Monday, March 05, 2012


The Auckland Art Gallery will be hoping that its current exhibition Degas to Dali will be a blockbuster on the scale of its legendary 1983 Monet exhibition. These big imported exhibitions are a gamble for art institutions and the risks are even higher when they are packaged on a strictly one venue per country basis. 

The term blockbuster was first used to describe the destruction caused by large single bombs during the Second World War. Even when it made it into the entertainment business it was still more about busting the revenues of theatrical competitors on the block than about long queues winding their way around it. The first New Zealand blockbuster is generally agreed to be the 1974 John Constable exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery. It was organised by Peter Webb - later New Zealand's auction guru - who followed up with the hugely successful Van Gogh exhibition the next year.

As the value of art increased dramatically in the art market’s wonder years (late 70s and 80s), the ability of New Zealand museums to insure it was stretched to the limit. As is common international practice, the Government agreed to step in and take on the insurance risk in a process termed indemnification. Amusingly, when this process was used for the first time in 1980 for the Thyssen-Bornemisza exhibition, the Government also took on traditional insurance, just in case!

Can you make money out of the blockbuster? With originating museum rental fees and rising freight and care costs it is a tough ask today but Rodney Wilson’s Monet made a sackful so it it is possible. Another complicating factor is the shift in audience expectations as potential visitors are much more likely to have travelled overseas and checked out some of the masterworks for themselves. 

If you want some context around the number of people needed to make a show a blockbuster, here’s a few attendance figures for blockbusters of the past. These will no doubt be the numbers dancing in the heads of the AAG’s senior staff as they toss and turn in their beds over the next couple of months.

Mixed artist exhibitions:
67,000 A century of modern masterpieces from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection (Auckland) 1980
72,000 Masterpieces of the Guggenheim (Dunedin) 1991
84,000 Exhibition of the century - modern masterpieces from the collection of the Stedelijk Museum (City Gallery) 1998
152,000 Monet and the Impressionists (Te Papa) 2009
73,170 European masters (Te Papa) 2011

Single artist exhibitions:
36,738 Henry Moore (Auckland) 1956
52,000 John Constable: the natural painter (Auckland) 1973
174,769 Claude Monet painter of light (Auckland) 1985
88,155 Yoyoi Kusama: mirrored years (City Gallery) 2011
135,000 Ron Mueck (Christchurch) 2011

Image: Crowds line up for the 1937 exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). The three million plus visitors made it what is generally considered to be the first blockbuster art exhibition.