Big Exhibitions

Dalí, and the other visionaries who drive art crowds crazy

A Reina Sofía exhibition dedicated to the surrealist master has been a phenomenal success The sell-out show begs the question: what makes some artists smash-hits with the public? Moreover, should a museum be judged by the number of tickets that it manages to sell?

Iker Seisdedos
Visitors wait in line for a chance to see the Dalí exhibition in Madrid.
Visitors wait in line for a chance to see the Dalí exhibition in Madrid.Samuel Sanchez

If Salvador Dalí rose from the dead, he'd soak up the scene before him, rubbing his hands together in pure, unadulterated pleasure, simply because the whole thing - the "abominable gesture" - is so incredibly "anti-Dalí." Indeed, these are the types of terms the Spanish surrealist employed in his own Diary of a Genius . The seminal text is a treasure trove, complete with gems such as the following: "Tonight for the first time in at least a year, I am looking at the starry sky. It seems small. Am I getting bigger or is the universe shrinking?"

It's easy to imagine the self-proclaimed "Great Masturbator" smugly surveying the crowds waiting in line at the exhibition currently running at Madrid's Reina Sofía museum. Without a doubt, the throngs of fans would surely feed the insatiable megalomania of an artist who "learned to use the mass media to his advantage," according to writer Félix de Azúa.

But this isn't another story about the never-ending lines to see a Dalí show. Instead, this article examines why some artists draw massive crowds and why others - for example, Max Ernst, another 20th-century surrealist - don't. It seeks to uncover what it takes to become part of this league of extraordinary men (there aren't many: Picasso, Leonardo, Sorolla, Van Gogh, Monet, and a few impressionists.) Moreover, it sheds light on a contemporary debate that's unfolding in the artistic community: should ticket sales be used as a measure of the success of an exhibition?

"I'm afraid that Dalí is really an exceptional case," says Georgina Adam, editor of The Art Newspaper and author of the column The Art Market , published every Saturday in the Financial Times . "It's a language that everyone understands, with direct symbolism. It's also got a subversive quality. Surrealism satisfies adolescent aesthetic impulses," she explains. "That said, we are talking about a great artist. You don't become a household name like him or Warhol without being a genius."

The Dalí exhibition in Madrid is seeing a total of 7,600 visitors every day

"He's a surrealist painter, yes, but he is quirky," says philosopher José Luis Pardo, author of This Isn't Music , a book that has become a reference point on the whims of popular culture in Spain. "Dalí worked to represent the surreal, dreamlike world of the unconscious without abandoning the conventions of the imagination. This assures that his works are intelligible," Pardo explains. "He offers just the right pinch of scandal. The phenomenon is curious - people will turn up to be shocked by something that they already know will offend them."

Reina Sofía director Manuel Borja-Villel argues that Dalí's formula for success incorporates a carnal element: "He's a creator who fills his works with sexual references and presents them as objects of desire... and that sells."

And it really sells. By the middle of June, the exhibition had already attracted a total of 318,733 visitors (around 7,600 per day). Organizers predict that they will draw in around 900,000 by the end of the summer. In fact, Borja-Villel's team had to hold emergency meetings during the first few weekends that the show was on to decide how to manage the huge influx of visitors.

The success of this Dalí exhibition in Paris's Pompidou Center earlier this year offered a preview of the success to come. Shortly before the exhibit closed, organizers were forced to keep doors open all night long to accommodate the extraordinary demand (more than 790,000 visitors). That could be an option that the Reina Sofía will take.

What's clear is that increased access to education in recent decades, along with the sociological phenomenon known as "the society of the event" - in which people essentially visit sites and exhibitions with the goal of being able to "check them off a bucket list" - has led to a spike in the number of visitors to museums in the 21st century. According to an annual survey by The Art Newspaper , which collects information from some 1,800 exhibitions in 500 museums worldwide, the most-visited exhibit last year was the Mauritshuis collection of Dutch paintings, displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Tokyo. The exhibition - which featured Vermeer's iconic Girl with a Pearl Earring - saw more than 10,573 visits per day. But when the magazine first conducted the survey in 1996, the exhibition sold a mere 3,000 daily tickets and didn't even make the top 10 list.

