Story by Carlo Wolff
Pick one: An art show is a hit when a) tickets are immediately impossible to get; b) you have to stand in line to get into the museum; c) once inside, you’re in a long queue to check out an installation; d) the museum is wall-to-wall crowded at an opening reception bursting with people taking selfies; or e) it’s the talk of the town or trending on social media.
Pick any or all, because at least one characterizes a blockbuster show like “Feat.,” a mind-bending show by Chicago imagineer Nick Cave running through June 2 at the Akron Art Museum, or “Infinity Mirrors,” the immersive exhibition by Japanese visionary Yayoi Kusama mounted last summer at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage hopes all of those markers come into play for “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” a September 2019 to February 2020 show coming to the Beachwood institution from the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where it was organized.
While CMA and the Akron museum are more broadly based than the Maltz Museum, which is dedicated to Jewish culture, spokespeople for all three want their shows to have the broadest appeal possible.
How to effect that varies by institution, but planning years out is not only key, it’s the norm. Other variables include show availability, cost, community impact, whether the originating museum is willing to loan out the show and whether the art is sturdy enough to travel.
“We want to do shows that have broad audience appeal, shows that will be popular,” says Emily Liebert, contemporary art curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Such shows typically feature artists “who are well-known or household names or have themes with a lot of relevance to what people are thinking about, to the zeitgeist.”
Costs of a show, “blockbuster” or lesser, involves securing the loan, research, travel associated with acquiring it, programming and marketing. The process starts with a suggestion.
“Each curator in the museum has a specialty, so they propose exhibitions that fall within their specialty,” Liebert says. The museum director, the exhibition department and the curator ultimately determine the positioning of the show in the museum.
Was the success of the Kusama show a surprise? “I didn’t think at the beginning of the Kusama tour it was anticipated how popular it would be,” Liebert says.
But she also notes that the show, which attracted more than 120,000 visitors from all over the United States and 23 other countries, “was very popular” when it opened where it originated: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The only Midwestern museum to host the Kusama show, CMA featured seven of the artist’s “infinity mirror rooms,” including the Cleveland exclusive, “Where the Lights in My Heart Go.”
At the Maltz Museum, David Schafer, managing director, and Lindsay Miller, manager of collections & exhibitions, regularly bat around ideas for exhibitions they learn about online, through friends of the museum who act as “informal scouts,” and as Miller says, by “keeping an eye out for anything that sounds like it fits in with our mission.”
Is there an audience? Can we afford it? Those are the bottom-line questions, Miller says. Among other considerations: travel, installation, insurance and marketing. Whether originating at the Maltz Museum or not, show costs range from $100,000 for something smaller to $2 million for an ambitious show the Maltz creates, she says.
She and Schafer both hope “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music” is a smash hit like the massively collaborative “Violins of Hope” in late 2015, the ecumenical “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” (most of summer 2012) and the internationally planned “Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial of Adolf Eichmann” (late February to late July 2016). “Violins” drew more than 15,000, the Eichmann show drew 15,000, and the pope exhibit drew 11,000.
“‘Violins of Hope’ captured the imagination of Northeast Ohio,” Schafer says. “We knew it was going to be a successful show, but it exceeded our expectations, with people coming back two and three times to see it.” A first for the Maltz Museum, it originated there and involved collaboration among the museum, Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Another totally unexpected blockbuster, says Schafer, was “Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” a show originating from Xavier University in Cincinnati. It had been traveling for seven years and the Maltz Museum was contacted to be the last U.S. venue to host it; it’s now in Poland, “gifted to the people of Poland.” It had broad appeal, drawing from all over the Northeast.
Like “Violins,” “Operation Finale,” which focused on the capture of key Nazi mechanic Adolf Eichmann, joined various parties, including the Maltz Museum; Beit Hatfusot – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where it originated; and the Mossad, Israel’s security force. The Maltz Museum customized it.
There is no in-house curator at the Maltz, so it turns to different ones depending on the project, Schafer says. The National Museum of American Jewish History is curating the Bernstein exhibition, which was on view there last year. The Maltz will be its third showing. Miller says the installation will require the construction of interior walls, something that also had to be done for the Eichmann exhibit.
Like CMA’s Liebert, Ellen Rudolph, chief curator at the Akron Art Museum, wants to present shows with broad appeal, but that also speak to social issues.
“While potential attendance numbers are an important measure in considering an exhibition, we don’t differentiate between blockbuster and non-blockbuster exhibitions,” says Rudolph, who joined the Akron museum in 2017 from the Maltz Museum, where she had been executive director. “We always seek to present the most relevant, interesting and high-quality work for the community we serve.”
A long-time fan of Cave, Rudolph learned his show was available while discussing the possibility of another one with the chief curator of the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, where “Feat.” was on exhibit for nearly eight months starting in late November 2017.
“We felt Nick Cave’s work was the right fit for the Akron Art Museum because it combines visual wonder, found objects that are familiar and personal to many people, and an immersive experience for viewers. And the social justice aspect of the work offers the opportunity to utilize the art as a catalyst for conversation, so it’s visually exciting, speaks to Akron as a maker community and has deep meaning that relates to our world today.”
Cost is always a major factor, and Akron “can’t show three very expensive shows in one year, so we have to spread out that resource investment,” says Rudolph, who worked with the museum director and the design and marketing departments to position the Cave show within the museum’s overall program.
“We tease out themes of the work, identify potential stakeholders and look at how we can best engage our community through a variety of programs including talks, performances and hands-on activities.”
All these executives suggest locale also influences the decision to mount a show, and they hope an exhibition plays well to the hometown crowd – and beyond. Still, as places vary, so do the marketing and programming of art.
“A blockbuster for The Met (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) is very different for the Akron Art Museum,” Rudolph says. “Blockbusters are typically associated with household-name artists that have worldwide appeal and are expected to bring in masses of audiences, and in turn, profits from admission fees, memberships purchased, store merchandise (sold), and food and beverage sales.
“Publicity certainly goes along with that – both in the media and in social media. Today, it’s the cachet of posting selfies in front of – or inside – certain artworks. Attendance and publicity go hand-in-hand and are key to defining the success of an exhibition for sure, but so are other variables, such as the imprint an exhibition leaves on the community.” C
Ongoing exhibitions attracting large audiences and upcoming exhibitions expected to make a big splash include:
Akron Art Museum
- “Nick Cave: Feat.,” on view through June 2
- “Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World,” opening June 29
Cleveland Museum of Art
- “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art,” on view through June 30
- “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders,” opening July 7
- “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master,” opening Sept. 22
Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage
- “Israel: Then & Now,” on view through May 12
- “Leonard Bernstein: The Power Of Music,” opening in September