Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I see dead people

Te Papa announced last weekend that it will be the only New Zealand venue late next year for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ package tour Monet and the Impressionists. The CEO of Te Papa described scoring this exhibition as "a major coup" but in reality exhibitions like these are more a matter of getting a consortium together and stumping up with the fees required by the lending institution. The director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Malcolm Rogers, has been flogging the Museum’s Monets around the world for many years now. They even made it to Las Vegas where they were shown at the Bellagio Casino Gallery in 2004. The fee? $US1 million. As Rogers said at the time, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts must “always be searching for new ways to make money.” For Te Papa Monet and the Impressionists is an attempt at both profile and profit. Te Papa’s CEO “expected it would have the same kind of appeal as Monet held at the Auckland City Gallery in 1985 which attracted more than 175,000 visitors in six weeks and grossed more than $1million from door sales, catalogues and merchandise.”

So do these exhibitions create fat profits for museums like Te Papa? It’s hard to get figures but it is reasonable to guess that most of them are lucky to break even. Fees, Freight, Marketing and Security most often conspire to make such shows high on impact and low on returns. For example Te Papa’s last annual report calculated the income from temporary exhibitions for 2006 to be $2,061,000 against costs of $4,124,000 and in 2007, $3,432,000 against costs of $3,725,000, a year that featured their “block buster” Constable show.

Still the lure of the Impressionists remains strong. Every decade or so one lucky museum can expect to roll the dice and go home with a success in the style of Dunedin’s Guggenheim show, Auckland’s Monet bonanza or the old National Art Gallery’s exhibition of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. Waiting to hear what ex Auckland Art Gallery director Rodney Wilson, the current holder of the Monet Championship Belt, will have to say about Te Papa’s claim that this show is “the most significant collection of works by Monet that has ever come to New Zealand or Australia”, that is another thing altogether.
Image: Monet, a recent portrait