The Museum of Modern Art’s Pablo Picasso retrospective of 1980 attracted over a million visitors, putting an unprecedented strain on the museum’s finances, physical plant and staff. In A.i.A.‘s December 1980 issue, dedicated to Picasso, Roberta Smith reported on the how the museum coped with “ultimate blockbuster show—simultaneously elitist and popular in its appeal.” In conjunction with the “Picasso Sculpture” exhibition at MoMA today (Sept. 14, 2015-Feb. 7, 2016), we present a transcript of Smith’s article. —Eds.
Not everyone who saw the Picasso show will want to read this article. The show itself offered so overwhelmingly much to look at and think about that the behind-the-scenes details of the exhibition—what it meant and means for the institution that brought it all off—fade by comparison, as well they should. Nonetheless, for perennial MOMA-watchers like myself, the Picasso show was a time to become, once again, mesmerized with the inner workings of the place itself, often at the most mundane levels, and also to experience those wild swings between MOMAphilia and MOMAphobia which are endemic to MOMA-watching.
The idea for this article came to me as I was battling the crowds at the Modern one Monday afternoon last July, trying to get something more than intermittent glimpses of Picasso’s Analytic Cubist works. In a gallery full of shimmering gray and tan canvases, I was mostly seeing red—and it wasn’t oil paint. There were people everywhere, and visibility was about 18 inches. Robert Rosenblum’s voice on the Acoustiguide—which I hadn’t rented—was frequently audible, while the loud clicks the machines made when being turned on or off offered a constant accompaniment to the show.
Under these circumstances, I suddenly found myself thinking not about art, but about money, ticket sales, attendance figures and other salient facts. The Modern, which was undeniably giving us all a once-in-a-lifetime experience, loomed briefly as a greedy, manipulative ogre. An aberrant flash of anger, largely undeserved? Perhaps. But in the meantime, I remained curious about the flow of cash and people, and about whether the Modern’s staff felt the “quality of the viewing experience” had been maintained.
Two months after the close of the Picasso show, the facts and figures slowly being totaled up are revealing and often unprecedented. (That is, when you can get them. MOMA’s sense of cooperation is equaled only by its sense of privacy.) A total of 1,021,000 people passed through the special revolving door (knocked through the wall between the Sculpture Garden and the d’Harnoncourt Galleries), which brought the public in from West 54th Street during the show’s four and one half months’ run. This attendance total, almost equal to the museum’s usual annual attendance, was also close to the attendance for the Metropolitan Museum’s Tut exhibition, but, as Jack Limpert, director of membership and development, stressed, “Don’t forget, Tut was a small exhibition in a vast museum. This was a vast exhibition in a small museum.”
This single fact is all-important. The show placed an unprecedented strain on MOMA’s physical plant, its financial resources and, above all, on its staff. Specifically, the time, effort and planning involved in bringing 970 paintings and sculptures together from around the world, and then moving over one million people through 30,000 square feet of galleries to view them, was considerably more than that required to get roughly a million visitors past the Tut show’s 55 items. The Modern brought it off through a combination of careful planning, flexibility and good, if not excellent, luck. “We knew it was a terrific undertaking,” says director Richard Oldenburg, “but probably none of us realized how many new issues would have to be coped with. I think we came away feeling much better about our ability to be flexible.”
The Modern was braced for the onslaught. In addition to crowd-density and traffic-flow studies, and nationwide advance Ticketron sales, the museum supplemented its 50-person security staff with 120 temporary guards so that 105 guards could be stationed throughout the galleries at all times, instead of the usual 35. A second water tower was built on top of the building to insure that its water-cooled air-conditioning system could take the strain. Instead of the usual 200 press kits, 7,500 were made up. Two days of press previews saw 4,000 members of the media troop through, including 21 film crews in one 30-hour span.
The exhibition brought the museum worldwide press coverage, and also gave its switchboard a 4½-month busy signal. It put Picasso’s bristling 1937 image of Dora Maar on the cover of Time magazine, making him the only artist to have four Time covers and the first to have a cover after his death. It put the museum on a 24-hour schedule: public hours were longer, evening events more frequent; the need, and time required, for cleaning, touching up and other repairs multiplied geometrically because of such heavy use. Each weekend, senior curatorial and registrar’s staff were present during public hours. The show also brought new anxiety levels to the departments most intimately involved with the care and handling of the works of art—painting and sculpture, the registrar, conservation. “We were so nervous something would happen,” said Eloise Riccardelli, the museum’s registrar, who had much to do with the elaborate logistics which brought the show into the museum in a record 2½ weeks in April and out again in October without a single accident. Receiving of art works, which couldn’t begin until blasting for the foundations of the new wing next door was finished, was accomplished without benefit of the museum’s loading dock (it had been taken over by construction). During the exhibition itself, the condition of each work was checked every day of the week by five people, and the humidity level monitored on a twohour basis. Generally, museum personnel felt lucky it wasn’t a rainy summer, for both the art’s and the public’s sake.
In spite of detailed advance planning, as soon as the show actually opened it became clear the galleries were much too crowded. Pre-show traffic studies—which allowed for 7,800 people to spend an average of two hours in the show per day—turned out to be way off. “We thought two hours would be the limit and nature would take its course,” said William Rubin, director of the department of painting and sculpture (and organizer of the exhibition with Dominique Bozo, of the Musée Picasso in Paris). Instead, people tended to stay longer, replenishing their energies at one of the museum’s restaurants and returning to look some more. The narrow galleries and hallways built into the first part of the first floor—where Picasso’s immensely popular early work was installed—posed a particular problem.
The museum immediately cut back ticket sales where possible, although certain days were already sold out. Ultimately the overall daily average was reduced to 7,100 visitors—still twice the museum’s norm of 3,500 visitors per day—and sometimes attendance dropped to 6,800, or even the low 6,000s. Overcrowding also led the museum to tear down two small walls creating bottlenecking in the Blue Period area; it also installed protective guard rails wherever possible and covered major works with plexiglass where it was not. “It seems many people still don’t know you’re not supposed to touch paintings,” remarked one administrator. (This precaution leads one to surmise there may have been some damage—a possibility on which strict silence is maintained.)
It’s impossible to calculate precisely the costs of a show like this, considering that for at least six months it required the undivided attention of 90 percent of the museum’s staff, and for the two years prior to its opening, had roughly one-third of the staff working from one-third to full time on its preparation. James Snyder, coordinator of planning at MOMA, puts the final out-of-pocket expenses at between $2.5 and $2.8 million, up from a pre-show estimate of $1.9 million. This does not include production costs of the highly successful catalogue, nor the $200,000-$300,000 lost in admissions revenues while the museum was closed for six weeks before and three weeks following the show.
Of the $2.5-2.8 million cost figure, 30 percent went to pay for additional security staff; 25 percent went for transportation—collection, packing and dispersal of all loans, plus airfare and hotel rooms for couriers from other museums (a total of 35) and the museum’s own staff (who, in keeping with the indemnity agreement which insured the show, made condition checks on all but three of the loans both before they left their owners’ premises and after they were returned). The new revolving door, the canopies and coatcheck booth in the garden, extra lobby personnel and the Ticketron setup in the 53rd Street lobby and other “staging” expenses took another 15 percent of the budget; extra commercial insurance took 11 percent; and installation, painting and carpentry, 5 percent. Around $38,000 was spent on advertising in Eastern seaboard newspapers, a few magazines and on the radio, although there was no advertising once the show opened.
The museum’s out-of-pocket expenses were defrayed by around $650,000 in grants from the NEA, the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust and IBM; IBM also paid for the 10-page floor plan/brochure handed out as people entered the show (this also advertised all the Modern’s Picasso-related publications). But the most important outside help came from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities in the form of U.S. Treasury indemnity, which provides coverage on the first $50-million worth of damages on foreign loans. If the size and scope of the exhibition were unprecedented, so, obviously, was its monetary value, which people at the Modern are, again, reluctant to discuss. As Richard Palmer, coordinator of exhibitions, discreetly put it, “This may have been the most valuable exhibition that one ever had to arrange insurance for.” Palmer suggested that the show might not have even taken place without the government’s indemnity. Insurance costs would have been exorbitant (up to $1 million); in addition, the concentration of valuables in a building as small as the Museum of Modern Art created a risk no private underwriter would have been willing to cover. As it was, the museum added a few hundred thousand dollars worth of its own commercial insurance on top, to cover American loans and loans which came in after the indemnity agreement deadline—and “just for good measure.”
