Curator's Project COVID, Curators and Blockbuster Exhibitions

May, 2020

In February, Meta Knol, the director of Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden, wrote an opinion piece in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad titled ‘Stop our blockbuster addiction’ (English translation here). Having just mounted a successful show devoted to the early work of Rembrandt, she nevertheless lamented the fact that museums ‘bid against each other with large, money-guzzling blockbusters that require more and more visitors every time, and where success is only measured in revenue and visitor numbers’, adding that it was time to re-evaluate what should be considered to be the core task of her museum. It was an audacious move for a museum director, and one that struck a chord. She could not have known that the arrival of a pandemic would soon give a whole new dimension to her piece.

It is perhaps telling that it took such a pandemic for museums worldwide to return their focus so emphatically to the permanent collections in their care; we are now reminded on a daily basis how important those collections are, and that, when we return to some kind of normality, their permanent presence will be there to delight and console us all. But only a few months earlier it would have been considered hardly worth mentioning, the focus being on headline-grabbing temporary exhibitions that create footfall and much-needed revenue.

CODART asked three curators to expand on such observations in light of the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. – Bart Cornelis, editor of CODARTfeatures

Christi M. Klinkert, Curator at Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar, The Netherlands

In her article, Meta Knol explains that organizing huge crowd pullers like the exhibition “Young Rembrandt” is not a viable option for a museum such as her own, Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden. They are too expensive and unsustainable, given the immense demands they place on the museum. They are also exhausting for the staff, because of the constant mass influx of visitors. From now on, Museum De Lakenhal will focus on local stories with universal appeal.

Upon reading the article, my first thought was ­­– we’re on the same page, Meta. My own museum, Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar, has been pursuing precisely this course for years, with conviction and with modest but satisfying success. Starting in 2014, we produced a series of monograph exhibitions featuring artists who have a demonstrable relationship with Alkmaar and in many cases also a clear presence in our collection – artists such as Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, Claes Jacobsz van der Heck, Caesar van Everdingen, Emanuel de Witte, and Pieter van Schaeyenborgh. Not household names, but important artists who deserved to receive more attention. Our projects were never blockbusters and had never been set up as such. Even though, our visitor numbers increased steadily, from around 35,000 to 65,000 annually. These numbers peaked with the only two exhibitions that were dedicated to big names: Picasso in Holland and The Toorop Dynasty. Are we now going to do such projects more frequently? For sure, since it is a way of attracting new groups of visitors. High visitor numbers are not a Holy Grail, but we don’t make our exhibitions only for ourselves – we make them for others to enjoy. If a large number of “others” do enjoy them, and if these include a certain number of newcomers, we are satisfied. But we retain our focus: which is on the surprisingly interesting stories about the art and history of our city – stories worth telling.

The exhibition Painting Beauty: Caesar van Everdingen in Alkmaar in 2016 was a success, partly due to the painter’s strong connection to the city
Photo: Studio Berry Slok

That prompted me to think of something else: perhaps blockbusters are not the main issue here. That is hinted at in a remark that Meta makes in passing: museums impose ever more stringent conditions on each other in relation to loans, which forces costs up and imposes an unnecessarily heavy burden on the environment. Is that not a topic we should be reflecting on? Even the smaller museums that never organize blockbusters at all spend the vast majority of their exhibition budgets on insurance and transportation.

In March, Dutch museums ­– like others around the world – were obliged to temporarily close their doors as a result of COVID-19. This period has generated considerable food for thought. There they stood, or hung, all those expensive international loans. All those investments, and now a complete lack of revenue from ticket sales. Many institutions have been hard hit by the crisis, and will need to revise their plans for the coming years. Might this slow down the international blockbuster train rather sooner than expected? Or will organizers want to ensure that their plans, many of which have been years in the making, are implemented no matter what? If so, they will generally need to work with smaller budgets. Moreover, we will need to take the six-feet-apart distance measure into account for some time to come, added to which it will remain difficult to organize transportation, especially flights, for the foreseeable future.

This seems to me the perfect moment to launch a sector-wide conversation on the conditions we impose on each other as museums – the point Meta makes in passing. Now that the Coronavirus has suddenly created such problems for travel, it makes sense that we should explore ways of cutting the cost of transportation, which is often one of our largest expenses. One possibility might be to revise the courier system, for instance. Perhaps we could set up a network of trained, certified couriers, each of whom take care of the loans in a particular area. Or perhaps we could work more on the basis of trust – if you received my previous loan in good order, I will trust you to receive the next one without an escort. That would save a huge amount in travel expenses and plane tickets, a more desirable outcome than ever today. Not just because the money saved can be spent in more material ways, but also because we would be placing less of a burden on the environment. It would enable museums to vastly reduce their carbon footprint. A point to put on the agendas of CODART and ICOM!

