Goodbye, Deco. Hello, Dali
Saturday October 4, 2008
The National Gallery of Victoria's big show for the year is about to vanish in a triumphant flash of Art Deco chrome, but there are more blockbusters coming, aimed at broadening minds, bringing people into the gallery - and boosting state revenue.EVEN Art Deco cannot run for ever. Tomorrow is the last chance to see the Cartier cigarette cases and Bakelite radios, the nail-polish-red vintage Mercedes and cobalt-blue Cord, the swanky revolving doors from the Strand Palace Hotel, the paintings by Leger and Dupas, the posters of the SS Normandie, the dresses by Chanel and the flickering movie of the bare-breasted Josephine Baker performing her danse sauvage. After that, the National Gallery of Victoria's big show for this year will vanish in a triumphant flash of chrome.Since it opened on June 28, Art Deco 1910-1939 has been one of the NGV's most popular exhibitions. By closing time, more than 200,000 people will have seen it (the 200,000th, a young woman from Geelong, was officially greeted at the gallery last week and given a grab-bag of goodies that did not include a Tiffany watch). They will have marvelled at the glossy opulence of a movement whose very name evokes its inherent style and sassiness. They will have spent their money to get in and, on the way out, spent more on the merchandising, which includes scale-model polar bears.This is the world of the blockbuster and, in particular, the NGV's Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series of exhibitions that form the centrepiece of its annual schedule. As much as these shows are about great artists or significant art movements (previous exhibitions have been devoted to French Impressionism, Dutch grand masters, Picasso and works from the Guggenheim Museum), they are also to do with popularity, marketing and introducing associated activities. The intention, in addition to broadening our cultural minds, is to bring people into the institution and, on a broader scale, attract tourism and increase revenue for the state.Art Deco, says NGV director Gerard Vaughan, has also had an unexpectedly felicitous result. "The security guards have been saying that of all the shows we've done, this one is making people happy. Everyone, they say, has a huge smile. Picasso was different: he needed thought and engagement, and you didn't exactly skip through it. But this one is different."If that's the case with Art Deco, what people will make of next year's Salvador Dali exhibition can only be imagined. What is not left to chance, though, is the popularity of the blockbuster. It is crucial, says Vaughan, to get this right. "We can't actually afford to have a flop with masterpieces," he says. "We've invested millions in them before they've opened. Our marketing team always tests the water by floating ideas with a cross-section of the public. Some that seem sensational at the time might not turn out to be favourites."The beauty, Vaughan says, of being able to plan well in advance - he has just returned from Europe and has shows pencilled in until 2015 - is that the big exhibitions can be counterbalanced in terms of box-office appeal. "For example, Guggenheim last year was slightly below; we knew that in advance by the market surveys. But while there would be a lower audience, we also knew there would be more teenagers and people in their 20s. We changed our demographic, and that's part of our vision. With Art Deco we've got them all."The phrase "blockbuster exhibition" can be traced to the reign of Egypt's boy king, Tutankhamen - well, at least to 1972 and the legendary Egyptology exhibition at the British Museum, which attracted more than 1.7 million visitors, and remains Britain's most popular exhibition.Three years later, the National Gallery of Victoria held its first blockbuster, Modern Masterpieces: from Manet to Matisse, a showing of pictures from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which opened at the St Kilda Road gallery on May 29, 1975. Vaughan remembers it well. "Rudolf Nureyev was in town and went through the exhibition with a friend, animatedly saying: "Whoever would have thought we'd been seeing this in Melbourne, of all places?'."The Age's review contained the prescient paragraph:"The most important thing ... is that it is here at last to be seen and enjoyed. One only hopes it will stimulate the sending of other such or similar shows to Australia." The critic also commended the government for underwriting the prohibitive insurance costs.Indemnifying priceless works of art remains the biggest, and riskiest, investment. From 1975, the NGV held sporadic blockbusters every few years. They were popular, but the costs were huge. Today, Melbourne Winter Masterpieces accounts for a good deal of the $8 million the gallery spends on the 20 or so shows it holds each year. At least half of the blockbuster budget goes on such logistics as packing, freight, courier and security; the other half pays for exhibition design, installation, ticketing, marketing and promotion.The idea for Melbourne Winter Masterpieces came about while the NGV's St Kilda Road building was closed for redevelopment in the late 1990s and early 2000s. "It emerged through our discussions with Victorian Major Events, the State Government and Art Exhibitions Australia," says Vaughan. A big help, he says, was that the then chairman of the NGV council of trustees, Steve