With de Kooning Exhibition, MoMA Hopes for a Blockbuster


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MoMA’s new de Kooning exhibition, which debuted last month, is the first major exhibition to open since the museum raised its ticket price from $20 to $25. Photo: Theodoric Meyer.

The Museum of Modern Art’s new Willem de Kooning exhibition, entitled “De Kooning: A Retrospective,” has already earned an impressive amount of praise. But like any large show, there’s still an element of risk.

Writing in The Financial Times this weekend, Ariella Budick called it “the most ambitious show New York has seen in a long time.” In The New York Times, Holland Carter called it “exhaustively comprehensive, exhaustingly large, and predictably awe inspiring.”

Whether critical praise will translate into crowds — the difference between a large show and what those in the art world call a blockbuster — can be hard to predict.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Kym Rice, the director of the museum studies program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a former exhibition curator.

MoMA, like other museums, doesn’t disclose the costs of their exhibitions, but large ones like “De Kooning: A Retrospective” typically cost anywhere from $500,000 to $4 million, Rice said. Each show, like an expensive film, is a gamble on its popularity with audiences, and, in several ways, MoMA’s bet on de Kooning is more of a risk than usual: It’s the first exhibition to debut at MoMA since the museum raised its adult admission price from $20 to $25 on Sept. 1.

The exhibition is also the first in MoMA’s history to take up the museum’s entire sixth floor, which is usually divided into space for two separate exhibits. But the show’s enormous size — some 200 works from de Kooning’s long career — required all the space.

The biggest hurdle for the exhibition to clear, however, may be de Kooning’s reputation. Richard Shiff, an art historian at the University of Texas at Austin who is publishing a book on de Kooning, wrote in an email that de Kooning is “an artist whom many people in the past have found offensive,” for his dense, chaotic forms and his grotesque depictions of women.

But Shiff thinks that the blockbuster exhibition may be the perfect venue for an artist like de Kooning, whose style changed radically over his seven-decade career. “The MoMA show can only help de Kooning’s reputation because it presents him in great depth,” Shiff wrote, “and he’s an artist who looks better and better the more you see of his work.”

Major shows like the de Kooning retrospective are a fairly recent phenomenon. The idea dates to the 1970s, when Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, orchestrated a number of high-profile exhibitions there, including the famed “Treasures of Tutankhamun” in 1978. During its four-month run, the show brought in 1.3 million visitors.

Today, most blockbusters draw more modest crowds. In 2010, for instance, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibition on Henri Matisse, titled “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917.” “We did a quarter of a million” visitors for Matisse, said Jennifer Paoletti, one of the museums managers of departmental exhibitions, “and we were quite pleased.”

Museums attempt to predict the number of visitors based on the size and scale of the show, Paoletti said, but some shows can prove unexpectedly popular. The Met’s retrospective on Alexander McQueen, the late British fashion designer, for instance, drew 661,509 visitors during its three-month run this summer and was extended an additional week to accommodate demand. The exhibition, the eighth most popular in the Met’s history, opened a little more than a year after McQueen’s 2010 suicide.

Regardless of attendance, each exhibition is a mammoth undertaking, with an initial idea refined by the exhibition’s curator — John Elderfield, in the case of de Kooning — and planned out years in advance.  Once a show is approved, the museum faces expensive logistical challenges, from transporting and insuring artwork to constructing the physical exhibits. Curators and their assistants must decide everything from how to display the artist’s name at the exhibit’s entrance (in giant teal letters, in de Kooning’s case) to where to mount large, significant works like “Excavation,” a massive canvas de Kooning painted in 1950.

“Excavation,” like much of the exhibition’s artwork, is on loan from another museum—in this case, the Art Institute of Chicago. Other works came from institutions such as the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., as well as from private collectors.

Securing the necessary artwork for an exhibition can be one of the trickiest parts of setting up a major exhibition, Paoletti said.

Works in private collections can be difficult to track down, especially if they’ve been auctioned and resold, and other museums don’t always approve requests to borrow their art. Institutions may also charge a fee — $200 or so — to cover the administrative costs of a loan. “More and more, museums charge loan fees for use of their objects,” Rice said.

Will MoMA’s bet on de Kooning draw crowds? MoMA declines to release admissions numbers before the show closes, but Miriam Basilio, an assistant professor in the art history and museum studies departments at New York University, thinks it’s likely. The museum recently held a popular exhibition on abstract expressionists that featured a number of de Kooning’s works, she said, and visitors who enjoyed it may return for the full retrospective.

The show’s very magnitude may attract people, too. “The exhibition will bring in crowds,” Shiff said, “because this artist will probably never be seen again in this depth.”

Museumgoers seem to appreciate the depth, but not the rise in ticket prices. Meghan Gilligan, a photographer from Portland, Ore., said she appreciated seeing works other than de Kooning’s famous Woman I on a recent visit but was “displeased” at the admission hike. Marian Silliman, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and friend of Gilligan’s who had come to MoMA with her, was more blunt. “I think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “Art is for the public.”

Silliman prefers the Met’s admission scheme, she said, which recommends a $25 donation for adult visitors but does not insist upon it. That said, Gilligan and Silliman still bought tickets. What if tickets went up to $30? “I would probably still come anyway,” Gilligan said.

That attitude, Rice said, is what she thinks MoMA expected. “They know they’re drawing in an audience that can afford to pay $5 more,” she said.