Critic’s Notebook: What MOCA’s ‘Art in the Streets’ numbers mean


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On Wednesday the Museum of Contemporary Art issued a press release to report that ‘Art in the Streets,’ its popular graffiti survey that closed on Monday, had racked up ‘the highest exhibition attendance in the museum’s history’ -- a grand total of 201,352 visitors. The statement is true in the aggregate. But, as my colleague David Ng reported, that doesn’t mean ‘Streets’ is the most popular exhibition in the museum’s history.

The 2002 ‘Andy Warhol Retrospective’ attracted 195,000 viewers, but ran for just 12 weeks, while the graffiti show was on view for more than 15 weeks. Had the Warhol retrospective stayed up as long and with a steady attendance rate, it would have bested ‘Streets’ by more than 40,000 visitors. So, in a reasonable MOCA attendance record-book, ‘Streets’ is actually the museum’s No. 2 show.


Why did MOCA feel it had to fudge the numbers? Why isn’t the second-highest rate of exhibition attendance in the museum’s history good enough?

Hard to say. Maybe the sight of long lines patiently waiting to get into the Geffen building over the show’s final days inspired a yearning for all the press coverage lavished on lines waiting to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,’ which closed in New York a day before. (The Met had extended that show’s run by an extra week to accommodate the crowds, who made it the eighth most popular in that museum’s history.) A Met spokesman explained the phenomenon as simple competition: When the public hears that a big event is sold out, it ramps up the competitive juices not to be left out, so people show up clamoring to get in -- somehow, anyhow.

More likely, MOCA knew that many outlets would just uncritically repeat its apple-polishing press release. That’s what the New York Times’ Arts Beat blog did Wednesday. Tuesday, it was the website Artnet, which went a step further, tweeting ‘Deitch does it’ -- a reference to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch -- before reciting the museum’s numbers.

Some, like, got it right. At any rate, popularity is of course not the same thing as merit, and entertainments come in many different packages. It’s worth noting that we should probably expect art museum record-busters to happen when the show’s subject comes from mass culture, like graffiti or fashion, rather than painting, sculpture, video and other art forms that don’t often have a large popular following.

‘Art in the Streets’ was a good show, even though its street-art sources in 1970s New York graffiti were too narrowly defined; that deficiency kept it from ranking among the most important exhibitions MOCA has mounted in the last 30 years. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ‘Tim Burton’ is currently a hit -- as the filmmaker’s show was at the Museum of Modern Art two years ago, where it clocked in as the third most popular in MOMA’s history -- even though it’s a poorly organized, over-stuffed mess. I didn’t see ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty;’ but people whose opinion I respect did, and they were enthralled. Graffiti, film and fashion are all appropriate art museum subjects, but curatorial talents are just as important there as in any other art museum show.

For me, the real news in MOCA’s press release was buried down in the weeds. Notably, if unsurprisingly, the biggest crowds came to see ‘Art in the Streets’ on Mondays, when attendance averaged 4,083 visitors -- a spike more than two-thirds higher than the show’s average daily attendance. That’s a huge difference.


The explanation: Entry to the Geffen was free on Mondays, thanks to underwriting by celebrity British street-artist Banksy. Especially in these tough economic times, that matters for a typical family of four, who would otherwise have to pay $20 to $30 to see a show. For those who found ‘Art in the Streets’ inspiring, free admission also made repeat-viewing much easier.

The tendency to program art museums by using for-profit criteria -- such as popular box-office appeal -- is strong, a situation that may be unduly enhanced by the prominence of business executives on art museum boards of trustees. Attendance is a tangible number, akin to a bottom-line or corporate sales-chart, while quality of artistic experience is a much more elusive measure.

Still, art museums should put a high priority on finding ways to lower economic barriers to admission, as Banksy’s underwriting did. In fact I’m one of those who believes an art museum is the equivalent of a library, and every effort should be made to make it free not just part-time and for special events, but at all times. A MOCA press release announcing that would be genuine news.


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