ROBERT P. BERGMAN IS SURE HE IS having the last laugh. Sixteen years ago, when he left an enviable post as associate professor of fine arts at Harvard to become director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, "I got a lot of pats on my shoulder from my colleagues," he recalled recently, "a lot of 'Poor Bob, there he goes to dust off the sarcophagi.' Museums were on a trajectory to be marginalized."
Not quite. "The last 15 years have given lie to that," said a beaming Mr. Bergman, who is now director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. "This is a good time for museums."
That is an understatement. Gaze at the crowds at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on any Friday night. Consider the multitude of corporate party planners who vie to hold events at the Art Institute of Chicago, the lines snaking outside the National Gallery of Art's recent Picasso exhibition and the $15 ticket price the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is now charging for that same Picasso show -- possibly the highest ever for an art museum -- and the picture looks better than "good." It looks as if the 90's are the age of the art museum in the United States, perhaps even the golden age.
Undeniably, there are more of them -- more than 1,200, up 50 percent since 1970. Many musems are constructing new buildings or expanding old ones: the Modern in New York, the Getty in Los Angeles, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, to name just a few.
While dance companies, orchestras, serious theater groups and the other "high" arts -- with the possible exception of opera -- struggle to retain their audiences, American museums are setting one new attendance record after another. In the last year, an average of nearly 17,000 people walked up the granite steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York every day, about 11 percent more than the year before. Nationwide, art museums drew an estimated 100 million visitors last year.
The attractions of art museums are many, beginning with the practical. Most charge less than the price of a movie ticket. Visitors can usually go when they want and stay as long as they like. They don't have to get dressed up. Once inside, they can choose their own path, stopping to look at something -- or not. They can talk during the "show." Children are welcome.
More profound cultural changes are also at work. People are attracted to museums because American culture is increasingly visual. Image began to reign supreme over the written and spoken word once television started to dominate the national consciousness, beginning in the 1950's, a trend reinforced by the explosion in influence of movies and video. Americans, particularly young ones, learn their news on the tube and their history in the movie theater, and what interest they have in the high arts is best satisfied by the visual richness of museums.
"Young people today are lookers, with more of a visual sense than their elders," said Michael G. Kammen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of American history and culture at Cornell University. "They are less likely to curl up with a book than go to see art." Picasso trumps Dickens.
Museums are also in step with another aspect of American culture: we are a nation of shoppers, and shaped behaviorally by the experience. "People are used to the shopping mall, where they can walk around and stop where they wish," said Nicholas Fox Weber, a cultural historian. "And you can do that in a museum, whereas you can't in a music or dance performance." Whether visiting the mall, holding the remote control or grazing before an open refrigerator, Americans are used to picking and choosing their own course.
And what choices they have at museums! Painting, sculpture, video, installation or decorative art; blockbusters, rotating special exhibitions or permanent collections; historical themes, current ones or controversial presentations on the social issues of the day -- all are available with a minimal commitment of money or time.
As cornucopias replete with items from prehistory through yesterday, many museums easily hold more allure than their cultural brethren. "Merce Cunningham is not going to appeal to everyone -- it's just a kind of dance that will not draw everyone," said Joan Jeffri, director of Columbia University's Research Center for Arts and Culture. "But a museum with many departments can appeal to many more people."
Many museums are doing so consciously, inviting in diverse audiences with new kinds of exhibitions and programs. Critics, for example, deplored the Modern's "High and Low," a 1990 exhibition exploring the connection between avant-garde art and popular culture -- but the public loved it, and it helped spawn many exhibitions related to popular culture and to fashion. "Much more than performing arts groups, museums have come to be perceived as democratic in orientation," said Paul DiMaggio, a sociology professor at Princeton University who has long studied arts participation.
Nowadays, of course, museums are much more than great art treasuries -- and shopping malls. They also convincingly play the part of classroom, meeting place, restaurant, playground, park bench, party palace, cinema, singles bar, conversation provocateur, travel agent, lecture hall, wine bar, and -- when a particularly compelling exhibition or event occurs -- the place to see and be seen socially.
"Forget Grand Central as metaphor for milling, dashing New York. The Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the crossroads of culture, a chockablock Breughel canvas of tourists, families, even questing singles," proclaimed a recent advertisement for the Metropolitan.
That bustling Breughel, however, does not please all art world denizens, some of whom fear that exuberance may be luring museums into overexpansion. Some institutions are already getting caught in a vicious circle: the bigger they grow, the more money they require. To cope, they are plumping up their restaurants and retail shops and expending the bulk of their effort staging tried-and-true exhibitions (read: Impressionists and Picasso) to guarantee an audience.
