Los Angeles Museums by the Numbers

Recently published worldwide museum attendance numbers offer an intriguing insight into Los Angeles as a museum destination. It isn’t one.

The Art Newspaper’s 2011 report showed considerable growth in many LA area museums, chiefly LACMA’s 35% climb in attendance, and the Huntington Library’s more modest 4.8% growth, while the Getty Museum dropped 5.8% in attendance overall (Villa & Center) despite the enthusiasm locally over their Pacific Standard Time initiative.

LACMA's Resnick Pavilion opened in 2010 and likely played a part in the museum's 35% attendance hike

Of course, many local museums are not eligible for the Newspaper’s list because of ticketing practices. Although the picture may not be complete, given that the publication relies on self-reported data by museums and many are not included, the numbers do break down to tell us much about art viewership in LA.

Los Angeles managed to secure 39 spots on the Art Newspaper list of the 929 most well attended (daily) individual international exhibitions. Of those, LACMA’s restaging of the Tim Burton exhibition was the highest ranked at number 88 worldwide, followed closely by David Smith, also at LACMA, 96th, and MOCA’s Art in the Streets at number 102. These shows ranked 24th, 28th, and 30th, respectively, in the United States. Whereas in 2010, the Getty provided the highest ranked of LA museum exhibitions (#58 with Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture), this year’s most-attended Getty exhibition, A Revolutionary Project (focusing on Cuban photography) ranked only 124th world-wide and 35th nationally. The Getty still offered the great majority of ranked exhibitions, with 19 of the total 39, LACMA and MOCA showed improvement with 11 and 9 exhibitions on the list, respectively.

MOCA's Art in the Streets was a big draw for the museum with 201,352 total visitors. Photo by Gregory Bojorquez and published on moca.org

It is fairly obvious when we delve into the shows themselves, that we are still a nation relatively apathetic to our own traditions and looking outward for our cultural inspiration. Of the 39 Los Angeles exhibitions on the list, only 16 included U.S. artists, while only 10 were primarily focused on those artists. Picasso shows garnered 6 of the top 100 spots internationally and 4 of those were in the United States. Despite the local acclaim for numerous PST exhibitions and generous funding by the Getty, only LACMA’s Asco retrospective made the list at 520th internationally with only 864 visitors per day over its nearly three month run. Given PST’s 6 month span, we will have to wait for 2012 figures to see the real impact but it looks like the initiative hasn’t had much effect on LA’s numbers. This despite the expectation of Art Newpaper’s Javier Pes who said last year, “Pacific Standard Time really could create a sense of critical mass… I think it could change the attendance numbers we see next year.” Pes did, in the same breath, qualify his statement, recognizing the tourism challenges that plague the city.

Los Angeles museums rely heavily on local attendance, with County museums like LACMA reporting 80% local attendance. By comparison a museum like the Getty that tends to draw site-seers as well as museum-goers, pulls in at least 50% of their visitors from outside the area. Given their local audience, my question is why don’t more LA area museums really focus on what makes them unique in THIS climate rather than worrying about worldwide attendance figures? Even PST, purported to be a celebration of the area’s unique artistic history, is really geared more toward answering an outside audience than it is to serving a local interest.

In the U.S., unlike many other countries, we believe in private art support and provide relatively little public money to art institutions. This fact is essential to understanding exhibition attendance. World-wide, entrance to the exhibitions and museums was free at 4 of the top 10 shows, whereas none of the U.S. top 10 were free to the public. In LA, Art in the Streets is a perfect example of the kind of boost free admission can give to an exhibition as Banksy’s personal generosity brought in far greater crowds on his free Monday’s than on other days the exhibition was open. Christopher Knight writes in the same article of his belief that “art museums should put a high priority on finding ways to lower economic barriers to admission… 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.” In LA, tourism is a vital and growing industry and perhaps making culture an important and valued (ie providing greater financial support) part of our city would be mutually beneficial to both industry and government.

Perhaps all museums can take a page from those associated with schools and universities, like the Hammer. In response to the 2010 rankings and their institution’s decision not to participate, Hammer Director Ann Philbin is reported by the LA Times as saying, “We care about it certainly, but it is not at the top of our list of measures of success. When attendance figures are overvalued in museums, it can lead to mediocrity in programming. The focus becomes the tried-and-true blockbusters. We always say we’ll do a show that 12 people want to see if we think it’s important to do. If it also happens to garner a buzz and big audience… then it’s all the more gratifying.” Given the prevalence of King Tut exhibitions on the list over multiple years, I would say her assessment is correct. Why not focus on exhibitions worthy of viewership rather than on viewership alone? This is the difference between cultural institutions and pure entertainment. Too often we focus on the bottom line by appealing to humanity’s baser tendencies, but in the long run this makes us a culture of little depth.

As museums are run more and more by business execs (boards and directors) rather than those experienced and acquainted with art and cultural movements, and rely more and more on the enormous donations of a very few, attendance figures as the only ‘reportable’ measure of exhibition success become extremely important. Unfortunately this measure will continue, with the bottom-line value of art work and the by-the-numbers approach to attendance as validation, until we find some way to quantify artistic experience. In the same way that meta-critical databases such as Rotten Tomatoes end up influencing Hollywood’s bottom line, perhaps a similar style of evaluation would be just what LA (and the nation, and the world) need to change the museum’s bottom line. Ultimately we need to figure out whether museums are there to serve the interests of the population or to educate and inspire the population?

What do you think, which comes first, the audience or the programming?

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