Not exactly a `Gold' rush

Art: Not many people wandered into the Walters Art Gallery to view the exhibit `Gold of the Nomads.'

June 14, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The Walters Art Gallery, chagrined over the failure of its recent "Gold of the Nomads" exhibit to draw the crowds officials had anticipated, has been doing some serious soul-searching.

The show, which closed May 28, was expected to attract at least 70,000 visitors over its 12-week run. But fewer than half that number showed up. As a result, the museum had to swallow a $200,000 shortfall in anticipated revenues, causing it to lay off four seasonal workers who had been hired specifically for the show and well as cut advertising costs.

Anne Wilson, the Walters' director of marketing and communications, said museum officials realized in the first two weeks that "Nomad" wasn't doing as well as expected, and they took cost-cutting measures that allowed them to break even. Overall, the Walters remains in good financial shape, she says. But Wilson concedes that organizers may have been "a little optimistic" in their estimate of the show's popularity.

"We projected the `Nomads' show based partly on what our 1997 China show, `The First Emperor,' had done," Wilson said. "It had elements in common with that show: important archeological discoveries, a narrative about an ancient people and civilization, plus it had been a major feature in National Geographic magazine. So I kind of felt that it would have the same sort of appeal."

The China show drew about 93,000 visitors during its 11-week run. The museum didn't expect "Nomads" to attract as many, but put it in that range. A similar show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had drawn more than 200,000 visitors in the 1970s. Both the Los Angeles Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where the show is scheduled after it leaves Baltimore, had projected at least 100,000 visitors.

Only about 30,000 visitors actually came to see the Baltimore show. Wilson said a combination of factors contributed to the disappointing turnout. "The people who came to the show really liked it, but it was a hard story to get them excited about ahead of time," she said. Besides unfamiliarity with the subject, Wilson said, the public's interest in shows featuring gold seems to be waning.

"Recently, there's been a touring show called `Wealth of the Thracians: Ancient Gold from Bulgaria,' which also hasn't done that well," she said. "The Boston Museum of Fine Arts had a Thracians show last year, for example, and they reported only about 600 visitors a day, or about 43,000 visitors. So if Boston is only doing 600 a day ..., you have to ask whether we could get 1,000 visitors a day for `Nomads,' whose subject is just as unfamiliar to most people."

Finally, the long-term renovation project under way at the Walters probably has confused some visitors, Wilson said. "It definitely has affected overall attendance," she said. "Visitation is down, membership is down. People think there isn't that much to see, and there's even a perception that the museum is closed, which is something that any museum going through a major renovation tends to experience."

Walters director Gary Vikan said the museum remains committed to high-quality shows. "Square foot per square foot, we produce more stuff than any museum in the country," Vikan said. "I wouldn't give that up for the world."

Wilson said they've learned from the experience. For instance, Vikan said, the museum will rely more heavily on such marketing tools as direct mail and surveys of similar shows in other cities when it's making audience projections for future exhibits.

Officials know not every show can be a blockbuster like the Monet exhibit of spring 1998, which drew 130,000 visitors.

"The point is to scale the shows for the size of the audience that will come," Vikan said.

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