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Blockbuster Museum Shows

Pop culture wheels noisily into museums across the country.

row of motorcycles in the Guggenheim Museum in Las Vegas. image
Photo caption
The Guggenheim Las Vegas museum displayed more than 125 motorcyles in an art show.


The Venetian resort on the Las Vegas Strip is the Jurassic Park of high culture. Its owner, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, sank a billion and a half simoleons into the hotel and its 3,036 luxury suites. Jewelry shops line the heavily chlorinated Grand Canal, where you can drift for a quarter mile in a genuine gondola. Snake your way through the casino's 2,200 slot machines and, ka-ching, you'll hit the culture jackpot: the $35 million exhibition hall of the new Guggenheim Las Vegas museum, where more than 125 gleaming motorcycles, a whole gang's worth, are on loving display through the end of June. Check it out: a 1923 Harley with V-twin cylinders and hemispherical combustion chambers. A beautiful 1915 Indian eight-valve board track racer. A 1999 Suzuki Hayabusa, fastest production bike ever, all copper and brushed steel.

The Guggenheim in a casino? Perhaps, critics say, the Goog is mixing a little too much of the profane with the sacred. Museums were originally built to be temples, literally; the ancient Greeks invented the museum to worship the nine Muses (hence the name). So what would the Greeks think of the 60-foot-long Guggenheim billboards that were in the Vegas airport showing sexy Samuel L. Jackson and sexy Lauren Hutton astride equally sexy bikes? "Most art museums don't consider motorcycles art," sniffs one aficionado.

Vroooooom, vroooooom. Welcome to the cutting edge of American civilization. The Guggenheim is a harbinger of a trend that can be summed up in one word: blockbuster. As museums experience a drop in public and nonprofit support, they must increasingly rely on box office—sorry, attendance—and the most dramatic way to attract a crowd is with a blockbuster.

How do you make one? In much the same way you make a blockbuster movie: with big stars, massive PR, corporate branding deals. And with popular themes like sex, sports, and even intergalactic warfare.

Take sex, for instance: In the last several years, museums and galleries from New York to Tokyo have fought to hold performances by Vanessa Beecroft, who arranges displays of real naked women. The august Metropolitan Museum in New York City last year hosted Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed, an exhibit that was pointedly punctuated by Madonna's famed bustier.

Sports: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ran an exhibit of more than 150 athletic shoes, including such wearable objets d'art as Nike, Reebok, and New Balance. The show's title: Design Afoot. A year ago, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry scored with Michael Jordan to the Max, a 45-minute Omnimax tribute to His Airness.

The staid old Smithsonian got into the sci-fi game with a traveling show, Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, complete with a production model of the Millennium Falcon and a Darth Vader costume (available in the gift shop for a mere $6,000). More than 1.7 million people in six cities have seen the show.

With the blockbuster come some intimate corporate bedfellows. Motorcycle maker BMW is sponsoring the exhibit at the Guggenheim. Before going spectacularly bankrupt, Enron funded the Star Wars show when it traveled to Houston. And, thanks to a reported $15 million grant from clothing designer Giorgio Armani, the New York Guggenheim did a major Armani display a year and a half ago. It may be bad karma, but it's good money.

To stir up the buzz required for a blockbuster, museums are hiring PR firms that traditionally have served the entertainment industry. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago lured big crowds to its Titanic exhibit (currently at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix) by partnering with SFX Entertainment, a theatrical production group, and with Public Communications Inc., which does big-time sports and entertainment PR. The hype worked: More than 850,000 people bought $10 tickets to see the exhibit.

The hype machine, of course, has been feverishly at work at the Venetian, which has not just one museum but two. A 7,700-square-foot "jewel box" at the hotel's entrance showcases artworks by big shots like Cézanne, van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso. The exhibition hall, on the other hand, covers 63,700 square feet. The ratio between the two museums is about right. There are some terrific paintings in the smaller area, but the big buzz is over the big space. World-famous architect Rem Koolhaas designed it, filling the giant room with stark concrete and industrial pipes and topping it off with semitransparent panels that depict the central scene from the Sistine Chapel's ceiling (a "witty gesture to the Las Vegas aesthetic," the Guggenheim's press people say).

But the Vegas show is not just about the building. It's about the bikes. These machines rest on sloped surfaces that make them look like items for sale in an exclusive dealership. Which, in some ways, they are. "We're not giving this art away," notes Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim's director. It costs $15 to see the bikes, with an additional $5 for the audio tour. Is Krens concerned that museumgoers enter this paean to American culture through a casino? "Life is complicated," he shrugs.

But who better to navigate the roiling big-art waters than big Tom Krens, the museum director who in little more than a decade took the Guggenheim from 450,000 visitors a year to 3 million worldwide. Eight years ago, Time magazine was already calling him the "CEO of Culture, Inc." The 55-year-old Yale MBA (6'5" sans motorcycle boots) represents the hype-heavy branch of museums founded by P.T. Barnum, as opposed to the one represented by, say, James Smithson, scholarly founder of the Smithsonian. "The level of marketing we're seeing today is something new," says Susan Delson, editor of Museums magazine.

The BMW logo was prominent in the Guggenheim's billboards all over town. Dennis Hopper and Lauren Hutton both showed up in the flesh (on BMW motorcycles!) for the opening, along with fellow enthusiast Jeremy Irons, all members of the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club—sponsored, of course, by BMW, which helped the exhibit gain international éclat in its original Bilbao and New York locations. It's all one big gift shop/Web site/movie/trade show/fan convention/New York-Vegas-Bilbao art extravaganza. In other words, a blockbuster.

Large, tourist-reliant museums have little choice but to chase the blockbuster. Expect exhibits to spark more and more product extensions, from T-shirts to interactive games, just like the movies. Expect art and entertainment, edification and commerce to join in one big multinational, viral-marketed, brand-extended, heavily sponsored dance. Is this tacky? Is, for example, a BMW- Guggenheim motorcycle show a greedy sellout, an assault on high culture? That's a matter of opinion. Here's mine: Motorcycles are cool. Viva America, baby.

Photography courtesy of Robert Kimberly/Wikimedia Commons


This article was first published in May 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.