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Museums are casualties of success of their own mega-shows

In this era of hype and budget flights, museums that put together successful shows often ruin the user experience

Visitors looking at a painting called Dulle Griet during the opening of the exhibition of the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

LAST weekend, my family and I had a weird art exhibition experience. At the Albertina, one of Vienna's finest museums, we tried to get into the Claude Monet show. We had bought tickets in advance, but we couldn't push through a dense crowd inside the museum hall that brought to mind a rush-hour subway car. We turned back; my daughters will have to wait for a chance to see those water lilies. 

We had a similar experience the day before at the Art History Museum, which is holding what's billed as the definitive Peter Bruegel the Elder show. Crowds were so thick before some paintings - and so many hands rose above them as people photographed the art and took selfies with it - that I gave up on trying to get a good look.

What's up with this? Is art suddenly more fashionable than it has been in all our years of dedicated exhibition-going? In Vienna, the numbers would seem to suggest something's afoot. Last year, Albertina had 12 per cent more visitors than in 2016, though the attendance level, just below 800,000, was far from the record of almost one million set in 2008. At the Art History Museum, attendance rose 7 per cent.

Data on the world's most popular exhibitions, published annually by the Art Newspaper, is ambiguous, though. Although almost six million people visited the top 10 post-impressionist and modern exhibitions last year compared with five million in 2016, slightly more people came to see Old Masters exhibitions in 2016 than in 2017.

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Statistically, demand in recent years has fluctuated without major peaks and troughs. And in some cities, museums are trying to figure out, without much success, why attendance has been dropping; London is one example.

I have an inkling of what's been happening in Vienna. Some museums have gotten better at the current art appreciation model. Today's ease of travel means many art lovers have already seen all the decent museums' permanent collections, and experience-seekers - including most millennials - don't find them special enough. This forces venues to hold more shows at the same time and keep them going longer.

In the US, the average number of shows at 29 museums analysed by the Art Newspaper increased to 9.5 a year in 2015 from 8.8 in 2007, and the number of exhibition days increased by 25 per cent in the same period.  Three major shows were running at the Albertina last weekend: Apart from Monet, there was the stunning collection of the wealthy Liechtensteinian lawyer Herbert Batliner and works of the Georgian naive genius Niko Pirosmani. Each exhibition draws a different crowd, but people look in on the other offerings, too. The Monet show, which the museum expects 450,000 people to visit, is merely the strongest magnet of the three.

Something else is at work at the Art History Museum. Unexpectedly for the museum's curators, the Bruegel show became a must-see for Russian intellectuals. Russian is the most frequently heard language in the halls, and Russian-language audio guides are in short supply.

I've asked friends and acquaintances what it was about this particular show that justifies flying to Vienna; I never got a clear answer. My guess is that, for those of us who grew up in the Soviet Union, force-fed the realistic tradition of painting, Bruegel, with his hellish visions and a penchant for parables and proverbs, presented a permissible escape hatch. His work became a lasting connection to a Europe we couldn't visit - and now to a Europe from which Russia is drifting away again.

Social occasion

The exhibition, billed as a "once-in-a-lifetime" event, provided a kind of nostalgic reason to bond over European values. It became a social occasion; people came to be seen and to report on the social networks. There has always been a social aspect to looking at art, and occasionally, an exhibition strikes gold in that respect.  The problem, however, is that in this era of hype and budget flights, the museums that put together the successful shows destroy the user experience. 

Last year, Claus-Christian Carbon of the University of Bamberg in Germany published a paper based on the clandestine observation of 225 visitors to a major art exhibition. He found visitors spend, on average, only 34 seconds in front of an artwork (unless, presumably, it's an intricate Bruegel composition populated with hundreds of figures).

But people often return to look at a painting they found interesting; the probability that an exhibition visitor will circle back is about 50 per cent, and some returned up to six times in a single visit. People tend to look at a work longer if they do it with a partner: They like to discuss it and point out interesting bits.  Once these spontaneous behaviours become impossible or challenging, the experience is disrupted. Crowds are fine if you've come to take a selfie, but they can ruin an adult's romantic view or a child's first impression of an artist.

A "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition can be life-changing in an unwelcome way. For my part, I am at a point where I'd rather skip the next big-name exhibition and patiently seek out my favourite works, one after another, in the empty permanent-collection halls of different museums. It could be the best way to see them with the kids, too. BLOOMBERG

  • Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website