'Gauguin' close as WALTERS' second greatest hit

January 17, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

"Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven," the blockbuster exhibit that closed Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery, drew huge crowds that made it the second-biggest show in the museum's history.

The exhibit brought 99,400 people to the museum during its two-month run, a figure second only to "Sisley," paintings by French impressionist Alfred Sisley, in the spring of 1993. That show, which ran for three months, drew 134,000 visitors.

The Gauguin exhibit also set two attendance records for the Walters -- a daily average of 2,100 people and a final-week attendance of 17,400. The Sisley show, by comparison, averaged 1,750 people a day.

"It's daunting and wonderful," Gary Vikan, director of the museum, said yesterday. Daunting because it meant a lot of work for everybody concerned. Wonderful because it made the Walters name more high-profile than it has ever been.

Vikan said the museum added 700 new members to the existing 7,000 "and attracted 50,000 people who wouldn't have come to the gallery otherwise."

While the Gauguin took in plenty of money, the museum made only a modest profit because the exhibit was so expensive to stage.

The show took in about $250,000, Vikan said. About half of that was ticket revenue and another 25 percent or so was gift shop revenue. The rest was from groups renting the Walters for parties, rentals of the audio guide and income from the museum restaurant.

The museum also received a $200,000 grant to underwrite the show from First Federal Bancorporation, parent company of the Bank of Baltimore -- giving it a total of $450,000 income.

The cost of putting on the show was about $420,000. Expenses included the cost of renting the exhibit, transportation, insurance, installation, advertising and hiring of extra temporary staff. Thus, the museum cleared only about $30,000.

"It was the most expensive show we've ever done," said Howard White, the Walters' marketing and public relations director.

Vikan noted, however, that the impact of the show is larger than financial.

"It brings in tens of thousands of people who wouldn't have come to the Walters otherwise," he said. "And it creates a sea change in the perception of the Walters among people who will consider our mission more than medieval, ancient and Renaissance."

In fact, the Walters collection ranges from the ancient world to the late 19th-century impressionists. Thus, doing a show of Gauguin and other post-impressionists involves only a tiny stretch from the permanent collection. But it's an advantage to have the Walters name coupled in the public's mind with that of an artist as great, and as recent, as Gauguin.

The coupling was achieved in part through an extensive, $60,000-$70,000 advertising campaign. That effort spread the names Walters and Gauguin across the backs of 150 buses and funded numerous public radio announcements and extensive newspaper and magazine advertising.

It paid off. People came to the show from a nine-state area from New York to Ohio to North Carolina.

It also paid off for the city and state. More than 40 percent of the attendance came from out-of-state residents.

"We want to figure out the economic impact of people coming here and going to a hotel, going to a restaurant, staying in the city," said Vikan.

"For every dollar that's spent on 'Gauguin,' so many dollars are spent that go to local businesses."

Although there are no shows on the horizon likely to have the drawing power of a "Gauguin," the gallery hopes to make a splash with this fall's "Pandora's Box: The Woman in Classical Greek Art." The exhibit, organized and circulated by the Walters, will comprise 130 objects from 53 lenders from California to Denmark.

Other possible future shows include one from the Vatican on early Christianity, one from the Netherlands on 17th-century painting in the Dutch city of Utrecht, and one from Belgium on Flemish manuscripts of the early 15th century.

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