Equally troubling to connoisseurs, the age of museums is not to be confused with the age of art or the age of art appreciation. Much museumgoing is not about art at all. It's simply social, rather like visiting a Barnes & Noble bookstore or meeting friends for a cappuccino. It's entertainment, not enlightenment or inspiration. It's a great date, a fun family outing.
"People want more activities, rather than a place for quiet contemplation," said Douglas D. Schultz, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. "It's gotten to the point where we have to be competitive with other venues for their entertainment dollars."
A Lady Named Mona Lisa And Other Blockbusters
Back in what might be described as the dark ages for museums, they were places in which the halls literally were dark, designed for contemplation and existing primarily for elite visitors. Nothing changed that as much as the blockbuster, which brought ordinary people into museums.
In popular lore, the blockbuster was fathered by the King Tutankhamen exhibition in 1977, and midwifed by Thomas Hoving, who during his time as director of the Metropolitan arranged a steady stream of them.
Actually, Mr. Kammen pointed out, a lady by the name of Mona Lisa single-handedly gave birth to the blockbuster some years earlier. In 1963, Leonardo's smiling, enigmatic masterpiece was lent by the Louvre for a brief visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and to the Metropolitan. She was mobbed. In New York alone, more than a million people stood in line between Feb. 7 and March 4, waiting hours to file past the painting. It was the largest crowd ever for a single painting at the Met and one of the largest crowds ever at the museum, period. Museum directors took note.
Then Tut, which went on a national tour, created a spectacle -- television coverage, riches from merchandise spinoffs and huge lines of new museumgoers in several cities. Soon, museums started seeking out these special "once in a lifetime" offerings. Today, like holidays invented by greeting card companies, they come around on a regular basis. And it is the rare large museum whose annual schedule does not contain at least one such show.
John R. Lane, who recently resigned as the director of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, explains the thinking behind that strategy with his two-audience theory. One group comes to a museum "because it wants to be challenged and to see something new," he said. "And there's another audience, a much bigger one, that is seeking a cultural experience and doesn't want to make a mistake. It won't go to the Museum of Modern Art to see a Projects show for a new artist, but it will go to MOMA to see a Picasso show."
It is no accident that at the moment, there are at least four Picasso shows: "The Dark Mirror: Picasso and Photography" at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; "Picasso: The Engraver -- Selections From the Musee Picasso, Paris" at the Metropolitan; "The Graphic Art of Pablo Picasso" at the Orange County Museum of Art in Laguna Beach, Calif., and the early Picasso exhibit in Boston. On Nov. 8, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta joins the crowd with "Pablo Picasso: Master Works From the Museum of Modern Art."
Impressionists like Monet and Renoir and Impressionism exhibitions tie or surpass Picasso's draw, and museums deploy the word whenever possible. The Metropolitan's 1994 exhibition "Origins of Impressionism," for example, was really a realist show of canvases painted in the 1860's. Impressionism officially began in 1874.
A Magic Bullet Called Marketing
As blockbusters grew in number, something else was happening. Well before their cousins in the performing arts, museums discovered marketing. Some of their campaigns are not yet as sleek and sophisticated as corporate campaigns, but as the millennium looms, "museums are clearly moving into the 20th century in terms of marketing," said Robert Bailey, a vice president at Audience Insight, a market research company that works for many arts groups.
They have had to. America's entertainment economy offers an exciting new experience at seemingly every turn. With only so much time for leisure, people are constantly winnowing winners from losers. Museums have taken up the challenge in the broadest sense.
The smart ones have thus capitalized on their inherent advantages by adding others. The Albright-Knox, for one, increased its family activity days, which help children explore an art theme with a short tour, a hands-on art project, a performance and a game. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art just extended its hours until 8 P.M. five days a week and 9 P.M. on Fridays to accommodate working people, even as the Modern in New York began opening a half hour earlier, at 10:30 A.M., to accommodate tourists. In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts -- which recently started opening seven days a week -- will not close its doors until 10:30 P.M. on Fridays during the Picasso exhibition (and 9:30 P.M. on two other days).
Many museums have improved their labeling, lighting and audio guides. They've installed more seats and parking spots. They've improved the food in more restaurants with varying ambience and prices.
"Museums are becoming more and more enjoyable," said Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Modern. "We've made an enormous effort to become open, friendly places." Museums are now what tourism experts call destinations.
