Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Enough already

Tate Modern has just hosted its best-attended exhibition ever. The break-out winner is Henri Matisse's The cut-outs. The final numbers are in and this exhibition attracted an audience of 562,600. In gross terms based on the population of London, around 1 in 14 Londoners attended. Everyone is ecstatic.

So how would that level of success translate into audience numbers based on NZ urban populations? One in 14 people attending in Auckland would get you an audience of 98,350. In Wellington you're looking at 14,357. In reality though, if the City Gallery got an audience of around 14,000 for a major show the director would throw herself off the roof. A big City Gallery success would have to look something more like the Yayoi Kusama exhibition of 2009 with 175,000 people coming in the door. Now that's not far short of the entire population of the city. Of course how the exhibition numbers are in fact made up includes tourists and out-of-towners as well as the locals but it's useful to take a step back and think about expectations. The population comparison between London and Wellington at the very least shows we have unrealistic expectations of the size of the audience most special temporary art exhibitions can attract.

We've now got an arms race as our art museums search for increasingly popular shows to up the numbers beyond even patently unrealistic levels (and sometimes crash and burn - we're looking at you Te Papa). Then as soon as one attendance record is broken it becomes the benchmark to be beaten in turn.  Clearly we need more useful ways of deciding the success of exhibitions. On the ‘Tate/Matisse scale’ if more than 10,000 people see the Ralph Hotere mural at the City Gallery you'd have to say it was a sensational result and on the same T/M scale, if Auckland Art Gallery gets anywhere near 98,000 for its upcoming Light show (around half of what Wellington did on Kusama) it could fairly claim to be up there with the famous London institution.

The comparative number of people needed to match the Tate's super audience for Matisse:
Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui 3,107
Govett-Brewster, New Plymouth 5,299
Dunedin Public Art Gallery 9,000
Christchurch Art Gallery 26,264