Influence over Affluence — Towards Meaningful Exhibitions for Future Generations.

Diane Drubay
8 min readFeb 5, 2019

(This article was originally published on Vastari)

The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel, circa 1563–1565, in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, with a duo-tone from the palette of David Hockney, « A Bigger Splash », 1967, David Hockney Collection Tate, London

Mondrian, Van Gogh, Magritte, Cézanne, Picabia, Bacon? Or Bruegel, Vermeer, Titian, Caravaggio? Maybe Kusama, Bill Viola, Baselitz, Hockney? Or, why not take a short-cut and go for Egypt, Maya or Ancient Greece? (Ranked: the top ten most popular shows in their categories from around the world, The Art Newspaper, 26th March 2018).

With the recent growth in tourism (a 7% increase in the number of tourists in 2017 worldwide, 84 million more than in 2016) and the affordability of travel, temporary exhibitions can be both a reason for people to start a trip and tools of influence. As a result, rankings of the best temporary exhibitions by themes and regions are regularly being published, making the race to the highest number of visitors more intense every day, pushing museums to open new spaces for temporary exhibitions and to dedicate more budget to host what is seen as the “holy grail”.

Today, museums spotlight their blockbusters temporary exhibitions as a key to generating more significant ticket revenue. The potential is so high that small museums don’t hesitate to stretch their hosting budget, making them have the highest percentage of “Maximum Hosting Budgets” (cf. 2018 Financing Exhibitions, Vastari Exhibitions Finance Report 2018) despite their average being much lower. Without even mentioning the expansive number of museums increasing their square footage for temporary exhibitions spaces.

“Maximum Hosting Budgets” from the 2018 Financing Exhibitions, Vastari Exhibitions Finance Report 2018

Today, we face a cultural blindspot. How to end this dictatorship of temporary exhibitions within museums and start talking about impact?

A one-century journey towards meaningful exhibitions

The beginning of the 20th century demonstrated that temporary exhibitions such as the Universal Expositions could be used as a form of soft power to disseminate values or ideologies to the highest number, convey specific messages or anticipate social transformation. While at this time exhibitions responded to a need to attract visitors, raise the museums’ popularity and set their place in the national and international scenes, the financial pressures on museums in the late sixties and early seventies changed the situation (source). Blockbusters exhibitions started to pop-up everywhere with the apparent goal of bringing additional income. The most-visited exhibitions “Treasures of Tutankhamun” was displayed at first at the British Museum in London in 1972 and travelled afterwards in three countries until 1981.

“Astonishing: The 1972 show, which attracted a total of 1.7 million visitors, was almost scrapped due to scheming French diplomats, who sparked a bizarre row between Britain and Egypt” (source)

Today, the situation and the role of temporary exhibitions is changing again. We start to see a shift from a quantitative calculation of attendance figures, to a qualitative appreciation of a museum’s relationship with its visitors and communities. Quoting Kelly McKinley, Deputy Director of the Oakland Museum of California, “financial sustainability is one goalpost and social impact is the other goalpost, and every program and activity we undertake needs to fall somewhere between them” (source), the selection process of exhibitions should now “fall somewhere between” making social impact as necessary as the revenue potential.

Museums and their exhibitions are a proven and frequently leveraged method for soft power. Recently, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) released its ‘Museum Soft Power Map’ to explore the geographic spread of ACMI’s resources (read more) explicitly showing the worldwide impact of their actions. The soft-power of museums serves to attract tourists but also influence branding and urban regeneration of cities, regions or countries, locally and internationally. The University of Southern College Center of Public Diplomacy even talks about “Nation-Building”.

Screenshot from the Museum Soft Power Map

At the same time, museums are abandoning their neutrality and taking up a position. Globalisation created worldwide movements from local actions giving space for museums to get an international dimension by responding to the social challenges with their collections and becoming global or local referents for truth and trust. They are currently perceived as authoritative, responsible and trustworthy institutions with freedom over what messages they want to broadcast. By restoring the confidence of curatorial teams to choose exhibition topics that are fundamentally important and help our societies evolve, museums have the opportunity to produce temporary exhibitions that truly cater to their audiences. In recent years, we have seen the museum’s offerings enriched with programs of activities inspired by the public and co-created with local communities, innovative mediation programs, shops that become destinations in themselves and activities beyond the walls of the museums or itinerant. Handy tools have been published to “measure the social impact” of these programs by the UK Museums Association or even by Europeana with the Impact Playbook and their list of tools and resources.

“Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal…” opening on Oct. 5, 2019, at the Portland Art Museum

Moreover, at a time when museums are increasingly listened to, it is essential that the proposed exhibits are both consistent with the expectations or concerns of local and international communities and with thoughts about the future. As Generation Z becomes an increasingly large part of a museum’s audience, museums can capture this opportunity to bring new meaning and value to their exhibitions, thus taking up what motivates this generation to use and act. The impact of the cultural policy is much longer and more subtle than the annual rankings published. Some museums have understood that investing time today on a small group of young visitors will help to cultivate a museum’s culture and habit over a lifetime.

Landing into reality.

An alarming imbalance between supply and demand for temporary exhibitions

We learnt in the Supplement to the’ Exhibition Finance Report published in December 2018 by Vastari that “around 140k exhibitions take place per year and 75% of these involve hosting content either as a ready-made show or as loans from external institutions”. However, despite this leading position of temporary exhibitions production, the Vastari Global Report raises a distinction between what they create and what museums search for. The offer doesn’t meet the demand.

The increasing diversity of populations and cultures and the need to impact our societies doesn’t reflect on the interdisciplinary nature of exhibitions yet. Influenced by the potential for success of one topic, exhibition companies supply the industry with a wide range of social and cultural exhibits while hosting venues desperately look for Fine Arts exhibitions (where “supply almost doubles the demand”). The report also shows that science-focused institutions (including science, natural history, history, technology, design, anthropological, archaeological museums) are twice as likely to be interested in Art exhibitions than vice-versa. Indeed, the value of Fine Arts exhibitions for museum curators in still undeniable. For instance, in an interview for Artsy, Carlos G. Navarro, Junior Curator of 19th-century Paintings at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid said that he “aims to address contemporary sensibilities through classical art that resonates with current events and issues” (source).

Welcoming diversity does not mean eliminating bias

The Vastari Global Report also reveals that North American and European institutions demonstrate the same curatorial interests and that most institutions “largely rely on less easily quantifiable criteria, such as relevance to their audience or personal network” in selecting exhibitions. More than half of the surveyed institutions select one exhibition to host via their network. The article “The Biased Curator Syndrome, Towards a new democratic loan system” by Gemma Boon, Director Museum No Hero in Delden (Netherlands) highlights the same pitfalls in the loan system. According to her, the social barrier is the main obstacle to an open process which still works on “a strict hierarchy between museums” and where “personal interests may no longer predominate”. To mitigate the personal and individual bias and focus more on the museum’s mission, audiences and impact potential, could create a smarter and wiser ecosystem. In the same line, Bernadine Brocker Wieder, CEO of Vastari, said: “A more transparent ecosystem and better-defined industry standards could facilitate a higher number of collaborations and encourage museums to share their exhibition plans”.

Quality over quantity

“I always prefer an exhibition with a small number of objects but with a lot to say, then endless blockbusters that have nothing new to say”. In an interview for Artsy (source), Xavier F. Salomon, Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at The Frick Collection in New York, underlines the importance of quality over quantity in the selection of presentation of artworks displayed in a temporary exhibition. The same advice is given by Arnold van de Water, General manager at the Van Gogh Museum for Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience while talking about the production of touring exhibitions: “Bigger is not better” (source).

Meet Vincent Experience (source)

Let technology do what it is good at.

Today, the system of loans works in isolation and could open-up on a platform inspired by the collaborative network of research departments. The article of Gemma Boon also refers to the potential of open data to mitigate from the social bias. Open museum data organised in a global museum API could give museums a substantial opportunity to create a very efficient open platform. For instance, mixing the security and trust that a system like Vastari offers with the content from the leading modern art museums in France available openly via an API on the websites of VideoMuseum could secure safe and fast transactions. Vastari has been conceived as an international platform to facilitate collaborations. The recent investment of Everledger in Vastari will make this transition more comfortable with the use of smart contracts and the creation of a valuable and trustful database with records of an exhibition and single object loans in the arts and museum industries.

The potential of museums and their temporary exhibitions to impact and act towards a better future for the people and the planet is today indisputable. It’s now the turn of exhibitions curators and producers to embody the agility and openness that the digital transformation culture has presented to museums.



Diane Drubay

Founder of @wearemuseums. Co-founder of @alterhen. Arts & Culture for the Tezos ecosystem. Visual artist nudging for nature awareness.