In June The New York Times proclaimed that "Brooklyn Museum's Populism Hasn't Boosted Crowds." Populism is dead? Nope, long live populism. LACMA recently announced it will be hosting the MoMA-organized Tim Burton show (above). MOCA is is showing the art of Dennis Hopper, whom posterity will remember as a great actor, and is enmeshed in a goofy soap opera deal with James Franco, who may or may not be so remembered. On the East Coast, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is doing a show of Norman Rockwell as collected by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and the Metropolitan Museum is drawing crowds with Ringo Starr's gold snare drum.
Museum populism raises two distinct questions. Should populist exhibitions exist? If they should, do they have to be in art museums?
There's more consensus on these issues than you'd think from the tone of the debate. First of all, nobody says there shouldn't be "Star Wars" shows. They should exist as long as somebody's willing to pay for them. The somebody could be the public attending the show, or it could be a billionaire willing to foot the bill. The prime example of that is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who built Seattle's Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum. Allen's museum is currently touring a show called "Out of this World: Extraordinary Costumes from Film and Television" that's touching down in some otherwise serious art venues.
To put it another way, the free market should decide how many populist shows we have. But anytime someone mentions the "free market," you've got to ask who's doing the accounting. Museums are non-profit for a reason. With very rare exceptions, exhibitions are not cash cows, and that includes the populist ones. These shows typically occupy galleries funded by another generation's philanthropists, who intended more serious and elevating fare. The venues receive favorable tax treatments on the premise of being educational. Populist shows co-opt the labor of museum staffs, also funded for different and loftier purposes. When museums claim that a motorcycle or movie memorabilia show was a financial success, they usually count restaurant and gift shop sales, new memberships, and so on, without a too-rigorous accounting of what these sales might have been with a more serious show. It's easy for any business plan to succeed when it doesn't count costs, or opportunity costs.
Should populist shows be in art museums? The core audience for a motorcycle show does not care that it's being installed next to Kandinskys, in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed temple of high culture on Fifth Avenue. They'd just as soon it was in a Las Vegas casino, as that show eventually was. The core ("elitist") audience for art museums is, of course, the one that complains about populist shows. They'd rather see Dennis Hopper and Tim Burton's movies than their installations.
That leaves only one micro-constituency for having populist shows in art museums: directors of art museums. While they're at least as elitist as their audiences, they have to consider the numbers. Building attendance is one of the few metrics of a museum director's success. They therefore make an argument that practically no one else does — the "Art Trap" argument, to quote James Franco. It holds that the populist shows will lure crowds who don't normally go to art museums. Once there, they'll realize the museum isn't such a forbidding place; it's for people just like them. A significant fraction will wander through the galleries, looking at real art. Some will become hooked. They'll come back for more serious shows. Maybe they'll become members. It's the old bait and switch.
That doesn't mean it doesn't work. It does work for car dealers. If everyone who watches General Hospital signed up for MOCA membership, that would fix the museum's financial bind, and MOCA's core audience would be pragmatic enough to applaud Deitch's genius. Of course, it's doubtful how many soap fans would segue easily to Latin American light and space and William Leavitt.
It's ultimately an empirical question whether populism works. That's why the Brooklyn Museum history is worth pondering. In his tenure, Lehman has had a deeper, more consistent commitment to populism than almost any other major art museum director. He did shows of Star Wars, hip-hop, rock and roll photography, and Annie Leibovitz. In Lehman's first full year, 1998, the Brooklyn Museum's attendance was 585,000 a year. It soon took a nose dive and has fluctuated ever since. In 2009 attendance was 340,000. The opening of glass-enclosed court in 2004 was supposed to make the museum Brooklyn's living room, and triple attendance. It didn't do much of anything. The only real trend is a steady modest increase due to "First Saturdays," free admission date nights with a bar and movies. It's doubtful whether many First Saturdays people pay much attention to the art. Subtract the First Saturdays numbers and the total attendance trend is down.
The one encouraging number in the Times piece is for ethnic diversity. In 2009 over 40 percent of visitors identified themselves as people of color. That's presumably higher than it was, though still low, given Brooklyn's population. Another way to encourage diversity, which has mostly eluded the Brooklyn Museum, is to put on serious shows by artists of color. (The notable exception is the Brooklyn-organized Basquiat show in 2005.)
"It's the one thing that frustrates me more than almost anything else," Lehman said of the lagging attendance. "I've always felt, 'Where are all the people who should be here?' It's a good question. Brooklyn — like Los Angeles — has became a center of the creative community. The answer is pretty obvious: They're taking the subway to more serious shows in Manhattan. Hereafter, anyone who wants to defend museum populism as a way of building attendance will need to start by explaining why it failed in Brooklyn.