Artists who address problems aren't going to attract this kind of a following"

The 2012 list reflects the new geostrategic map of modern-day museums: the top three can be found in Japan, Russia and Brazil, fairly far from the traditional art capitals. Big-name cultural centers, such as the British Museum and the Prado, also recognize the need to tap into this new, modern market. "It's our obligation to meet these requests," explains the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. "Not only that, they also represent a new form of funding that we can't pass up." In the British Museum, the modern art room recently saw a record number of attendees.

These galleries aside, most other exhibits follow essentially the same formula: a little of the great masters, a pinch of historical vanguards, a touch of outrageous contemporary art... and impressionism. Always impressionism. In Spain, there's ample evidence of the perennial charm of Monet, Renoir and the rest, whose profitable numbers have prompted spats between Madrid-based museums such as the Thyssen and the Mapfre Foundation.

"The impressionists represent something amiable, which everyone likes," explains De Azúa. "In these paintings, there's nothing more than a positive, festive, blissful existence. Real artists, those who address problems, aren't going to attract this kind of a following." De Azúa's latest book, Autobiography of Paper , alludes to the concept of "total democracy" - a kind of "inane" breeding ground that's ideal for blockbuster exhibitions.

Philosophers Peter Sloterdijk ( The Scorn of the Masses ) and Ernesto Laclau ( Populist Reason ) have both theorized that perhaps culture shouldn't be judged based on what's popular with the masses. They've also questioned why these preferences develop: do people just like what everyone else likes? Or is it because they've never been exposed to anything else?

Indeed, Borja-Villel has reservations about serving up art for mass consumption. But Dalí's success is undeniable. Thanks to the exhibition, the Reina Sofía will probably set a new record - an all-time ticket sales high in its 23-year history. And the exhibit's success might mean that, for the first time ever, the Reina Sofía attracts more visitors than the Prado (last year the Prado brought in 2.8 million, versus the Reina Sofía's 2.7 million).

Dalí or no Dalí, the Prado has recently faced a series of challenges. According to Prado director Miguel Zugaza and president José Pedro Pérez-Llorca, attendance will likely drop by 25 percent in 2013. The reason? "Less tourism and overall consumption in Madrid, which hasn't been helped by the bad weather," says Pérez-Llorca.

Given that the Dalí exhibition has overcome these obstacles, no one in the Prado is trying to hide the fact that the museum's struggles are also due in great part to the lackluster temporary exhibitions program, which has suffered this year because of the additional 30-percent cut in the ministry-allocated budget (which has already dropped 44 percent since 2007.)

The good news is that the crisis has forced Prado's management to recognize the importance of the museum's treasures. Zugaza, who used to marvel that attendance to his exhibitions could be measured in the number of soccer stadiums the visitors could fill, has no choice but to make lemonade out of lemons: "If this crisis forces us to value what we have, it's good for something," he says.

There's one secret weapon the Prado can count on: a Velázquez exhibition scheduled for the end of the year will surely draw crowds. The 17th-century Spanish painter marked a milestone in the history of museology when his exhibit registered half-a-million visits in 1990.

Moreover, the show brought the trend of "big blockbuster" exhibits to Spain. Experts pinpoint the origin of this movement at the British Museum's 1972 Tutankhamen show, which drew in 1.6 million people... some of whom waited in line for more than eight hours. "At that moment, museums went from being spaces for generating knowledge to spaces for holding events," says Borja-Villel.

Without a doubt, Velázquez is a safe bet for the Prado in the same way Dalí means surefire success for the Reina Sofía. And Dalí's magnetic pull has allowed the Reina Sofía to accumulate several of the Spanish surrealist's most important works. Its collection is, along with that of the Pompidou, one of the strongest in the world.

While Dalí has racked up record numbers in just over eight weeks, the show will run for four-and-a-half months in total in Madrid (another recent trend in museums: the exhibits are stretched out like chewing gum.) Regardless, it seems that the Spanish surrealist has a Midas touch wherever he goes. It's also worth noting that there used to be fewer security checks on visitors, which is why this year's Dalí at the Pompidou didn't quite beat the all-time record held by the Parisian center, which was set by back in 1979 by... Dalí in the Pompidou.

And what would the Spanish surrealist say about the heated discussion his success has generated? Surely he'd be fed up with all this philosophical ping-ponging. Who needs lofty debate when you can come up with such pure truths like this one: "In the hopes of the Faith, which is a grace of God, I have become a hero. I was wrong: two heroes!" A hero of Paris and a hero of Madrid.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS