Discourse on Art as Business, and the “Blockbuster” Exhibition

In a contemporary art-viewing climate which is increasingly online, mutable, and easily distributed, galleries and museums alike increasingly put forth exhibitions comprised of works which are accessible, purchasable, and uphold a standard of aesthetic and conceptual ideology which appeases the majority viewer. Art is, after all, a business. But as the current trend for a hyper commercial and competitive art market maintains fervor and mid sized galleries continue to fold due to crushing disparities—the inclination for crowd pleasing exhibitions has become a mainstay in ensuring doors remain open.

Indeed, this method of maintaining and conciliating in curation acts as insurance for the dwindling foot traffic in gallery spaces incurred by social media. People buy, experience, and “like” art works online because it is convenient; attending an opening or considering a work in an alternative gallery space is not. Yet there remains some economic value in putting forth massive shows of well tested, and digestible, blue chip artists.

This “blockbuster” tactic is familiar to both local and national institutions, whereby gallerists and curators may absolve physical and economic inactivity by exhibiting comprehensive bodies of work from big name artists. A most recent example of this was the huge Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty retrospective at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, and similarly, Irving Penn: Centennial, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, both which opened earlier this year, and whose duality underlines the reliance on such shows.

A “blockbuster” exhibition, particularly one which celebrates a historically revered and deceased artist, is an example of curating and exhibiting that implicitly functions as a safeguard for public approval. It acts upon the standards of aesthetic sublime that art history imbues these works with, a public’s consternation for nostalgia, and the exclusivity of the archive to evoke timeless meaning. But what about new artists? “Untested” art market works, yet to be discovered?

Certainly, the potential issue with this “accessible” methodology is that this type of exhibition is a limiting mechanism for public discourse – it does not facilitate contemporary art-viewing or present timely issues other than as a relative comparison.

While this type of curation does promote art patrons and an engaged community— and is arguably necessary for a smaller galleries to survive— it stagnates up-and-coming artists from reaching marketable potential and new art patrons from participating in the discovery of new artists.

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