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The New York art world was thrown a free joke when, over the summer, people waited in the rain to get into the Museum of Modern Art’s Rain Room, a project by the studio Random International. On some days, the wait exceeded nine hours. The line was a capstone to a year of big projects with big draws, one more peak in a now-familiar rhythm: every few months some arts institution offers the “must-see” project of the season.
2013 was no exception. At the top of the year, the prized seat was inside Christian Marclay’s 24-hour “The Clock” at MoMA. Most recently, Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” at David Zwirner, despite the earnest pleas of Jerry Saltz, saw lines spanning 19th Street for a 45-second viewing. In between, we had James Turrell’s rotunda-reshaping “Aten Reign” at the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum’s much-maligned Punk: Chaos to Couture, the ever-expanding umbrella of Performa, and Paul McCarthy’s monstrous installation WS at the Park Avenue Armory.
While these projects are diverse in their style and content and concerns, they are tied together by their scale — a mix of novelty, ambition, spectacle, and budget calculated to bait the press and guarantee an audience. Blockbusters get people into museums, which received wisdom says is a good thing. But received wisdom never thought museums would see themselves in competition with IMAX.
The budget for any one of 2013’s big-ticket projects probably exceeded a million dollars (more than the annual operating budget of many small museums and galleries), paid for by corporate sponsorship and ticket sales. Only large institutions can mount them, deepening the already-great rift between the top cultural institutions in the city and the hundreds of struggling others (or, if you’d like, the 1% and 99%). A small institution would kill for the 500 words of New York Times space given to updates on the wait at the Rain Room.
This blockbuster model is already the norm in Hollywood and is becoming so in the publishing industry. Right now, these exhibitions subsidize more esoteric, scholarly, outsider, and politically engaged projects. But it’s not hard to imagine a museum asking why it should bother with the sleepy in-between shows when it could skip right to the fun stuff.
There were other lines in New York this year: for cronuts, for the Hunger Games: Catching Fire premiere, for the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park. Of course the creator of cronuts photographed one inside the Rain Room. This was good for cronuts, but bad for art. Popularity is already the only criterion that matters in most fields. If arts institutions are unable to put forth competing criteria, they are not offering art but some watered-down, sanitized, bite-sized version of it.
What distinguishes arts institutions from, say, amusement parks is the chance to encounter the unexpected, the upsetting, the difficult, the tragic, the radical; the difference is between reconfiguring one’s relation to the world and escaping it.