Vizard, was also chairman of Major Events. The rationale, to promote Melbourne as a cultural destination, ensured government support, as well as access to various key networks, such as Tourism Victoria, and receiving special funding.The first blockbuster in the reopened gallery was the 2004 Impressionists exhibition from the Musee d'Orsay, Paris. This, along with the next two shows, Dutch Masters and Picasso, were held with Art Exhibitions Australia. "We worked with them because if you wanted indemnity, you had to do it through them," says Vaughan. The cost of underwriting the insurance for such mega-exhibitions can be up to $2 billion.Last year's blockbuster from the Guggenheim Museum, New York, was the first indemnified by the State Government in its equivalent of the federal scheme - the result of a proposal made by the then federal arts minister, former Victorian senator Rod Kemp. "We have to plan exhibitions three to four years in advance, but, as Senator Kemp told us, the federal government could not always promise us access to indemnification that far in advance. So he talked to the State Government. This was a breakthrough," says Vaughan.This means the NGV not only has more lead time to plan, but a greater chance of securing masterworks from various institutions ahead of other requests. "The worst thing that can happen is for a museum to say, 'We would love to lend this work, but we've already lent it to another gallery,"' says Vaughan. The other advantage is that such shows can be exclusive to the NGV, instead of the costs having to be defrayed between two or three national galleries. "We've begun to advertise in a big way in other states on a regular basis," says Vaughan. "For these exhibitions, about 25% of visitors come from interstate and overseas."The result, apart from people through the doors, has been a direct economic benefit to the state of more than $80 million; this, says Vaughan, is expected to hit $90 million this year.The success of the blockbusters has enabled the NGV to be more experimental with other exhibitions. Flanking the blockbuster are two "bookend" shows, which, says Vaughan, can be devoted to more esoteric subjects. For example, Art Deco was preceded by an exhibition of Chinese contemporary photography, and coming up is a photography show by the German master Andreas Gursky. "We work on the principle that the exhibitions budget breaks even at the end of the year. So if we can make a bit of money out of masterpieces - we don't always do it - we use this profit to subsidise the smaller shows that can't by definition make a profit."IN VAUGHAN'S opinion, the blockbuster is passe. Two weeks ago, in a lecture at Melbourne University, he said it was a phenomenon of the '70s and '80s. "It was possible because there was more money to go round then. It was possible to conceive these massive exhibitions: the complete works of Gauguin, the Renoir retrospective, and Monet's early work, late work, snow paintings, ... you name it."Every museum director knows that if you want a sure-fire success you either have to do the Impressionists or post-Impressionists, Picasso or Matisse. They are guaranteed successes. Everything else has a bit of risk associated with it. The problem is we can't do only Impressionist shows."The world is changing. I said in this lecture that the age of blockbuster has passed. The small group of the world's great museums that can supply the great pictures are world-weary, exhausted. Everything's more expensive, and there have been too many exhibitions."The problem comes down to supply and demand. "One of the major problems of the last 20 years is that every big museum of art on earth has had a redevelopment," says Vaughan. "One of the things you do is make a huge permanent space for temporary exhibitions, as we did here. You need it. So you get every gallery director cruising the world looking for exhibitions. Boards of trustees are increasingly saying we're not so interested in the big shows any more, but want more focused shows. For example, the Velazquez exhibition at London's National Gallery two years ago was a mere 40 paintings, less than half the size of the traditional blockbuster. I believe over the years we will do smaller, more focused shows."Future blockbusters may be leaner and smarter, but Vaughan believes the tradition will survive longer in Australia and South-East Asia than in other regions. It is one of the few advantages of cultural isolation. "There is still the argument for providing access to work you simply have no access to in your own country," he says. "A director of one of Europe's greatest museums told me a few weeks ago that he's much more interested in lending works to Australia: 'If someone's in Europe, they can bloody well hop on a train or plane and come to see it,' he said."Future Melbourne Winter Masterpieces will certainly continue to have blockbuster elements. Not that Vaughan is giving too much away. "I can say that there is still a role in this country for a big general show on a theme of an issue, like Art Deco."Meanwhile, everyone is smiling at the success of Art Deco. "We learn something from every year," says Vaughan. "For example, Art After Dark, on Wednesday nights, has been a series of huge parties. One night, an old couple took me aside and said, 'We're too old to go out to nightclubs; to us, this is the next best thing'."Michael Shmith is an Age senior writer.