And while we are consulting on issues of this kind, perhaps it is also time to take a critical look at our jam-packed program. The public can certainly get by with fewer exhibitions a year. Couldn’t we reduce the number of shows and extend each one beyond the standard three-month period – to five months, for instance? The supply has grown so astronomically over the past few years. We used to be competing with amusement parks, concert halls, and the movies. Today, we’re mainly competing with each other. Let’s stop. Let’s build in some space, some peace and quiet, for ourselves and our public.

If we dare to do so, let’s also change our approach to programming, and alternate projects involving large numbers of loans with shows revolving around a group of works from our own collections. Our permanent exhibitions generally have room for only a fraction of the stories that we curators could tell about the objects. How satisfying it would be if we took the opportunity, over the next few years, to produce temporary shows with scope for us to draw liberally on our expertise about our collections. What’s more, during the preparations for each of these events, ideally in partnership with other experts, we would doubtless be adding to that expertise.

I believe that the current health crisis may lead to a sustainable museum system, if we dare to take the kinds of decisions that Meta sets out: if we focus our energy on projects that incur lower costs and reduce the burden on the environment, projects that lead to a more in-depth knowledge of our own collections among our staff who work with the collection as well as the public who visit it. More with less. Trust rather than demand. Value rather than profit.

Marjorie E. Wieseman, Curator and Head of the Department of Northern European Paintings, National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, USA

In the mid-2010s, I was among a team of curators behind an ambitious exhibition that examined the final years of Rembrandt’s career. The exhibition was held at two museums—The National Gallery, London, and the Rijksmuseum—arguably better equipped than Museum De Lakenhal to shoulder the eye-watering expense and complex logistics of such massive undertakings. Still, the institutional need to maximize visitor numbers meant that the individual visitor experience was not always prioritized. I deeply regretted that the press of eager crowds often compromised visitors’ ability to become lost in the beauty and mystery of those great works of art.

Fast forward to 2020. Highly anticipated exhibitions closed as museums around the world abruptly shut their doors. We learned to telework, posting about our collections on social media to keep them “live.” We coped with being parted from our collections by recreating them as best we could at home using household objects. Transcending physical closure, museums showed their best selves: clever, spontaneous, quirky, and smart.

Now, as museums begin to reopen to the public, the hard work of figuring out a sustainable way forward begins. A global reset button has presented museums with an option to rethink operations, and perhaps to disengage from the spiraling pressures of “blockbuster” exhibitions—indeed, many will be forced to. We’ve already taken a step in that direction: loan exhibitions scheduled for the coming months have been cancelled, scaled back, or postponed. This is, of course, enormously frustrating for curators who have invested years of research and delicate negotiating to bring an exhibition to fruition. But many of these endeavors will survive in alternative form: a virtual exhibition that can be appreciated by even more visitors, a valuable scholarly publication. For years, curators have been driven to regard temporary exhibitions as the primary outlet for their research and passion (as well as a financial engine for the institution), but is there a viable alternative? It may take a few cycles to arrive at a workable balance between curatorial research initiatives, visitor needs, global sustainability, the long-term preservation of our collections, and the museum’s bottom line, but erasing the “blockbuster addiction” gives a more equitable place to start.

Horrific as it is, the COVID pandemic has granted us time to slow down, to (re)discover the treasures of our own collections and share them with our visitors. Museums provide places of solace and refuge, of beauty and constancy, an opportunity to connect with ideas and beliefs that transcend the ills and ruptures of the world. Focusing on our permanent collections, we can help visitors to find meaning and connection to works of art at a more thoughtful pace: inviting comment, challenging assumptions, encouraging new ways of looking and thinking. I very much hope that we can continue to be as spontaneous and clever in thinking about our physical museum as we have been with our virtual one. A permanent collection does not have to be static: there are myriad ways to present, interrogate, and juxtapose objects to create avenues to understanding. We should have fun with our collections. We should have the courage to occasionally make mistakes. We should involve our visitors in the joy of learning about the works of art in our care, and remind them (and ourselves) that what we derive from these objects reflects and accomodates the unique needs and perspectives we bring to them.

Will museums be able to receive “Rembrandtian” exhibition crowds” again in 2021?

