A winning 'Grand Design' Exhibit: The Victoria and Albert Museum show ends this weekend as the Baltimore Museum of Art's third best attraction.

January 16, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

"A Grand Design" has been a mostly grand success.

The exhibit of works from London's Victoria and Albert Museum opened Oct. 12 at the Baltimore Museum of Art and runs through Sunday. It has been the third-largest-drawing show in the museum's history, attracting 150,000 visitors, though it didn't quite reach the museum's projection of 170,000.

The attendance leaders are the 1991-1992 show of works by Claude Monet from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (215,000) and the 1996-1997 show of works by Andrew Wyeth (170,000). Shows with big-name artists attached tend to draw best.

Weekly attendance at "A Grand Design" was 11,000, almost double average weekly attendance of 6,000. The museum increased its membership by 1,100 during the show's run, compared with an average increase of 250 for a similar period. The new membership was added to a total that stood at 14,600 as of last July.

Critical response was enthusiastic. Financially, the show is expected to reach the break-even point, which most museum shows, including blockbusters, do not do.

Even the handsome but bulky catalog has sold amazingly well. Weighing in at 431 pages, $35 in paperback and $60 in hardback, it sold 1,185 copies in the museum shop. "That was hugely more than I expected," said Brenda Richardson, the museum's deputy director for art, who was curator for the show and edited the catalog with Malcolm Baker of the V&A. "Usually it's a miracle if we sell 100 catalogs for an exhibit."

Budgeted at $4.5 million and 10 years in the planning, the show was the biggest effort of any exhibition in the museum's history. Called officially "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," it brought to the BMA 256 objects from the famed encyclopedic repository of the world's art. They were selected and organized not simply to present a treasure trove but to trace the history of the V&A's collecting.

Richardson has been delighted by the public's warm response to the show.

"Ordinarily I curate exhibitions of contemporary art," she said, "which have a small pool of enthusiasts but which are not generally shows the public likes a lot. The effusive positive response from people who loved this show was gratifying and fun for me. I would go up and watch and listen and talk to people, and I was delighted with the constant conversation about ideas. It made people think about the museum-going experience and about how the objects that you see in a museum got there. I think this project really made a difference."

Even the financial side looks positive. People may think "blockbuster" shows make a lot of money, but the truth is that they rarely break even, despite major sponsorship, and museums do not expect to make money on them.

Big loan shows have long lists of expenses, from installation (estimated at 17 percent of total expenses for the V&A show) and shipping (10 percent) to the cost of the catalog (5 to 6 percent), conservation (3 percent) and photography (1 percent).

The show's cost was largely offset by 15 private and public sponsors, including Lockheed Martin, Visa U.S.A. and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. Sponsorship gifts and in-kind support amounted to 75 percent of the show's overall budget, with other money coming from earned income such as admissions and gift-shop sales. Kathleen Basham, the museum's deputy director for administration, expects the show to break even, though final figures will not be in until after it finishes its tour.

It next goes to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it opens Feb. 25, and will travel to Toronto, Houston and San Francisco, where it will close its North American tour in May 1999. Then it will return home and reopen in October of next year, as the V&A commemorates the 100th anniversary of its being named the Victoria and Albert Museum by Queen Victoria in her last official public appearance.

Final weekend

What: "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: For "A Grand Design" only, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday; the rest of the museum will be open regular museum hours, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday

Admission: $8; $6 seniors and students; free to BMA members and ages 18 and under. Regular museum admission (excluding "A Grand Design") is $6; $4 seniors and students; free to BMA members and ages 18 and under

Call: For "A Grand Design" information, 888-262-4278; for other museum information, 410-396-7100

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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