What makes a blockbuster exhibition?

Before the pandemic, the RA's Head of Exhibitions, Andrea Tarsia, and former Artistic Director, Tim Marlow, discussed the origin and future of the ‘blockbuster’ show. Now, as museums face the challenges of social distancing, their reflections feel oddly prophetic...

Did you know that the RA is often credited with inventing the “blockbuster exhibition”? Delve into the phenomenon in this conversation between the RA’s former Artistic Director, Tim Marlow, and the Head of Exhibitions, Andrea Tarsia.

Tim How could we define a blockbuster exhibition? People use that term now in terms of grand spectacle, mass appeal – it’s a pejorative, isn’t it?

Andrea Perhaps a more generous description might be an exhibition that captures the imagination and interest of a broad sector of the public, that somehow manages to be very relevant.

Tim Yes, and certainly we celebrate when one of our shows turns out to be a blockbuster. Though when other institutions have big, successful shows and we’re secretly jealous of their success, we call them blockbusters as well – but with slightly less celebration.

Andrea Maybe it’s also about enabling a subject or artist to reach a bigger audience than it has done previously.

Tim The blockbuster is interesting as a cultural phenomenon because it can be a measure of public taste. Twenty years ago a show on Picasso or Matisse wouldn’t have had blockbuster appeal, but now they certainly do. Sometimes blockbusters reinforce public taste – two of the top 10 most-attended shows in the RA’s history are Monet exhibitions (no surprises there). But the best shows can be blockbusters by expanding rather than pandering to popular taste, showing the public things that they weren’t aware of.

Andrea It’s interesting to think in terms of history – I think we first started talking about the blockbuster exhibition in the early 1990s, but the Royal Academy was actually producing blockbusters decades before then.

Tim Yes, we established a regular programme of loan shows in the 1870s, and then in the 1920s and 1930s we did a lot of broad surveys of international art: Italian art, Chinese art, Belgian art, Spanish art (we were going to do German art but the war got in the way). They were the first really popular shows that captured the public imagination – the first blockbusters, I’d say.

Royal Academy Poster for International Exhibition of Chinese Art, 1935, From the collection of: Royal Academy of Arts
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Andrea Yes, they certainly met today’s blockbuster standard.

Tim When you think of some our best-attended shows – 1930’s Exhibition of Italian Art, 1200-1900, 1999’s Monet in the 20th Century, 1935-36’s International Exhibition of Chinese Art – we wouldn’t be able to make those blockbusters in the same way nowadays. Health and safety (and the public) would balk at 1000 people going through the exhibition every hour. You can imagine it’d be insufferable.

Andrea Yes, and the amount of time people spend in an exhibition is very important.

Tim If you do a very dense show with a lot of content then fewer people will be able to see it, because people will take longer in the galleries soaking it all in. You can’t limit the time people have in there; you can kick them out when you’re closing but before then you can’t shunt them round with cattle prods.

Andrea Yes, and sometimes we’re quite surprised by the shows that attract large numbers of visitors.

View of Burlington House courtyard during the ‘Exhibition of French Art 1200-1900’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, 1932., Unidentified photographer working for Keystone View Co., From the collection of: Royal Academy of Arts
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Tim Exactly – blockbusters aren’t off-the-shelf, manufactured ready-mades. You can come up with all the exhibition ideas in the world, but you only start to think ‘this could be a very successful show’ when loans are agreed. You could say ‘let’s do a show of every Leonardo work in existence’ – but how are you going to get those loans?

Andrea It’s more that you create a programme you think is balanced across the year and will present art in a variety of different ways to audiences, constituencies, groups.

Tim I think institutions have a duty to make great exhibitions of different scales, and it’s up to the public to make choices. I think it’s wonderful we do that. It’s not as simple as saying ‘we want to do a show on an obscure Belgian symbolist, therefore we’ve just got to do a razzamatazz show with a living artist’. We still need to make the best show possible with that artist, we need to maintain their credibility with peers, and we need to maintain our own credibility with fellow institutions so they want to partner with us in the future. When you do all that, success happens.

That said, we put our hands up to targeting a range of people with different shows, because we want to appeal to a wide range of people, not the same crowd for every exhibition. There’s no doubt that blockbusters are necessary in the cultural and financial economy of a non-profit institution like the RA – a successful show with lots of visitors helps to fund our other activities.

Andrea And it helps that the number of people going to museums is going up and up.

Tim I’m over the moon about it. We have to whisper it, but when our fellow London institutions have great shows on, we find that there’s benefit because it brings people to London and they will go see other shows – sometimes ours. There is a worry that I think we should acknowledge: I think we’re close to saturation point. Everyone’s doing more and more major exhibitions, including us. People will have to be more selective; they won’t be able to see everything.

I think we also have to acknowledge that perhaps blockbusters aren’t environmentally sustainable. To assemble an impressive assortment of artworks requires so much transport, loading, flights, couriering – there’s massive carbon footprints on exhibitions. In some ways if you’re putting a show on, instead of hundreds of thousands of people travelling the world to see these treasures they can come to one place, that is sustainable. I don’t think we should be over-questioning the validity of putting on great exhibitions of human creativity – it’s part of what it is to be human – but I do think collectively the museum world should look at that together. How sustainable are we being at the current rate? Are we all doing too much? Is there scope to reduce slightly? Could museum directors make sure we’re aligned in programming and logistics? Could we be even more collegial in the way we plan exhibitions? Good institutions are self-critical.

Unpacking exhibits from Japan. The International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy 1935-6. Photograph by an unknown photographer from Topical Press Agency.; International Exhibition of Chinese Art 1935-36, 1935, From the collection of: Royal Academy of Arts
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