"Well, that's just the way it is"
Earlier this week, the Art Newspaper shared our findings from the Exhibition Finance Report Market Size Supplement, and the author of the article decided to focus less on the overall $5.9bn exhibition market, and more on Vastari's analysis of the difference between budgets at art and science institutions. (Note: We decided to call the binary "art versus science" but if you're confused what we mean, you can look at this 2002 report from the Smithsonian that calls it "art" versus "non-art".)
The journalist Hannah Mcgivern scoured the findings of the Exhibition Finance Report and its January 2019 supplement, to realise that overall, Vastari's surveys report that art institutions have half the budget of science museums per temporary exhibition.
McGivern also highlighted the fact that 39% of art institutions cite having less than $10,000 per 3-month exhibition. You could actually look deeper and it’s even more startling: 31% of the Art museums in Europe that Vastari surveyed are working on a budget of $5,000 per exhibition or less for a 3-month show, on average.
By comparison, science ("non-art") museums have larger budgets. 23% of them have average budgets of more than $100,000, while only 9% of art museums do.
Once the article was published, we started seeing the reactions of the industry on social media. Many were suprised to find out that there was such a large discrepancy. But a large proportion also seemed unsurprised about this fact. A tweet from Ed Rodley of the Peabody Essex Museum, summed up how he felt about the findings. “Is this really surprising to anybody? Interactivity costs.” he tweeted on the 2nd of April.
That got me thinking. Interactivity costs indeed contribute to the higher budgets that science museums allocate to exhibitions. Besides displaying artefacts, they put together wall panels, digital screens, videos and explanations alongside them to explain what the exhibition is about. I guess you could simplify it and say that these interactivity costs are about making sure that children and less knowledgeable audiences can engage with the content.
Why is that not something that’s expected for art exhibitions? I think the art curators would shudder at the thought of an interactive bit of text next to their sacred object displays. But both the artist and the scientist employ an inquisitive approach, their work requires experimentation, exploration, trial and error, context, research. Those processes then result in an (usually) analogue product - a publication or a work of art.
Society doesn’t think of biologists with less esteem, because of the fact that children may understand what the different types of biological research could be. Or think less of astronauts and rocket scientists, because of the interactive exhibitions that are held about human exploration of space.
Why would society then think less of artists and art historians, if children and non-expert audiences ‘interacted’ with the content? Would it remove from the majesty of a Jackson Pollock work, to build an action-painting robot next to it? Actually, I love that idea. In my opinion, I would argue some interactivity would not detract at all - I have seen the results of cyborg action painting robots firsthand, and there is a huge difference between their output and what Pollock achieved. It helps you understand why his technique was so strong, moving and thoughtful.
Moreover, there are such amazing exhibitions of art coming about that are interactive! Think Teamlab, Meet Vincent from the Van Gogh Museum, the immersive Klimt show in Paris or We Live in an Ocean of Air by Marshmallow Laser Feast, to name a few.
I’m glad that the findings Vastari uncovered with our surveys match what the industry insiders expect. It means (hopefully) that we’re on the right track with our reports. But I’m sorry, I won’t accept that the findings mean we shouldn’t question why they are that way. I can’t sit back and think “well, that’s just the way it is”.
In essence what this research hints at, is that involving and engaging the public, sharing the findings beyond the ‘in-crowd’ and building interactivity into art exhibitions, might help art institutions gain more funding for their shows, from the ticket sales, from hiring fees for touring and perhaps even from funding bodies who will finally understand why arts education is so important for humanity.
By shining a light on these facts, I am excited about the way it could be.
A capture from the Vastari Exhibition Finance Report section 1.4.5 copyright Vastari Group Ltd. Accessible for free to institutions who take the survey
Header image courtesy Marshmallow Laser Feast. All rights reserved.