Museum Moments: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Waitress

I was in Canberra for the weekend and had some free time late on Saturday morning. With no real fixed agenda, I found myself drifting towards the National Gallery of Australia carpark (mainly because I knew how to get there and it’s a convenient location for a few institutions). Almost on a whim I decided to buy a ticket for the Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris and the Moulin Rouge exhibition. While obvious in hindsight, I hadn’t thought about how crowded a blockbuster exhibition would be at 11.30am on a Saturday until I was in and amidst the throng. Crowds might not lend themselves to a contemplative experience, but they offer a ripe opportunity for people watching.

One of the first things I noticed was an interesting example in crowd “training”. In the first gallery, I leaned toward a painting to get a closer look and felt something brushing against my shin. I looked down to see a low barrier set about 50cm off the wall – the clear message was to keep my distance! So I stepped back and continued along the wall, maintaining that distance as I turned the corner. About halfway along the next wall, I noticed there was no longer a physical barrier at shin level, but I still instinctively had kept the same 50cm distance from the gallery wall. And here’s the interesting thing – everyone else had as well! I don’t know if this was a deliberate tactic by the gallery or just a coincidence, but I don’t remember seeing those barriers in the rest of the exhibit and nonetheless visitors kept a reasonably constant distance from the works throughout.

The exhibition was broadly chronological with some sub-themes exploring how Toulouse-Lautrec came to be interested in Parisian street life and brothels. The work that captured my attention the most was not the famous posters (they were as expected), but rather this work about halfway through the exhibition depicting Jeanne Wenz as a waitress:

At the Bastille, Jeanne Wenz, 1887, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

I found this work totally captivating in the flesh (the online images don’t quite convey the light and texture of the original). It’s hard to put my finger on why – perhaps it’s her direct, piercing gaze or the slightly enigmatic expression. Nonetheless this work was the stand-out piece of the exhibition for me (giving my novice, untutored-in-art-history perspective). This triggered my curiosity regarding how other visitors perceived it. And as I was looking at it I overheard another woman discussing the work with her companion, speculating about the woman’s strange half-smile and the likelihood of her sore feet at the end of a hard shift. I made a mental note to come back and have another look once I saw the rest of the exhibition.

Coming back, I sat on a bench near the work and watched. It did appear to be a popular work, with most people stopping at it and reading the label, and some people seemingly drawn to it from across the room as I was. It was a brief and highly unsystematic study though, and I was not able to compare its relative attracting and holding power to the rest of the exhibition.

While I was watching visitors come and go, oblivious to this other visitor in their midst, I noticed that I too was being watched. I had obviously sparked the interest of the security guard positioned near the work and for whom my seat was in the direct line of view. He watched me with a look of slightly amused curiosity. I wonder what he thought I was up to? Did something about me give the game away that I somehow wasn’t an ‘ordinary’ visitor? I guess I’ll never know, but I shot him an enigmatic half smile of my own as I walked on.



(More) Museum and Gallery Visits in England

Back in late 2011 I posted a summary of the latest Taking Part survey of participation in Arts, Sport and Heritage in England. Late last year figures for the period spanning October 2011 – September 2012 were released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Since 2005, when the survey began, these figures have reported an upward trend in the number of people who had visited a museum or gallery in the previous year. For the first time, that proportion has gone above 50%: 51.6% in the most recent survey period. This gets as high as 57.5% in London, with the West Midlands trailing at 48.5%. Despite these variations, all English regions are seeing an increase in visitation.

Online participation is also growing, but still has a long way to go before it catches up to physical visitation – 28.7% of respondents had visited a museum website in the previous year (up from a mere 15.8% back in 2005/6).

