Museum exhibit yields picture-perfect crowds Works included 'The Starry Night'

January 18, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Like many of the people who mobbed the Baltimore Museum of Art yesterday, Elizabeth King said she didn't mean to wait until the last minute to view the temporary exhibition of modern masterpieces on display.

"I just got so busy during Thanksgiving and Christmas that I didn't have a chance to come before," the Baltimore resident confessed. "But I didn't want to miss seeing the exhibit."

Ms. King was one of nearly 11,000 people who crowded into the museum over the weekend to view Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" and other works by such well-known painters as Paul Cezanne, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper and Marc Chagall. All have been on loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art since November.

The flurry of exhibit-goers made it one of the busiest weekends in the museum's history, according to director Arnold Lehman. It also made the exhibit, "Picture Perfect: Icons of Modernism from the Museum of Modern Art," one of the most visited shows the museum has ever mounted, he said.

"We're flabbergasted that so many people came at the last minute," Mr. Lehman said yesterday. "It's wonderful. This has to be one of the top two or three days ever. When you get to 6,000 people, that's the absolute maximum for an exhibit. . . . There's nothing left in the gift shop."

The exhibit that generated the most attendance ever at the Baltimore Museum of Art was the 1991-1992 exhibition of works by Claude Monet, which drew 215,000 people over 15 weeks. "Picture Perfect" drew about 75,000 in 9 weeks -- at a time when the museum was open fewer days and fewer hours than for the Monet exhibit, Mr. Lehman noted.

Crowds for "Picture Perfect" were so heavy on Saturday that the line at one point backed up all the way to the outdoor sculpture garden. Yesterday, non-members had to wait more than two hours to see the exhibit. On both days, the museum stayed open late to make sure everyone who was in line by the normal 6 p.m. closing time had a chance to go through the exhibit.

"They love Starry Night. They love [Henri] Rousseau. They love Pollock. They love Edward Hopper," Mr. Lehman said, surveying the crowds. "People are moving slowly, but they don't seem upset as long as they can get in."

The seven paintings and 10 drawings in the exhibit, which opened Nov. 22, also included works by Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler. But many of the people waiting in line yesterday said they came primarily to see one work: "The Starry Night."

"We came from Allentown, Pa., so my three kids could see it," said Katie Gergar. "My husband's home watching the football game. Those are the priorities."

"It's my favorite painting in the world. This is the fifth time I've seen it," said Denise Etris of Rockville. "Every time I see it, I want to cry."

Noting the hundreds of people who paid the $5 admission fee to get in, Ms. Etris said she felt sorry for van Gogh, who painted "The Starry Night" while in an insane asylum and who killed himself a year later without realizing any profit from his paintings.

"It makes me feel bad for van Gogh, that he never knew how much pleasure he brought to other people," she said. "He died depressed."

Sponsored by the Procter & Gamble/Noxell Foundation, "Picture Perfect" cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to mount, including a percentage for advertising in areas such as York, Pa., and Washington, D.C., Mr. Lehman said. While the size of the crowds is expected to return to normal this week, the museum is gearing up to do it all over again. In the Thalheimer galleries, the museum staff is already preparing for the Feb. 14 opening of "Theatre de le Mode -- an exhibit of miniature French mannequins and theatrical sets that Mr. Lehman predicts might draw even more than "Picture Perfect."

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