Exhibition Nailed Bowie Glam

Chicago -- In the span of five decades, David Bowie portrayed a space alien, a circus mime, a transgender glam rocker, a debonair nightclub crooner and so many more chameleonic characters that it took a globe-trotting art exhibition to sort them all out.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network recall fondly an important museum show which captured the performer's visual and musical imagery.

'David Bowie Is' was the superstar art event held in 2014 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the exhibition, which opened in London in 2013 and traveled to Paris; Melbourne, Australia; concluded just recently in the Netherlands.

The show culled artifacts and memorabilia from Bowie’s personal archive to show how the British pop singer built a career that served as a platform for fashion, video, graphic design and conceptual music.

But as much as the show homed in on how Bowie elevated reinvention to high art, 'David Bowie Is' was also about the reinvention of the ­art-museum experience.

The show was the latest, and perhaps the greatest, example of a blockbuster exhibition that banks on a household name from the music, fashion or film world to herd mass audiences through museum doors within a short time frame.
While these exhibitions provide many entry points for audiences — fashion, music, multimedia — they are also flexible enough to fill months of programming beyond the typical lecture. Concerts, fashion shows, theater performances, film screenings, parties and workshops are all part of the architecture of these international mega-exhibitions, which by nature are more suited to larger-than-life pop icons than traditional studio artists.

“They are part of the overall effort by museums to be more experiential, so that they are providing experiences for the art when people come in rather than just talking to them about it,” says Laura Lott, chief operating officer of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington. “Which is much easier to do for a David Bowie exhibit than a Mark Rothko exhibit.”

Experiential Show

Miriam Basilio, a professor in the museum studies department at New York University, says blockbuster art shows became more prevalent during the recession. Curators are scrambling to think of new models that went beyond showings of canonical masters and drew from a variety of disciplines, particularly fashion.

“Art museums are looking at newer forms of media, like performance and avant garde music, because they are looking to reflect the art of our time. And mass entertainment is the art of our time,” she says.

Exhibitions like Bowie’s — which gave audiences the opportunity to get close to personal items such as stage costumes, handwritten lyrics, photographs, and even his lipstick and cocaine spoon, while placing them in context — represent the “perfect intersection between scholarly efforts and something [museums] know will really boost the bottom line,” Basilio says. “So it’s a win-win.”

So far, it’s working. According to data from the American Alliance of Museums, overall museum attendance has been increasing since the recession. In 2012, the last survey year, more museums (45 percent) reported an annual increase in total revenue than a decrease (27 percent). However, fewer than half of museums experienced growth in more sustainable forms of profitability, such as membership fees, investments and private donations, so they have to remain mindful of the bottom line.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Bowie exhibit was a winner. Demand led to the scheduling of late-night hours, and ticketing is timed to stagger crowds throughout the day, which is a first for the museum. 150,000 people visited over three months, which comprised half of its total attendance all year.

“We definitely went into this knowing that the show would have broad appeal because of the David Bowie name itself,” noted museum curator Michael Darling. “That was entirely intentional.”

The exhibit was a serious examination of Bowie the interdisciplinary visionary — not just the skinny guy who sang “Space Oddity.”

Bowie has been a figure “who was constantly changing, so that makes the story much more compelling from start to finish, whereas other pop stars might have had a more monolithic identity and did one thing really well,” he says. “So that quality does lend itself to an exhibition. Seeing him physically change and the style of music change from room to room brings a sense of evolution.”

Artistic Integrity

Appreciating Bowie through his visual impact is what ultimately gave the exhibit integrity within an art museum.

Darling admits that Bowie is unique in that sense and that he would hesitate before mounting a show based on a similar figure — Madonna, for example, another devotee of innovative style and musical restyling.

Basilio says that like Darling, most curators are fashioning blockbuster shows with a focus on the scholarly, not just the tactile. Often, these exhibitions run concurrently with smaller, more traditional shows at the museums to create connections and old-fashioned exposure. “Some museums are pulling in these shows they think will draw a large audience and then schedule them with more academic shows that may not draw those numbers,” she says.

Bowie himself did not attend the Chicago show, nor did he appear during its previous stops in Toronto and London. If he did, then the Museum of Contemporary Art might have turned into a red-carpet circus. Darling said the star’s absence was helpful in making the exhibit “clearer and cleaner and probably more authentic.”

Today's homepage Featured Art Video offers a brief recap of the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtmTahfysFQ&sns=em