Participation rates remain higher in the white and upper socioeconomic demographic groups. However the rise in participation by non-white and non-Christian people continues, with participation rates of 48.4% and 46.0% in the Black and Minority Ethnic and non-Christian religious communities respectively. (This compares with 35.4% and 35.3% in 2005/6). Participation rates are also rising across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Participation rates are the lowest among the over 75s (27%) and those living in socially rented housing (27.9%). However, in 2005/6 the participation rate among social renters was 24.9% – this represents a statistically significant increase. (Participation rates among the 75+ demographic remain steady).

Want to explore further? Summary reports as well as the raw figures (in excel format) are available from the DCMS website.

Exhibition Costs – what’s in *your* budget?

One of the most popular posts on this blog is one from way back in mid-2011: Exhibition Costs – Constants and Variables. Working out what a museum exhibition should cost to develop is *the* FAQ that exhibition planners hear the most. And it’s a subject that’s featured in a recent article by Sarah Bartlett and Christopher Lee [1].

Compared to visitor numbers, data on exhibition costs are hard to come by. Many exhibition projects include, at least in part, contracts with outside design companies and exhibit fabricators, who understandably play their costing cards pretty close to their chest. Most of the available data is therefore derived from informal, self-selected survey responses. Also, whereas it’s pretty easy to agree on what constitutes a ‘visitor’, deciding what counts as part of an ‘exhibition budget’ is not so straightforward. Not everyone factors the same costs into their exhibit budget equation. So even when we do have numbers, it’s hard to tell if we’re comparing apples with apples (a point I have made previously).

Bartlett and Lee cite data from their own informal survey (the full report is apparently available on splitrock studios website but at the time of writing I couldn’t find it) based on 71 responses across the US. Responses were mostly from History / Natural History / Art Museums, with relatively few science centres and children’s museums (this contrasts the survey by Mark Walhimer that I reported in my earlier post, where more hands-on style museums were represented). In the Bartlett and Lee sample, the vast majority of exhibitions came in under US$100/sq.ft., although some were over 10 times this amount. This is reflected in the average cost for science / technology museums and visitor centers being over US$500/sq.ft.

But that’s far from the whole story, because survey respondents didn’t spell out what costs were included in their $/sq.ft. figure – and what was below the line. Bartlett and Lee identify the following categories that may or may not be included in an exhibit budget, to which I’ve added a few additional comments:

  • Differing base fit-out costs of a new versus existing building (to which I’ll add the complexities of working in heritage buildings or in spaces with limited access, which increases on-site costs).
  • Basic finishes such as painting, track lighting and flooring (it’s amazing how much it can cost just to get a space up to an ‘inhabitable’ standard!)
  • Changes to building infrastructure like new walls or electric/data cabling
  • Preparatory costs, such as research, planning, design and management fees (to which I’ll add formative evaluation costs)
  • Audiovisual and Electronic interactives (I’d say it’s worth adding that this could also include software and devices that are not strictly part of the fit-out such as apps or audioguides)
  • Staff costs, both in-house and contract personnel (I’m aware that it’s often hard to quantify the amount of in-house time spent on an exhibition, particularly if staff are not required to quantify hours spent. Anecdotally I’ve heard there is often internal resistance to the idea of doing such quantifying as staff feel they’re being ‘checked up on’)
  • Maintenance costs (to which I’ll add other post-opening costs such as snagging, consumables, staffing costs and of course summative / remedial evaluation!)
  • Object-related costs such as conservation, packing and loan negotiations.

With this many variables in what people routinely count as part of the exhibition budget, it’s easy to see how you can get variations that vary by an order of magnitude or more. The most basic of exhibitions may draw upon the existing collection and not involve any changes to gallery infrastructure such as lighting, painting or display cases, and staff costs may be absorbed into day-to-day operating budgets rather than costed out. At the other extreme are highly media-rich and interactive exhibitions that involve considerable research and hiring in of a multitude of outside experts. Bartlett and Lee also identify geography as a factor in costs, at least across different parts of the US.

1. Bartlett, S., and Lee, C. (2012). Measuring the Rule of Thumb: How Much to Exhibitions Cost? Exhibitionist, Vol 31(2), pp 34-38.