Baltimore Museum Gets Blockbuster Show at Bargain Price


October 13, 1991|By JOHN DORSEY | JOHN DORSEY,John Dorsey is The Sun's art critic.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is having a blockbuster show without paying full price for one.

If the show of works by Claude Monet that opens today and runs for three months proves as popular as expected, the museum will accrue the benefits that ordinarily come from a blockbuster (heightened profile, increased membership and so on), and get them at a fraction of what a blockbuster usually costs.

As a result, the museum hopes to do what it has never really done before, make money on an exhibition. "We predict that income will cover expenses, and we may make some money on this," says BMA director Arnold L. Lehman.

Reason: the Monet show isn't the usual sort of blockbuster -- 100 or 150 works drawn from museums and private collections all over the world, assembled and mounted at a cost of millions of dollars. The Monet show (the result of a swap of Cone collection treasures from the BMA for Monets from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) consists of just 32 paintings, all from the same museum. That makes a number of things, especially insurance and shipping, a lot cheaper, and the show as a whole a lot cheaper.

How much cheaper? Well, the BMA is and isn't saying. A full-scale blockbuster of the type described above on an artist such as Monet would cost "five times the investment of this show," says Mr. Lehman. But he isn't estimating publicly what the Monet show will cost or how much the museum hopes to take in.

All he will say on the cost side is to give a couple of examples: printed materials -- brochures, teacher guides, posters, etc. -- will cost "well over $100,000;" overtime "for security and others keeping the museum open sixteen hours a week more than normal" will cost "well over $100,000." Other expenses involved in such a show range from insurance and shipping to installation and advertising.

All he will say on the income side is that virtually all of it will come from three sources: the Maryland National Bank's charitable foundation (which made a $185,000 grant in 1988); ticket sales, perhaps amounting to as much as $850,000 and shop sales, which he did not estimate. Both shop and ticket sales depend on how many people attend, so the museum hopes to sell all of the 240,000 available tickets for the three-month run.

How much the museum might clear on the show remains unclear, but that it stands to clear anything much is something the director can never remember happening before at the BMA. If there are profits, the museum will put them into another area that needs money such as the schools program, Mr. Lehman says.

At any rate, expecting to make money is one benefit of this blockbuster that museums don't normally expect of shows. And although there's a downside to blockbusters, they provide other benefits.

* Heightened profile. More than 45,000 tickets were sold before the opening. If the museum gets 240,000 people, it will be more than twice as many as it has had for any show for which records are kept.

Increased attendance brings political benefits. The popular notion is that when museums go to City Hall and Annapolis for funds, legislators, not necessarily knowing much about art, look at attendance figures to see how large an audience the museum reaches. If the BMA gets 240,000 for the Monet show it will not mean that many added to 325,000 normal attendance, because some of the 240,000 would have come anyway during the 14 weeks the show will be on. But it may produce a total attendance for this fiscal year of 400,000 to 450,000, a sizable increase.

Mr. Lehman says legislators don't look at attendance figures, but want to know how and what the museum is doing. But, he says in that context, "Monet is accessible." Everybody at City Hall and Annapolis will at least have heard the name Monet, everybody will know that the museum is having a tremendously popular Monet show, and that will do no harm.

* Use of collection. In this case, unlike that of the standard blockbuster, the museum and the MFA in Boston have thought up a really imaginative way to use their respective collections by exchanging parts of them. It's a way to bring the most popular and valuable art, such as Monet, at less than the usual expense. The BMA hopes to do other such shows, and Mr. Lehman has ideas for another exchange with the Boston museum and one with a New York museum, though he won't say more than that.

* The love of art. We tend to think of museum directors as administrators and fund raisers. We forget that they wouldn't be in the business if they didn't love art. When Mr. Lehman says that for him the best part of the Monet show is "the opportunity to show fabulous paintings to the public -- I think that's the bottom line," there's no reason to doubt his sincerity and enthusiasm.

While the public loves them and the museums love to do them, however, blockbusters are not without their down side:

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