Clearly, the Modern put an extraordinary effort into the show; but it didn’t do all that badly from it, either. Long-term benefits, like indirect expenses, are probably incalculable, but the museum’s already high profile is higher than ever, as are its corporate and private membership rolls, the first up 20 percent to 197, the second up 20 percent to 48,000. As for the short term, the 930,000 tickets sold through Ticketron brought in $2.5 million, according to James Snyder. This number includes as yet unspecified amounts of adult ($4.50), student ($2.50) and senior citizen/ children (75¢) tickets, as well as 170,000 tickets to members, who received theirs free and had the show to themselves every Wednesday—when they kept it as crowded if not more so than on public days. The museum also did very well by its corporations. Twenty-six corporate evenings—where a corporation picked up the tab for keeping the museum open (ca. $5,000 per evening; higher if a reception or dinner was involved) and also paid $20 per guest—were enjoyed by 21,000 guests, netting the museum over $400,000. Other evenings which neither cost nor made the Modern any money were four hosted by IBM, two hosted by Mayor Koch for city employees, and one hosted by the city and the museum to honor Vice President and Mrs. Mondale and various delegates to the Democratic convention, paid for by the Democrats. Mrs. Reagan came during regular hours with some Secret Service men, attracting a bevy of onlookers. Mick Jagger, who also came during public hours, had his shirt torn off by admirers. (He was later given a private viewing.)
The museum itself absorbed costs for four evenings run by its department of education for various art professionals: artists in the collection, New York area museum professionals, New York area art and art-history college teachers, and New York area high-school art teachers. There were also advance ticket sales to members of the College Art Association.
The show’s biggest money-maker of all, however, was and still is its catalogue, which Rubin characterizes as “art history without words” and which is undeniably a very good buy (464 pages, $19.95 in paperback, $45 in hardcover). It reproduces almost everything in the show, along with other major works in its chronology, written by Jane Fluegel of the museum’s publications department. This book is turning out to be a MOMA best seller, second only to its 1955 Family of Man, which has so far sold over three million copies. By the second week of the show, the museum realized it would have to run a second 150,000-copy printing in order not to sell out. The MOMA bookstores alone sold 140,000 copies during the show: one out of every seven visitors purchased a copy (the norm is one out of every 25 or 30). Sales through distribution (at this writing) put the total catalogue sales at more than 215,000. The Modern also sold the rights to foreign language editions in German, Spanish and Swedish which will run to about 50,000 copies total. In keeping with its firmly self-protective style, the museum staff is reluctant to discuss exactly how much profit has been made on the book. Sales also zoomed up on other MOMA Picasso publications—Rubin’s 1972 Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and Alfred Barr’s 1939 classic Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art.
Rubin points out that the money is badly needed, since the next two years, with the museum concentrating on its building program, will be “lean” in terms of attendance, membership, etc. Rubin himself will make a sizeable amount of money from royalties on the book (a practice which dates back to the 1940s at MOMA, at least with curators; Jane Fluegel received a flat fee).
Unlike the Picasso publications, the Acoustiguide tour was not a museum-run venture. Although 24 percent of all visitors used them at $2.50 a shot, the Modern’s share in Acoustiguide’s profits will be only $100,000-$200,000. The museum deliberated about using the Acoustiguide at all, since it hadn’t used one since the Matisse sculpture show eight years ago. But finally three tapes were made at the last minute (written as well as narrated by Robert Rosenblum, who received a fee and a few cents royalty per guide used), when the museum recognized, as one staff member put it, that “a lot of these folks weren’t going to be our normal visitors.”
