Counting Heads

Museums Are About the Art, Not Racking Up Big Numbers on Crowds and Revenue

Ousting the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s chief curator to focus on drawing more people ignores a museum’s main function—to give audiences great art, says Blake Gopnik.

• “Home of the D-Cup: The Topless Girl in 20th-Century Culture.”

• “You Love Their Songs, Now See Their Paintings: The Art of Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan.”

• “Collaboration and Conflict: Great Football Plays and Their Players.”

Those are just a few of the exhibitions I think we may be seeing in coming years at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and possibly at other museums around the world, if current trends continue.

Two weeks ago the board of the L.A. MoCA fired the museum’s chief curator, and at the time it struck me as a mostly local affair. Paul Schimmel had been a world-class figure, of real substance, and during his 22-year tenure his shows had sometimes changed how people everywhere thought about art. But who knew the particular internal dynamics that made him a bad fit with the MoCA board, and with Jeffrey Deitch, the showy New York dealer it had named director in 2010?

On Sunday, however, when the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Eli Broad, the real-estate tycoon who helped found and fund the museum, it became clear that the MoCA affair spoke to much larger issues. Broad said his letter would “set the record straight” about the museum’s fortunes and why Schimmel needed to be fired. I’m not sure it did that, but it did clarify something else: it showed how far astray the museum world is headed because of the big-business brains at its helm.

Broad laid out a history of successes at L.A. MoCA. And he discussed some recent and very real troubles, as its endowment was whittled down. But Broad’s recipe for solving those troubles was phrased in essentially a businessman’s terms and had nothing to do with art or museums. He said MoCA needed to grow its client base (of course he used the term “audience”). And he said that should be done by heading down-market (of course he phrased that in terms of making MoCA more “populist” and less “insular”).

But whereas growth itself is by definition a good thing in business, at least where profit’s concerned, it makes no sense in museums. What’s the right number of people to have in your galleries? The “record” attendance of a million you were so proud of in 1985? That later record that came to twice that, which you trumpeted in 2000? Or the 10 million you’ll have to receive in the year 2100, if endless growth is what your board demands? Are your shows better—more enlightening, enriching, mind-altering—when your guests are packed in like sardines and have 10 seconds to look at each picture?

It’s not that hard to ensure larger crowds. You could simply host some of the shows that I imagined at this article’s start. But ask people what art and museums are for, and I doubt that they’ll list “crowd parking” as central. They’ll say that great art should take you somewhere you’ve never been. That it should provide feelings and thoughts that you don’t get in the rest of the culture. That, if it’s at true masterpiece level, it should have the kind of heft we assume in Shakespeare and Beethoven. And they’ll say that museums should make such art available—to the absolutely largest number of people who are looking for that kind of thing, and not for something else.

Audience’s don’t mind coming to a museum to get experiences they are used to getting elsewhere—a dose of pop culture, or some light entertainment. Some men might come for vintage soft-core. But in those cases the museum’s just another venue, like a stadium or cinema, without any special claim on our hearts or our minds, or on our generosity. Attract more people by making the museum more like the rest of the culture—find success on those businesslike terms—and you’re guaranteeing the failure of the enterprise as a whole, at its most fundamental.

A few years ago, Philippe de Montebello, the great director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explained to me that “if we wanted 100,000 people one evening, all we'd have to do is to bring the Doors—or whatever the group is—and, end of story, the place would be packed. But then change the charter to call yourself something else. The museum first of all is the only chartered, formal body with the responsibility for collecting and exhibiting works of art ... The one mantra that every museum director should have: First comes the work of art. Everything else devolves from it.”

An exhibition like Schimmel’s Out of Action, which opened a few viewers’ eyes to the worth of performance art, is a more “profitable product” in a museum’s true cultural currency than is Deitch’s Art in the Streets show, which told 200,000 people that they could have fun with graffiti, as we’ve all known for 40 years. “It is my mission to increase MOCA’s attendance and to engage new audiences,” Deitch said when his show’s gate was announced. He didn’t mention how that mission would profit his new attendees.

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Now, I have total respect for the particular skills of people like Broad who earn piles of money. They understand numbers, and profits, in ways that seem magic to salaried bumblers like me. But what they need to learn—as do all of us who have surrendered our art institutions to them—is that the metrics they use to judge profit and loss have no meaning in cultural terms. Simply counting heads (or even dollars and cents) doesn’t tell you a thing about how a museum is doing. A museum that drew a billion people a year, and made billions in profits, would count as a disaster, if minds weren’t changed about art in the process.

In the Gilded Age, when robber barons founded great museums such as the Met, they proved that their souls stretched to more than a businessman’s numbers. Their descendants need to do the same proving.