THEY come by the hundreds of thousands from all over the United States and, in some instances, from all over the world. They arrive in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, and a few other large American cities, with most, however, ending up in New York. They've come to attend the ``blockbuster'' art exhibitions sponsored by the various museums and supported by grants and subsidies from corporations, foundations, and government agencies. They will see huge retrospectives devoted to the work of such artists as Picasso, Van Gogh, Manet, Renoir, Chagall, Beckmann, and Caravaggio -- or they will view equally huge exhibitions of Egyptian masterpieces from the time of Tutankhamen, Vatican art from Rome, or prime examples from the Princely Collection of Liechtenstein.
They will visit these exhibitions in record numbers: At New York's Metropolitan Museum, King Tut brought in 1,051,625 visitors; the Vatican exhibit, 855,939; and Van Gogh, 624,120. Attendance at the Renoir exhibit in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts as of Nov. 30 was 325,000; the projected final count is 500,000.
When all is over, it will have been a thrill for most of the viewers; an attendance booster and possibly a logistical nightmare for the museums; a challenge, perhaps even a traumatic experience, for the curators; and anywhere from a minor to a major financial drain for the backers.
But will it have been worthwhile in the larger sense? Will it have contributed anything of real value to society or to the individuals who saw it? Or will it have been more a matter of showmanship than of substance? A relatively convenient way for a few careers to be advanced, museum attendance to be at least temporarily increased, and the public image of one or more corporate sponsors to be enhanced?
The problem with these questions, most museum officials agree, is their assumption that ``blockbuster'' shows are mounted primarily to attract the widest and most favorable kind of public attention. And that they are, in short, designed to please -- even, if need be, at the expense of quality. Not so, insists Philippe de Montebello, director of New York's Metropolitan Museum, who goes on to make it very clear that the term ``blockbuster'' is strictly a media creation and that what it represents -- at least in the public's eye -- in no way reflects the Metropolitan's exhibition policies. ``The King Tut, Manet, and Van Gogh exhibitions,'' he explains, ``were as thoroughly researched and as thoughtfully presented as any of our more purely scholarly or thematic shows. We make no distinctions based on popularity.''
Perhaps not, but the public -- not surprisingly -- sees it somewhat differently, primarily because of the unusual amount of street, newspaper, and radio advertising that floods any city that is host to such a mammoth undertaking. The fact that much or most of such publicity is generated by the corporate sponsors makes little if any difference. As far as the viewing public is concerned, any show receiving so much attention must be a Major Event, to be missed at one's social peril.
Philadelphia and Boston are perfect examples of cities subjected to such a media blitz: the former at the time of its important Chagall exhibition last spring and summer, and the latter during its current Museum of Fine Arts tribute to Renoir. Along with the usual radio and newspaper ads, the museums printed up T-shirts, shopping bags, tote bags, and bus shelter posters to promote the events. By the time each retrospective opened, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone over the age of 5 not to have known that the major museum in his or her city was honoring someone very important named either Chagall or Renoir.
Robert Montgomery Scott, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, could not be more pleased. Asked if he would do it again, he responded with an unequivocal, ``Yes! Definitely!'' He added that ``the Chagall exhibition attracted crowds and created a very real sense of excitement about the artist and the museum that cannot help but benefit us in the long run. It drew people who normally would not visit institutions of this kind, as well as more than the usual number of critics, curators, and other art professionals. And, on a purely financial level, it generated $7.5 million in additional income for the hotels, restaurants, and other businesses of Philadelphia.''
The fact that blockbuster exhibitions can produce huge sums of money for their host cities may be news to the general public, but not to those who plan them. They know very well that the cash brought in can easily run to millions of dollars and that a single show, the Metropolitan's recent homage to Van Gogh, enriched New York businessmen to the tune of $223 million.
Still, making money -- no matter for whom -- is not the motivating force behind a museum's decision to mount a major show. And neither is it for the corporate sponsors, some of whom contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to underwrite an exhibition. With the latter, other factors must be taken into account.
As Jane Wesman, head of a public relations firm bearing her name, says of Manufacturers Hanover, one of her clients, ``They sponsored the Met's Van Gogh show for a variety of reasons. Creating goodwill for the bank was certainly one of them. Doing a public service for the community was another, equally important one. But we must not forget the good feelings engendered among the bank's employees and distinguished guests who were given the opportunity to view the paintings during special previews. Not only did they feel they were part of an important event, many came away with a heightened appreciation of Van Gogh and of art in general.''
What then, is the general verdict on ``blockbuster'' shows? Mostly favorable, it would seem, with relatively few serious complaints or objections. Almost everyone, from museum directors to out-of-town visitors, agrees that they are worthwhile and, occasionally, of tremendous importance. A few of the former might feel that they take up too much of their staff's time, and a number of the latter may insist that the ticketing procedures -- which require that tickets be bought far in advance and for a specific hour and date -- not only complicate matters for those who must travel considerable distances, but don't really resolve the occasionally serious problem of overcrowding.
``It was ruined,'' said one woman who viewed the Renoir exhibit. ``You couldn't get anywhere near the paintings. It may be great for those who know little about art, but if you are knowledgeable, you don't make contact with the art. I bought the book so that I could see what I paid my $5 for.''
Most art lovers and art professionals, however, are favorably inclined. Both groups, moreover, expect such exhibitions to continue playing an important role in the art scene for some time to come.