With what looks like a stroke of genius, museums have also targeted Americans where they live: at the shopping mall. The once-chaste stalls that used to hold art books and reproductions now teem with T-shirts, toys, baseballs, scarfs, playing cards, jewelry, tote bags, glassware, you name it -- often in displays that would do Bloomingdale's proud. (Nelson D. Rockefeller, who was pilloried for selling reproductions in the 1970's, would probably be amused.)
In the last five years, while gallery space at nearly 120 large museums was growing by 3 percent, the amount of space they gave to museum stores jumped by nearly 30 percent -- with good reason. Besides bringing in money, "these retail institutions have helped popularize museums," said Ms. Jeffri of Columbia.
Worrying About a Downside To the Museum Boom
Museums may be too popular, to some.
There is nothing sinister about mounting crowd-pleasing exhibitions or selling museum replicas. But plotting marketing strategies steals management time from art. As for the blockbusters, they are expensive, and having to offer them can lead museums to neglect or diminish whole areas of the art world, like conservation. It is well known that exhibitions of contemporary art disappoint when attendance figures are added up, even in large cities. Many museums continue to plow blithely ahead with less popular exhibitions anyway, but they may come to find that they do so at their economic peril.
"The gate is dependent on the exhibition program," said Mr. Lane, who after overseeing the move to a new San Francisco Modern two years ago had to offer exhibitions to lure 600,000 visitors a year, triple the old goal. "There is a direct relation between the exhibition program and the level of attendance, and there is a direct relationship between the level of attendance and sales at the museum store, and there is a direct relationship between the rental of space and an attractive exhibition. And the choice of exhibitions has a significant impact on the size of membership, because members get head-of-the-line privileges."
Cassandras worry that letting the box office influence programming will lead inevitably to exhibitions that sate the nation's abundant appetite for entertainment, rather than inspire. "It's a danger," conceded Mr. Bergman, who is also chairman of the American Association of Museums. "Given the economic pressures, we'll be under pressure to increase revenues, and moving down is a problem."
Marketing was on many minds at April's annual meeting of the association, whose members include historical societies and science centers as well as art museums -- and high culture's archenemy, the Walt Disney Company, was invoked many times for its ability to please crowds. Typical was a speech by a museum consultant, Kathleen Brown of Lord Cultural Resources, who said, "There are pieces of the Disney experience that are clearly resonating with people, and we need to figure out which ones to pick up."
Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan, who has less reason to worry about this than his colleagues, shudders at such thoughts. He recently lamented the situation in a voice-in-the wilderness speech to other art professionals.
As museums pressed toward more marketing, more programs and more technology, he warned: "We should pause and reflect on the occurrence of an ever so subtle but real shift in emphasis on the part of the institution itself and the public alike from the work of art to the museum itself as the primary experience. When people say, 'Let's go to the museum,' increasingly they mean something rather different from 'Let's go and look at some pictures.' "
"The trouble is," Mr. de Montebello added, "that works of art, for the most part, are not fun. In fact, they can be difficult, challenging, even provocative, and they don't yield their message in the blink of an eye -- which is what is expected of people looking to have fun. Seriousness, uplift, knowledge and, naturally, pleasure are what art museums are meant to provide."
Mr. Bergman is more concerned about something that underlies museums' quandary: the shrinking, and graying, of the art-literate audience. "Kids are not getting exposed to music and art," he complained. "We worry that people will not have a visceral reaction because they are not being exposed to it." That is critical because as long as most American museums remain private rather than public institutions, "success is tied to their ability to develop sustained relations with their audience," said Mr. Lowry. That means more emphasis on converting visitors to members.
On that score, museums have mixed track records. Overall, membership is increasing slowly -- except where there is a major blockbuster. Then, once new members are through the door for a special exhibition, the trick becomes getting them to move on to the permanent galleries and thus renew -- which is where those new installations, better labels, audio guides and other ploys come in.
The alternative, or perhaps accompanying, strategy centers on special events. People -- particularly young people -- will join a museum to obtain invitations to exclusive social events. In July, for example, the Guggenheim held two Austrian wine tasting parties. Why? Well, it was also exhibiting "From Durer to Rauschenberg: A Quintessence of Drawings, Masterworks From the Albertina and the Guggenheim." It was a reach, but at least there was an art element; many museums are simply giving parties in their galleries.
These challenges do not undermine the fact that museums are on a high. But they do suggest there are tough choices to make about sustaining it.
Mr. Lowry, of the Modern, is an unalloyed optimist. Sitting in his sleek office overlooking the museum's sculpture court, he bristled when asked if these were gilded times. "Golden age implies a dark age before and a falloff in the future," he said. "I'm not convinced of the former premise or the latter. I think we're in a remarkable moment, which can be sustained over time." But it will, by common consent, take some work.