Home Magazine The end of the blockbuster

The pandemic has left many museums across the globe with large funding gaps. It was widely reported the Louvre had lost around $45 million in revenue since closing on March 13th, and many other museums that rely on ticket sales and other visitor-generated income find themselves in similar positions. 

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Museums and public galleries are beginning to gradually re-open but not nearly with their usual capacity. This will put considerable pressure on the basic economics of the museum model, one which has become increasingly predicated on putting on high-priced exhibitions to lure in foot-fall and guarantee a global audience which brings a premium return.

One example is the U.K.’s oldest museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford, which recently described the dire economic impact of re-opening. Their ‘Young Rembrandt’ exhibition was on for just two weeks before lockdown, and as Xa Sturgis the museum director explains: “[w]hen we reopen…the most we’ll be able to send through the socially distanced system is 600 visitors a week, instead of almost 5,000. This is not enough to pay for the guards, let alone the insurance for the Munich loan [a self-portrait from 1629].


Self-portrait, 1629 by Rembrandt, from the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.


These covid-related measures are evidently temporary, but the long-term effects on the museums’ balance sheets will be felt over the next decade. The huge logistical costs, including loans, government negotiations, insurance and shipping may therefore be a risk museums will be more hesitant to take in the future. 

The director of the Museum de Lakenhal in the Netherlands, Meta Knol, points out why this may not be such a bad thing in a highly interesting piece from February this year called ‘Blockbuster Addiction’. In it, she writes that institutions have found themselves creating and supporting ‘[A] system in which museums bid against each other with large, money-guzzling blockbusters that require more money and more visitors every time, and where success is only measured in revenue and visitor counts’. She concludes by suggesting that institutions should focus on telling local stories with a universal appeal, ‘not as an expression of provincialism’, but as a system that is more economically and culturally sustainable.  


Image of the 2019 extension to the Museum of Lakenhal.


Knol’s voice is by no means a singular one in the art world. A fascinating and little discussed report from the London School of Economics from January this year entitled ‘The art world’s response to the challenge of inequality’  writes about the problem with a blockbuster centred exhibition program, in relation to diversity. The report also credits the continual decline of state funding as a reason for blockbuster shows. The director of the Courtauld Gallery in London is quoted in the report as saying ''[M]useums are having to gravitate towards projects that are going to guarantee a return, and which tend to build on pre-existing popularity, reducing the scope for encounters with unknown art forms.'' This cements Knol’s concerns. 


The Courtauld Gallery in London.


It would be naïve to suggest, however, that the pandemic is in some way offering the necessary reset for a system that has become addicted to growth and guaranteed visitors.  As the LSE report points out, museums were drawn to the blockbuster model partly due to a lack of state funding, which we can only assume will continue as austerity measures will likely be put in place in many countries. It may, however, force the more diverse and locally focused exhibition proposals to be more appealing options, at least for the next couple of years.

Cover image: The Courtauld Gallery in London.

Written by Max Lunn 

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