In one of my previous posts I talked about ‘art matters‘. I explained that the content of the exhibition is one of the factors to consider when setting the admittance price. Actually the three examples I used can be determined as blockbusters. It were ‘King Tut’, ‘Bodies the exhibition” and ‘Rembrandt Caravaggio’. What at least two of those three exhibitions have in common is star appeal: King Tut and Rembrandt & Caravaggio.
At the Tropenmuseum we had two exhibitions at the same time that had a big amount of star appeal. We had an exhibition about beads called ‘Beauty and the Bead’ and an exhibition about Che Guevara called ‘Che, a commercial revolution’. At first sight beads don’t have any star appeal (when first hearing about the exhibition it sounded rather boring to me…I instantly got an image of grey ladies making awful beaded necklaces). But what gave them star appeal were the garments with beads that were worn by recent stars. The exhibition had garments worn by such celebrities as Diana Ross, Madonna, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe.
I probably don’t have to explain the star appeal of Che Guevara. It is one of the most famous icons/symbols about revolution in the world. The exhibition about Che Guevara generated a lot of free publicity. When the exhibition opened almost all the press writing about arts in the Netherlands had an article about it. The year 2007 when those two exhibitions were on display Tropenmuseum had a record attendance. It was the best attendance in the last 10 years.
I am always amazed about how these kinds of things work. Why do people want to see clothes of a celebrity? I once had lecture about this subject. The professor told us that one of the main reasons people want to be near a star (groupies/fans) or for example cherish an autograph is that a bit of that stardom becomes a part of their identity. I can show my ‘Johan Cruyff’ autograph to my friends and a part of me becomes Johan Cruyff. Mainly also because my European friends will respond in an enthusiastic way: “You are so Cool, you have an autograph of Johan Cruyff”. Telling you I have seen a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe…makes me Marilyn Monroe.
It can also work the opposite way. A rather famous example is ‘the man with the golden helmet’ by Rembrandt van Rijn. I saw a documentary once (I forget the name of it) which showed how in sixties and seventies this painting was the centerpiece of the Gemäldegalerie In Berlin. Like the ‘Mona Lisa’ is for the Louvre or the ‘Night Watch’ for the Rijksmuseum. It even had a separate room where people could watch and admire it. In 1985 it was discovered that the painting was not by Rembrandt. Immediately the painting lost all its (star) appeal. And now it is hanging sadly in the corner of museum. Did the painting at all change? No it didn’t but yes it did. I had lost its meaning, its emotional attachment. In this Time article from 1985 you can read how shocked this columnist was.
So having an exhibition with some or all of the artifacts who can be linked to a star appeal makes it probably more successful. You can go for a household brand like Rembrandt or Picasso or for some lesser gods. But are Museums also capable of making stars?
I have not researched that thoroughly but my Intuitions says they probably can. Of course this depends also a bit of the star power of the Museum itself. If the MoMA would decide to make an exhibition of some obscure but modestly talented painter I think his star will rise (sky) high. But even for a less famous museum this is a possible. A museum is supposed to be the one with knowledge about GREAT ART and BAD ART. Most of the people who visit a museum are not art historians. They are just plain museum consumers who want to be surprised. So if a museum can present them with a talented artists and also let the whole world know he is the hottest artist in Town maybe the museum can pull it of.