Is Bigger Always Better?

Article excerpt

Museums have become `addicted' to the blockbuster approach to art appreciation, say critics of megashows that `train' people to visit museums only when big exhibits come to town.

Eric Phillips, dressed in scruffy T-shirt and jeans, looks like he needs a shave. A tanned and prosperous-looking couple approach him. Looking about for police, he leads them to an abandoned building, where a transaction takes place: They hand him $75; he hands back three slips of paper -- tickets to "Van Gogh's Van Gogh," the art exhibition now running at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

"Selling tickets like this is pretty good for a quick buck," he says about his career as a scalper. "I don't have a car, and ever since the Redskins moved out of town this has been a good way to make money."

Finished with football, Phillips has moved to a new spectator sport: fine art. "Blockbuster" museum shows have become big business. An independent study of the 1996 Cezanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art found that the exhibition, which brought 800,000 visitors to the city, generated $120 million in spin-off revenue: a huge boon for Philadelphia's downtown. Similarly, tickets to the van Gogh show disappeared within hours after they became available.

Although major shows have drawn crowds since museums started packaging art, experts agree that the modern era began with the national tour of artifacts from King Tutankhamen's tomb. "That was the first one; it's one that went down in history," says Eileen Harakal, vice president of marketing and public relations at the Art Institute of Chicago, about the exhibit that traveled the states between 1978 and 1981. "Everyone remembers it."

Blockbusters have focused on everything from motorcycles (a recent show at the Guggenheim in New York) to Picasso. But museums most often return to 18th- and 19th-century European and American painters with unimpeachable reputations and name recognition. Tickets for such exhibitions are relatively inexpensive, averaging around $10, due to corporate underwriting. Government and business-improvement districts toss in as well.

Meanwhile, museum marketers arrange package deals with local hotels, restaurants and other major cultural institutions in town. "Sometimes curators come up with something that we know we can really market and really bring in a lot of people," says Sandra Horrocks, director of public affairs at the Philadelphia museum, "and sometimes, it's something of tremendous scholarly and intellectual value that's just hard to get people into."

Curators may have the hardest job of all, forced to cater to a variety of audiences at once. A show of Mary Cassat's paintings at Chicago's Art Institute, for example, included elementary definitions of impressionism and sophisticated analysis of the artist's brushwork and technique. …