Marketability balance

By construction, the cultural bureaucracy, just like any bureaucracy, and risk are mutually exclusive. Risk is not to be had. Exhibitions that challenge widely accepted theories or truisms thus simply do not happen any longer.

—Conscientious: A few thoughts on Cindy Sherman

Smart museums will always have a show capable of generating a lot of sales. But a good museum will almost always counterprogram the marketable shows with potentially unmarketable ones.

—My post Liking Art

Being able to take a bit of the museum home with us is both how museums make money and how most people see art.

—My post iPad Art

One of the toughest things about any arts organization is the balancing act between truly supporting the arts and just focusing on where the money is. If an organization gets the balance wrong, it risks either its solvency or its credibility.

This is hard enough to do with old art where we already know what is good and what is marketable.* When we get to modern art where Sturgeon’s Law still applies, it’s even more difficult. There is considerable risk in just the selection of art to be presented, let alone the presentation of that art. And when the economy goes in the toilet, it becomes even tighter.**

*I’m thinking of performing arts here since those works are presented all over. Old visual arts tend to be pretty static in their presentation.

**Whether through luck or skill, SFMoMA managed to schedule Ansel Adams in 2001 and Frida Kahlo in 2008 right after the NASDAQ cratered those years.

I don’t mind weeding through 90% crap in order to find the good stuff. But I do feel sorry for the small percentage of modern art which is already acknowledged to be in the 10%. Those are the safeties which can be presented as blockbuster exhibitions, move product, and keep museums solvent. But it means that they have to be presented as safeties.

Taking the Cindy Sherman example, her work can be presented as either a marketable catalog-moving exhibition or a provocative reflection of us. But since she’s safely recognizable as an important artist, we only see the marketable side of her now. Most people don’t want to see or own anything which insults them.

Which means that the very thing that makes someone like Cindy Sherman interesting is blunted by the fact that she’s now a product herself* and, as such, subject to the reviews and criticisms from people who see a single image and don’t understand why it’s that expensive.** Her work is now presented as canon and no longer has its edge.***

*Currently #2 on the list of most-expensive photographs.

**The only photographer who gets more edgy the more popular he gets appears to be Richard Prince, whose retrospective at the Guggenheim manages to still trigger the “why is this art?” response despite being a blockbuster show.

***Something which happens to a lot of originally-provocative artwork—for example, few people now know how controversial Manet’s work was originally.

I am however okay with the concept of the blockbuster show. Anything which brings people into the museum—where they might see other things besides the show they came for—is a good thing. I may poke at the curation a bit, but in the grand scheme of things, as long as there are other, riskier exhibitions also going on at the museum, I’ll be happy.

Especially because the weird exhibitions are the ones which offer the biggest reward. Attending a big blockbuster-type exhibition means I already expect to like and appreciate the work. I may already be aware of, if not familiar with, what I’m going to see so while I try to keep an open mind, I’m already biased toward specific points of view. If I have no idea what an exhibition is, I can be surprised and taken all kinds of places. Sometimes the exhibition is a miss. But when it’s a hit, I enjoy it more than I can enjoy any blockbuster show.

The San Jose Museum of Art tends to do this to me a lot. I’ll duck in because I’m in the area or because I want to see their main exhibit and by blown away by something else which they randomly have on display. SFMoMA did it to me recently with Descriptive Acts. The exhibitions I loved were not the exhibitions I went to see. That they were at the museum anyway is what makes the museums good.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

9 thoughts on “Marketability balance”

  1. This is a very thoughtful piece. The downside of the blockbuster of course is that the enjoyment of any exhibition is usually inversely proportional to the number of people seeking to enjoy it at the same time. This might put people off if they did not seem to driven by another iron law: being there is more important than seeing there.

    1. This is true. I usually plan my museum visits to occur on non-weekend days. While I enjoy hearing the reactions of other museum goers, fighting through crowds is not enjoyable. Nor is dealing with people who are only concerned with checking off an accomplishment on a must-do list.

  2. Pingback: The Met | n j w v

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: