Lasting impression Art: Claude Monet. Pierre Auguste Renoir. These are the superstars of impressionism. Build a museum show with them in it, and the crowds will come.

November 23, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

A sign in the lobby at the Art Institute of Chicago coaxes families to become museum members. For $110, those who join get free admission to the museum for two years, access to special events, discounts on gift shop merchandise.

Then comes the clincher: Families that join now, the sign says, will receive free tickets to the Renoir exhibition currently on view and free tickets to an exhibition of works by American impressionist Mary Cassatt that won't open for another year.

If the museum world were a poker game, then the Art Institute would be holding two aces.

Exhibitions such as "Renoir: Impressions of an Age" (through Jan. 4) prove again and again what art professionals already know: Show works by an impressionist and the crowds will come.

By the hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

Museums from Chicago to Baltimore are using the seemingly eternal appeal of the impressionist masters to attract crowds, increase earnings from admission fees, swell membership lists and gain national attention.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, 185,000 tickets were sold before the Renoir show even opened in mid-October. Nearly 160,000 more have been sold since then.

The Baltimore Museum of Art's top-drawing exhibition thus far -- 215,000 visitors over 14 weeks -- is the 1992 display "Claude Monet: Impressionist Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston."

The attendance record at the Walters Art Gallery is 134,537 visitors for a 1993 retrospective of Alfred Sisley's work. Next spring, the Walters hopes to top that by attracting as many as 200,000 people in 55 days -- when it presents 22 works by Claude Monet from the Musee Marmottan of Paris.

"I don't think any one of us in the museum world fully understands this love of impressionism," says Brenda Richardson, deputy director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"What we do know is that you don't have to do anything more to attract a huge audience than give an exhibition of impressionist works."

Claude Monet. Pierre Auguste Renoir. These are the superstars, the Mick Jaggers of impressionism: aged masters who perpetually draw crowds. Other impressionists, including Camille Pissarro, Sisley and Cassatt, are popular but command smaller audiences. As one Brooklyn Museum of Art curator says: "Put a Monet banner up and it's a come-hither sign."

To be sure, there are other sure-fire crowd-pleasers in the museum world. Pablo Picasso is in such demand that five exhibitions featuring his work currently are making the rounds in North America. Paul Cezanne, who exhibited work at the first impressionism show, but who later rejected it, is an enormous crowd pleaser. And so is Vincent van Gogh, who was introduced to the impressionists by his brother Theo, and whose work was influenced by it.

Two summers ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented a 15-week show that attracted 777,810 to the museum -- in contrast to an average annual attendance of about 650,000. The estimated economic impact on the city was $122 million -- and the museum's membership soared by 52 percent from 31,936 to 48,584.

It was called simply "Cezanne."

Little wonder, then, that museums seize every opportunity to present shows featuring the same handful of artists. In the last three years, for example, exhibitions dedicated to Monet and circulated in North America have included a retrospective; a display of his later works, a show featuring scenes from the Mediterranean, a show focusing on his series paintings, and a show of selected masterpieces.

"Museums all over the world would do anything within reason for a Picasso, Monet, van Gogh or Renoir show," the BMA's Richardson says.

"After that, we would do anything for a show of one of the other impressionists. And the reason is that our world, our life, is about communicating art to the public. To do that, we need to attract the audience."

The negative side

But, while these exhibitions may guarantee a crowd, they do not guarantee critical acclaim. Chicago Tribune critic Alan G. Artner described the Art Institute's current Renoir show as "an insubstantial exhibition lacking the parade of eye-dazzlers that usually make us forgive the artist's unending holiday from thought."

And in a review of "Monet and the Mediterranean," now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman pointed out that Monet himself had doubts about some of the works on view: "I would like to be as satisfied with them as you appear to be," the artist said to an admirer. "I fear your friendship blinds you."

As for himself, Kimmelman added, perhaps a bit wearily: "I find the works pretty but occasionally boring, though I don't doubt this exhibition will be a big crowd pleaser, as every Monet show is."

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