To what extent might the Picasso show affect the museum’s public and its future in general? “Coming to one show doesn’t make a habit. Major shows draw a crowd that is not a museum crowd,” said Bill Rubin; he added, “Rousseau [a forthcoming big MOMA retrospective] or Matisse don’t pull like Picasso.” Rubin, famous for a headlong energy which often verges on the compulsive, is busily involved with his next projects and says he’s somewhat “talked out” on the Picasso exhibition. He laces his conversation with references to the layout of the new building, the articles he plans to write on specific works in the Picasso show, and upcoming exhibitions at MOMA. Like other members of the staff, however, he stresses the uniqueness of the Picasso experience, for the museum and its public: “I can’t imagine we’ll ever have to face a thing like that again, and we don’t want to.” Were there any disappointments, anything he would have done differently? Two disappointments were that the major paintings owned by the National Gallery in Washington couldn’t leave the building (a fact Rubin wasn’t apprised of when he started working on the show), and that, due to the Afghan crisis, 12 highly important loans promised by the Russians were cancelled by the State Department. “We did what we could to get them to change their minds,” Rubin said, “wheat could go back and forth, but art was cut out.” He noted that Mme. Gromyko, visiting the show, asked where the Russian paintings were; her translator smoothed over the question.
“In my mind, extensive as the show was,” continues Rubin, “it didn’t conform to my original vision because these two groups of works were absent.” And his only change would have been to eliminate the final gallery of “Paraphrases of the Masters” (an aspect of the show that was frequently criticized), instead integrating the works chronologically into the body of the show. This would also have strengthened the final years of Picasso’s career. Acknowledging the “aura of evil attached to the notion of a big show,” Rubin is gratified that no “serious critic” found the exhibition too large, that everyone seemed to realize that the span of Picasso’s career necessitated such size.
Rubin did regret the size of the crowds—”More people than I would have wished”—and also the addition of the guard rails and plexiglass. “If you saw [the show] with a lot of people, certain aspects of the relationships that were set up in the installation were invisible,” he says, citing as an example the vista through two successive doorways which progressed from the 1915 Harlequin to the 1918 Harlequin with Violin to the Modern’s Three Musicians of 1921. But this is not considered a major loss in an installation as straightforward and “homely” (Rubin’s own term) as this one was.
If the pre-show crowd estimate had been lower—say 5,000 to 5,500 per day—would the museum have been satisfied to sell fewer tickets? Rubin thinks so, as does Luisa Kreisberg, director of public information. Oldenburg rather optimistically sees the attendance, after ticket sales were cut, as “a good compromise between maintaining a decent viewing experience while responding to the demand.” And everyone stresses that the museum didn’t exploit a highly exploitable situation it might have: twice as many tickets could have been sold, as well as many more memberships (sales of which were suspended twice during the show). “We didn’t sell knick-knacks either,” asserts Rubin. The Modern was extremely sensitive to the complexity, as well as the size of the constituency it served, making sure that professionals saw the show, that a certain number of school and museum groups received blocks of tickets, that the handicapped were accommodated.
So this article, which started out as a complaining one, has turned into something of a valentine: the more you know about the museum’s task and how it was handled, the most impressive its accomplishment becomes. I would still have preferred a more spacious view of the show, unregimented by Ticketron, but it was worth the struggle. The degree of concentration required almost seemed appropriate to the intensity of Picasso’s art.
Picasso was the ultimate blockbuster show—simultaneously elitist and popular in its appeal. It had something for everyone, from the most seasoned Picasso scholar down to people who only knew his name. And while “blockbuster” usually connotes a rather unscholarly exhibition inflated by hype to draw in the public, the Picasso exhibition demanded a lot from its viewers—and more or less hyped itself, via the artist’s mythic stature, the size of the show and its total takeover of a famous museum. Thus the Modern could maintain its usual degree of intense, slightly genteel professionalism, and for the most part accommodate the public on its own terms. Make money, enthrall the general public, astound the art world all at once—perhaps that’s what makes the Museum of Modern Art, periodically, a place you have to hate a little.