At the National Gallery of Art, we will continue to mount loan exhibitions in the near term, albeit on a slightly reduced schedule. Understanding that the vast majority of our visitors come to see the permanent collection (and not our special exhibitions), even before the COVID crisis hit we shifted our attention to devising fresh and inspiring visitor experiences as a way to “open up” the permanent collection. These initiatives will now become a priority. We will undoubtedly have fewer visitors in the coming months, but probably a greater proportion of local, repeat visitors, making it possible to cultivate meaningful, lasting relationships between our audience and our collection. Gallery-wide, there will probably be a greater reliance on digital or audio content accessed via hand-held devices, so we need to improve, enliven, and diversify those offerings.

Will the public miss next season’s blockbusters? Cautious about traveling any great distance, wary of mingling in crowds, will they even notice their absence? Although right now I am apprehensive at the mere thought of “Rembrandtian” exhibition crowds, I hope that within a few years’ time, we will be able to once again mount large-scale international loan exhibitions—perhaps not as many, or as densely visited, but with renewed appreciation for just how exceptional they must be. I hope that these will exist alongside new sorts of projects that feed our curatorial curiosity and enrich our international partnerships. And I hope that in the meantime, our visitors will have grown to value the rewards of slow, intimate engagement with works of art in “their” permanent collections.

Aleksandra Janiszewska, Curator at the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland

Like many countries, Poland went into lockdown mid-March and the museum was forced to close. All staff was ordered to work from home. The education department quickly transitioned to online educational programs for all the homeschooled children now unable to visit the museum. Since 12 May museums have re-opened to the public with new restrictions implemented. We all hope that it will be possible for us to live and work in safer conditions before too long. As things stand, however, we do not know when the borders will open or how everything will work when they do. We see museums worldwide cancelling or postponing exhibitions that are based on international loans. I believe that few will take the risk to plan events of this kind in the next few years, since the global outlook is impossible to predict.

The current crisis brings with it two major risks: first, the likelihood of a huge reduction in the funds available for culture, and second, an unpredictable future for traveling. In these circumstances, it seems more than reasonable for museums to focus on their own collections and, in doing so, to find opportunities for reducing financial risks, as Meta Knol proposes.

It is also impossible to predict how our visitors will react. How long will it take for them to trust in the safety of social gatherings again? In any case, “blockbuster” exhibitions are not the right way to regain that trust. They produce the largest crowds: partly because they are selling a “once in a lifetime” experience, and partly because of the need to recover costs.

What we need to reevaluate is what counts as “success” for a museum show in this new situation. How should we think of it in this new world? I am fully aware that the answer will differ from one museum to the next. There is a big difference between institutions which receive public funding and those that need to finance their work from ticket sales. Personally, I find Meta Knol’s idea of emphasizing the ways in which the museums can serve their local community very inspiring. We should all start thinking in this direction, now that social distancing has brought our lives to a halt and reawakened the desire to feel a bond with the surrounding community.

Gallery of Old Art at the National Museum, Warsaw

Gallery of Old Art at the National Museum, Warsaw

For the National Museum in Warsaw, with its encyclopedic display of diverse collections of artworks, it would be ideal to create temporary exhibitions based on the themes that are addressed in the permanent displays. That would provide the potential for any number of shows. An even better idea would be to use artworks that are usually kept in the depot, out of sight of visitors, and enable the public to see them. The problem with that strategy is finding ways of making this attractive to the public. In a world in need of constant stimulation, permanent collections are very often seen as “boring”. If you have seen it once, you check it off on your list and move on. I hope that these attitudes will change after lockdown. In times of great uncertainty, people tend to gravitate to familiar spaces, to be near objects that they know and radiate a sense of comfort. Permanent displays offer precisely that sense of continuity and reassurance.

I believe that we all need to invest in good storytelling ­– in finding new storylines within our collections. In times in which so much feels insecure, people rely on stories for entertainment and support. Stories should be captivating and relatable as well as informative. I am pretty sure that every collection has dozens of stories just waiting to be told.

It seems likely that museums’ programming budgets will be cut as a result of the coronavirus crisis – the full extent of which is as yet unknown. Reduced funds will compel curators to rely more on permanent collections for exhibitions, as the expenses involved in transporting and insuring loans will become unaffordable. I think that the situation will reinforce the importance of museum collections, both items in the permanent displays and those usually preserved in storage facilities. In 2022, the National Museum in Warsaw will celebrate its 160th anniversary. We have already planned a program based on our history and collections for that year, a story that will tell the story of the museum’s growth and its identity. When we started developing that program, we did not expect that we might be trendsetters in that respect.

CODART would like to continue the discussion opened by Meta Knol and addressed by several members in the piece above. We are interested to hear your ideas on this issue and how you and your museum are doing in this situation. If you would like to share your views, please send us a message at features@codart.nl