Visitor figures 2014: what do we want? Immersive installations by unfamiliar artists
US institutions think big names draw crowds, but the public is not as predictable as it seems
By Julia Halperin and Nilkanth Patel. Published online: 02 April 2015
For a contemporary artist, there is no higher honour than to receive a solo exhibition at a major museum. Who is most likely to be given this coveted opportunity? An analysis of 590 solo exhibitions, held at 68 US museums between 2007 and 2013, reflects biases that many knew existed in the art world—but also reveals that audiences do not share the same prejudices.
Museums dedicated a disproportionate number of exhibitions to men, painters and artists represented by top commercial galleries. Of the 590 solo shows during this six-year period, 429—around 73%—featured male artists. The Pop artist Andy Warhol, the Minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly and the painter and printmaker Jasper Johns had the most exposure: each had seven solo exhibitions during this period, more than any other artist. Male painters represented by top galleries were 7.3 times more likely to be given a solo exhibition than female painters represented by the same dealers (Gagosian Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Marian Goodman Gallery, Pace and David Zwirner).
What motivates a museum to organise an exhibition is very different from what motivates the public to visit one. Museums’ preference for male painters with strong commercial support reflects the enormous pressure they face to produce rapid-fire exhibitions, draw big audiences, please powerful board members and attract corporate and private sponsorship. But if these statistics reflect museums’ assumptions about what audiences want to see, they may want to reconsider.
Painters were entirely absent from our list of the ten best-attended solo shows of the past six years, compiled from The Art Newspaper’s annual attendance surveys. The first painter comes in at number 15 on the list: the South African artist Marlene Dumas, whose retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in 2008 drew 4,873 visitors a day. Immersive, spectacular and event-driven projects dominated. Visitors were attracted to installations and bodies of work that defy genre, including Richard Serra’s enveloping sculptures at MoMA (first place, with 8,585 visitors a day), Olafur Eliasson’s indoor waterfalls, also at MoMA (fifth place, 6,135 visitors a day), and James Turrell’s perception-bending, luminous environments at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (ninth place, 5,610 visitors a day).
Male or female? Crowds don’t care
Audiences did not discriminate based on gender. Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MoMA in 2010, for which the artist sat motionless in the museum for three months, was the second best-attended solo show, drawing 7,120 visitors a day. Pipilotti Rist’s installation Pour Your Body Out, 2008, was the fourth most popular. The Swiss artist’s transformation of MoMA’s atrium into a madcap lounge filled with videos, music and custom-built furniture drew 6,186 visitors a day.
Conventional wisdom holds that museums must show big names to draw crowds. But our analysis proves that name recognition goes only so far—location carries the day. MoMA organised 17 of the 20 best-attended solo exhibitions (the Guggenheim and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosted the others). Most of these blockbusters were presented in the museum’s atrium, its largest and most accessible space. This fact is not lost on the institution, which is planning to add similar spaces as part of a future expansion. A glassed-in, high-ceilinged “art bay” visible from the street—and large enough to accommodate multiple works by Serra—will probably turn the museum into an even bigger magnet (although it is unlikely to appease those who resent the crowded nature of the galleries).
Occasionally, MoMA uses its atrium as a platform for lesser-known artists. A labyrinthine installation by the Brazilian Carlito Carvalhosa in 2011 was the eighth best-attended contemporary solo show during this six-year period. The subtle, monochrome work drew 5,615 visitors a day—400 more, on average, than the museum’s widely publicised Tim Burton exhibition on the top floor.
New York: capital of culture
Museums in New York and Los Angeles organised the most contemporary solo exhibitions: New York had 97, Los Angeles 95. But audiences turned out in higher numbers in New York. Museums in the city hosted 41 of the 50 best-attended contemporary solo shows between 2007 and 2013. In contrast, the first exhibition in Los Angeles on our list—the photographer Herb Ritts at the Getty Center in 2012—takes 57th place.
Visitors’ motivations for attending exhibitions are just beginning to come into focus. A study released in January by the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 6% of people went to see work by a specific artist (in contrast with two-thirds of those attending performances). The majority of visual art audiences (88% of those surveyed) had a far simpler goal: to gain knowledge. As museums plan their exhibition schedules, perhaps curators—and board members—will be inspired to look beyond the usual suspects and give the people what they want.
• For our complete 2014 Visitors Figures survey see the April issue of The Art Newspaper, which is on sale now, or download the app from the App Store and Google Play
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