Museums' Newest Art: The Sale of Entertainment

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

Museums' Newest Art: The Sale of Entertainment


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


For many years, until the 1950s, American museums were chiefly storehouses of great art. They were usually quiet repositories where we could commune with art on our own. We had to do our own communing; it wasn't done for us.

With the advent of blockbuster exhibitions and museum education departments that tell us how to see and think, this all changed. Museums catered to their audiences with audio guides to exhibits and detailed explanatory labeling on objects. With blockbusters and other special exhibits, museums tried to engage and entertain a broader, larger public.

The key word here is entertain. Museums, like other purveyors of leisure-time activities, are there for both the audiences and the buck. Have you noticed how the guards click their counters when you enter a museum? They're clocking you to add to the total number of visitors so the museum can justify its existence to its board of directors, its funders or, here, to Congress.

But just last year there were dire predictions that blockbusters were dead. The lackluster economy was going to bury them.

It's just not so. The National Gallery of Art is about to showcase the largest exhibition of Olmec art ever. It opened 11 major exhibits in 12 weeks last fall. The Cezanne show in Philadelphia and the Picasso exhibit in New York are drawing record crowds. There are even hotel and dining package deals for the Cezanne.

Former National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown is about to open the biggest blockbuster of them all, his $3.2 million "Rings: Five Passions in World Art." Premiering July 4 at Atlanta's High Museum of Art in honor of the Olympic Games' centennial, it will display 129 masterpieces from around the world, span some 7,500 years and cover most of the world's cultures.

So what's wrong with that? Nothing, as long as it also directs "Rings" visitors to the High's rich permanent collections and interests them enough to keep them coming back. …

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