How Parisian Museums Are Coping With the Boom in Blockbuster Shows

In November 1998 there were 46 museum exhibitions in Paris; in November of last year there were 104. Two of the city’s five best-attended exhibitions ever date from the last three years, Joana Vasconcelos at Versailles (pictured) drew 1.6 million visitors in 2012, and in 2011 Monet brought 913,064 to the Grand Palais — and the latter’s ongoing Edward Hopper blockbuster seems to be on track to become the third. How are Parisian museums coping with the exhibition explosion?

“Museums depend on fairly simple economic principles,” the director of the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris Fabrice Hergott told Le Figaro. “We try to present one crowd-pleasing exhibition capable of achieving broad success every two years. In 2009 we had Chirico (which brought in 150,000 visitors) and Van Dongen in 2011 (162,000 visitors). We base our operations budget (publications, transportation, insurance) based on hoped-for attendance numbers. With Basquiat, our attendance record, the numbers were three times larger than our expectations. The resulting benefits help us mount more pointed exhibitions. In 2013 we’re betting on the appeal and energy of Keith Haring.”

Indeed, solo exhibitions devoted to well-loved artists are the surest way to blockbuster numbers, Le Figaro found, hence current Parisian shows devoted to Hopper, Dalí, and Matisse. Meanwhile exhibitions devoted to contemporary artists and photographers tend to bring in significantly fewer visitors, while attendance for thematic exhibitions lags way behind, with the occasional exception — such as the Musée d’Orsay‘s recent “Impressionism and Fashion.”

The surge in shows and visitors mean Parisian museums have become experts at dealing with long lines and crowded galleries. Exhibition designers at Orsay are required to remove any features that might cause bottle-necking in the museum. Since last year the Jeu de Paume has been opening an hour earlier to allow more visitors. And the Grand Palais’s 24-hour attendance extravaganzas — such as this weekend’s upcoming Hopper finale — have been experimented with twice before for exhibitions devoted to Picasso and Manet.

— Benjamin Sutton

(Image: Joana Vasconcelos, “Lilicoptère,” 2012. © Luís Vasconcelos / Unidade Infinita Projectos.)