Influence over Affluence — Towards Meaningful Exhibitions for Future Generations.

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
“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)
Screenshot from the Museum Soft Power Map
“Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal…” opening on Oct. 5, 2019, at the Portland Art Museum

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.

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.

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Diane Drubay

Diane Drubay

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