There's nothing square about Picasso crowd Blockbuster: Thousands of people are expected at the National Gallery of Art. They won't be able to buy any T-shirts. They won't be able to buy any coffee mugs. But they'll probably have to stand in line.

April 02, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The most obvious sign of success for a blockbuster art show is a long line outside the museum, early and late, rain or shine. A less obvious sign, but at least indicative of a good run, is a line of any significant length at the ladies' room: It suggests there are a lot of people in the museum.

All signs were positive at the National Gallery of Art earlier this week following Sunday's opening of "Picasso The Early Years, 1892-1906."

"Our guard [on Monday] clocked in 1,200 in the first hour," said Deborah Ziska, the gallery's information officer. By 1: 30 yesterday, 14,780 people had already seen the show.

Hopes were high for a repeat of the Vermeer experience of last year, when 327,551 people trooped through the gallery's classical West Building to view 21 of the 35 known pictures by the Dutch master.

The Vermeer paintings were on view for only 70 days but drew more people than anyone had hoped for, considering the obstacles the show faced. Serendipitous circumstances helped it overcome not only the snow and freezing weather, but the weaker candlepower of the 17th-century Dutchman's fame as compared with, say, Picasso's.

On two occasions (a total of 20 days) the gallery was shut down, along with the rest of the government, as the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress battled over the federal budget. The closures put the show on the 6 o'clock news and all over the newspapers. Suddenly Jan Vermeer was an innocent victim of 20th-century politics.

All this stimulated interest among those not exactly fanatics for Vermeer. It raised Vermeer's social cachet. People arrived at dawn, as they do at rock concerts. Vendors sold T-shirts to those eager to announce they had survived the Vermeer show.

Neither T-shirts nor brusque shutdowns by Philistine politicians will be needed to pique interest in the Picasso show, museum officials believe. Its uniqueness, its size (152 works: including painting, prints, pastels and sculpture), the familiarity of the artist are expected to guarantee that.

The public found much to like. David Brown and his wife, Lotus Cheng, both classical pianists from Wilmington, Del., thought the show "astounding." They liked the idea that most of the works are representational, not abstract. They liked the virtuosity of styles.

"He is all different painters," said Brown. "There he's van Gogh. Renoir. Matisse. He's all these."

L Brown paused, then added: "This is very emotional painting."

Jeffrey Weiss, associate curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery, who worked on the show, said a survey of an artist of this stature has never been offered before, "no show defining [Picasso's] whole early career up to 1906."

This is Picasso's most popular period, before he slipped into the esoteric precincts of cubism. "It is more accessible," said Weiss.

It is also, by any measure, a blockbuster show, a huge, market-driven enterprise designed to attract attention far beyond the museum's usual reach. It took three years to prepare, the combined efforts of two major museums (the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where the show goes next, is the other), and involved the work of scores of people in both cities, and many more abroad.

It is advertised internationally on the gallery's own Web site. The corporate sponsor, Bell Atlantic, has revved up its own considerable engines of publicity.

The show will run four months, through the high tourist season. Some 25,000 visitors a week are expected, or about 425,000 by the time it closes July 27.

Art exhibits of this size are expensive to mount, but can be hugely profitable. Last year the Philadelphia Museum of Art paid $4 million to show 150 paintings by French impressionist Paul Cezanne.

(The National Gallery, as a matter of policy, doesn't reveal cost figures such as these.)

The Cezanne show was the biggest art event to ever hit Philadelphia. It took five years to prepare; 770,000 people saw it; hundreds were turned away. The museum netted $6 million in profit, $2.5 million from the accompanying merchandise, such as Cezanne T-shirts, baseballs and beach towels, most of the rest from ticket sales at $12 each.

Picasso at the National Gallery will not make a dime. Access is free to the public. Nor can the gallery expect much from the museum shop.

All items sold must have an educational component. Books, posters, cards and a few other items related to Picasso are about all that are available. T-shirts are out, coffee mugs and other such gimcrackery.

Tote bags are rationalized. "To carry the books," Ziska said.

Blockbuster shows of art's late mega-stars -- Picasso in Washington and Boston, Matisse in New York, Cezanne in Philadelphia -- are all responses to a market only recently exploited around the country.

"We are talking about people all over the country who want to see art and are willing to travel to see it," said Sandra Horrocks, vice president for marketing at the Philadelphia museum. "They want us to make it easy for them."

They tend to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic, though not experts: people like Margo Champagne, a visitor from Chicago to the Picasso show this week who had just learned something from the most celebrated painter in the 20th century.

"I have had a hard time with abstract and modern art," she said. "It was just blobs to me. But I just saw a picture that was a lesson."

She was enlightened by a small painting titled "The Embrace," done by the master in 1900. It is a picture of a man embracing a woman in a bedroom. What illuminated Champagne was an effect by the 19-year-old Picasso: He had created a flesh-colored blur of the man's hands where they encircled the woman's waist.

That flash of color, she said, "suddenly hit me, made me appreciate abstract art."

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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