Yayoi Kusama exhibit is an economic puzzle for museum

Mark Garrison Feb 24, 2017
Yayoi Kusama's "Phalli’s Field," 1965, is one of the infinity mirror room installations at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Cathy Carver

Yayoi Kusama exhibit is an economic puzzle for museum

Mark Garrison Feb 24, 2017
Yayoi Kusama's "Phalli’s Field," 1965, is one of the infinity mirror room installations at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Cathy Carver

What may be the most anticipated art exhibition of the year opened Thursday at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Record crowds are expected to see the work of Yayoi Kusama, that rare kind of living artist who draws in collectors, critics and casual fans by the millions. Even a single piece of her work has been enough to inspire fans to line up around the block. And now the Smithsonian has an entire exhibition.

That all sounds great for the museum, but there’s a catch. Kusama creates installations in tiny rooms that only a handful of people can experience at a time. Economics offers a simple solution for situations like these where demand far outstrips supply: Raise the ticket price. But the Hirshhorn could multiply the admission price by 10 or even 100 and it wouldn’t be enough. Entry there is free, meaning the museum has to find more creative ways of weathering the storms of supply and demand.

It is a potential blockbuster locked inside an economic puzzle, with the museum’s reputation and future at stake.

Kusama’s best-known works are her infinity mirror rooms. They’re known to stun visitors silent. The artist pulls off quite a feat, turning a tiny room into an endless fantasy landscape of multicolored orbs and shapes. To get a sense of what it’s like, think of that neat thrill you got seeing infinity the first time you held up a mirror to another mirror. Then multiply that by a million, throw in a riot of color and glowing lights, and that’s something like the experience. Maybe. Words and even images don’t do it justice. You absolutely must be there to get it, which is why this exhibition is such a powerful draw.

Kusama‘s “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity,” 2009. 

The Hirshhorn decided to issue timed tickets, something it has never done. Visitors have to sign up days in advance. When the first batch of tickets went up for grabs online, 9,000 passes disappeared in minutes, even as servers groaned under all the extra traffic, the museum said.

One way around that system is membership, which starts at $50. By the eve of the opening, the membership base had grown by 20 times as art lovers whipped out credit cards to secure priority access to the Kusama exhibition. The extra revenue is nice, but the new relationships may be worth a lot more.

“Now that we have all these new members, we have new emails and ways to contact these folks and to get them engaged and stay engaged with the museum,” said deputy director Elizabeth Duggal.

It also means 20 times as many people to hit up for donations down the road. That all counts for a lot in today’s political climate. Just steps from the White House and Capitol, nobody needs a reminder that powerful people want to slash federal funding for culture.

Outside the museum in the garden, no tickets or membership are necessary to see Kusama’s sculpture “Pumpkin,” a giant yellow gourd covered in dark polka dots, combining two recurring themes in her work. Even early in the morning, people steadily file by to take selfies. Her visually stunning works are tempting bait for social media fans. That makes the Kusama exhibition potential gold at a time when younger visitors are coveted. The Hirshhorn is already reaping the benefits, with new followers and increased engagement.

Visitors pose in front of Kusama’s “Pumpkin.”

Ximena Varela takes in the sculpture from a nearby bench. As director of American University’s arts management program, she watches how art museums are trying, and sometimes struggling, to attract the next generation of visitors and members. Big exhibitions like this can be turning points.

“There’s a lot riding on it for the Hirshhorn,” Varela explained. “It’s their first blockbuster, so it’s very, very important. This is where they can really show that they have the stuff to bring a blockbuster home and deliver.”

Delivering means keeping the public happy, no easy task when people can’t all go when they want and face long lines once they get there. An unhappy visitor is a potential volcano of social media bile. Preventing eruptions is the concern of Samir Bitar, who works on the visitor experience across the Smithsonian’s museums.

“We have choreographed, and, if you will, curated the experience,” he said.

The exhibition was two years in the making. Planning for Kusama crowds involved outside consultants, additional facilities and tripling the number of volunteers and visitor attendants. The museum is also using real-time data to track how long people are staying, enabling managers to make adjustments as the exhibition goes on.

Forecasters say the show could double the museum’s usual attendance. That means hundreds of thousands of people, eager to step into rooms that only three or four people can be in at once. The plan is for very short visits, 30 seconds tops. Lines will be long, so the museum has put special care into giving people something to experience while they’re waiting, strategically placing informational panels and other Kusama works in view of people waiting in line to enter her signature rooms.

“Infinity Mirrored Room – Love Forever,” 1966/1994. 

Many in and out of the art world will be skeptical of all the hype around this, wondering whether it’s worth the hassle and wait of getting into one of these rooms. It’s a concern that was in the air as Varela, the American University professor, visited the Hirshhorn. She has seen exhibitions around the world, but she had never been inside one of Kusama’s rooms until this week.

Her 30 seconds inside the first room contained far more than she could have imagined. Upon stepping out, her reaction was immediate and unambiguous.

“It’s absolutely worth the wait,” she said. “When you step into it, I think you forget the wait.”

If hundreds of thousands of people feel the same way, the museum will have cracked a tricky economic problem and possibly built itself a stronger future.

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