Mark Guarino Special To The Washington Post. CHICAGO — In the span of nearly five decades, David Bowie has portrayed a space alien, a circus mime, a transgender glam rocker, a debonair nightclub crooner and so many more chameleonic characters that it now takes a globe-trotting art exhibition to sort them all out.
“David Bowie Is” is, indeed, a superstar art event. Currently running at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (through Jan. 4), the exhibition, which opened in London in 2013 and will travel to Paris; Melbourne, Australia; and the Netherlands next year, culls 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 homes in on how Bowie elevated reinvention to high art, “David Bowie Is” is also about the reinvention of the art-museum experience. The show is 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. Bowie is in good company: “House of Annie Lennox,” an exhibition examining the career of the former Eurythmics singer, traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, last year; in the spring of 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York looked at punk-rock fashion in “PUNK: Chaos to Couture”; next March, Icelandic pop singer Björk will be the subject of a three-month show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; an exhibition on New Wave pioneers Blondie is running at New York’s Chelsea Hotel Storefront Gallery this fall.
Other recent art retrospective subjects have included filmmaker Tim Burton (Museum of Modern Art), Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain (Seattle Art Museum) and fashion icon Alexander McQueen (a blockbuster show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
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.”
Miriam Basilio, a professor in the museum studies department at New York University, says blockbuster art shows became more prevalent during the recession. Curators had to scramble to think of new models that went beyond showings of canonical masters and drew from a variety of disciplines, particularly fashion. In large part, this was thanks to the explosion of reality shows dedicated to couture, as well as pop-culture celebrities such as Kim Kardashian who have become Fashion Week fixtures.
“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 gives 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 is already a winner. Demand has 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. Chief curator Michael Darling says the museum expects 150,000 people over the next three months, which would be half of its total attendance all year. “But even that seems conservative,” he says.
“We definitely went into this knowing that the show would have broad appeal because of the David Bowie name itself,” he says. “That was entirely intentional.”
However, while Darling understands that baby-boomer nostalgia is a motivation for many people who may never before have considered taking in a show at the museum, once inside, he says, they will see that the exhibit is 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.”
Appreciating Bowie through his visual impact is what ultimately gives 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 is not expected to 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 indeed turn into a red-carpet circus. But right now, it’s hardly that. Darling said the star’s absence is helpful in making the exhibit “clearer and cleaner and probably more authentic.”
“As much as we would love him to show up at the museum, I think it is a very clever move on his part to stay away, because it gives the show a certain objectivity and feels less like a vanity project than if he was in there pulling strings,” Darling said.
“David Bowie Is” through Jan. 4 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago. $25 for adults and teenagers, $10 for children 7-12, free for children under 7. Call the museum’s “Bowie Hotline” for information, 312-397-4066, or visit mcachicago.org.