan Jones recently wrote: "The blockbuster exhibition encourages an idiotic attitude to art.

"We think that we're getting the best possible chance to see a certain artist or period in art."

Caravaggio's Boy Peeling a Green Apple
Caravaggios are rare enough that "seeing just one is worth the entrance price"
"There's always something chest-beating and phony about it. What we get is a selective view," he added.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York, which has triumphed with the universally acclaimed Bilbao, is taking such blockbuster exhibitions to a new level.

As Time magazine put it: "It has already taken the notion of global franchises farther than any other American palace of culture."

Earlier this year the Guggenheim announced an arrangement with the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Kuntshistorisches Museum in Vienna to share some of their collections at Guggenheim museums, including two new projects in Las Vegas.

Questions are being raised around the world as to the merits of such franchised art and suspicions that it might not be such a good idea to franchise art in this way.

But the Guggenheim puts such criticisms down to "jealousy".

"We're the first to do this and it's such an obviously good idea that everybody is copying us," said Lisa Dennison, deputy director and chief curator of The Guggenheim Museum.

Safety

"We're not aggressors and we're not imperialistic, we have simply taken the lead in a whole new paradigm in exhibiting art."

One obvious advantage to the scheme is that the Guggenheim's collection is entirely 20th century, whereas that of, say, the Hermitage pretty much ends in 1908.

As such they can swap masterpieces to create comprehensive exhibitions.

Some echo the concerns of Francis Haskell about the safety of art moving about the world at such rates.

"There's only so many ways you can stretch an art collection, so much travel it can take and so many franchises it can reach," said Ward.

But he added that if "amazing" museums like the Hermitage and the Kuntshistorishes want to collaborate with the Gugghenheim then there must be more on table than "just money".

Armani on the catwalk
The Guggenheim's Armani exhibition in New York was criticised but pulled crowds of visitors
Even the mighty Guggenheim cannot get whatever art it would like.

Dennison describes a recent meeting at the Hermitage where she expressed interest in their Breugels.

She was told in no uncertain terms they had never travelled, and they never would.

In the end the argument must be that getting people to see some art, any art cannot be such a bad thing.

Surprising audience

Ward recalls an exhibition called Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage at New York's Brooklyn Museum where visitors had to trek past galleries of huge 19th century landscape paintings to get to the show.

Surprising people saw and liked surprising works of art.

So does it really matter if blockbusters do not deliver "the last word" on their subject, if they offer an accessible way of getting to art for the average consumer?

But it's probably worth bearing Haskell in mind next time you visit an exhibition.

While there is still plenty of art in permanent collections that you can see for free, vitually alone and make your own mind up about - if you are that way inclined.

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