If you’ve picked up a reasonably highbrow magazine recently, chances are that
you’ve seen a feature on Diane Arbus. She’s all over the news because a major
Arbus Revelations, opened at SFMOMA on October 25. It would be reasonable,
then, to assume that the show, barely a couple of weeks old, is packed.
Reasonable, but wrong. It turns out that anybody going to see the Diane Arbus
show between October 25 and November 4 – its first 11 days – more
or less had the exhibition to themselves. Not because the exhibition is bad
– far from it. But because of the incredible incompetence of SFMOMA.
The first 11 days of Arbus, you see, coincided with the last 11 days of Marc
Chagall, a major retrospective of the Russian artist which was on show only
in Paris and San Francisco. Chagall is a popular painter, and as the show started
coming to an end, people flocked to the museum to catch it before it closed.
None of this, of course, should have anything to do with Arbus. But SFMOMA’s
reaction to the Chagall crowds was so idiotic that almost nobody ended up seeing
anything else: the 5th floor, home to the Chagalls, was packed, while the rest
of the museum was a ghost town.
The reason was that SFMOMA clearly has no idea how to ticket a blockbuster
exhibition. The standard setup at the glitzy newish museum is to have two lines,
one for members and one for non-members. The line for members is generally shorter:
they can usually just turn up, get free admission for themselves and their guests,
and walk in. The line for non-members is longer, since everybody has to pay
to get in. Non-members can buy general admission, or pay $5 more to get into
the big shows.
Obviously, with a really big show, this system doesn’t work. Since
there’s no difference between the line for general admission and the line for
the blockbuster show, the would-be blockbuster-goers form a queue so long that
no one else would ever dream of joining it. Anybody wanting to see the permanent
collection, or even the Diane Arbus show, takes one look at the length of the
line and decides to come back another day.
Dealing with this sort of thing is not exactly rocket science: museums from
the Tate in London to the Natural History Museum in New York have separate lines
for the big exhibitions, as well as timed tickets which sell out when the show
is full, preventing people for waiting unnecessarily long to get in. And when
the crowds really start to metastasize, the museums stay open later –
the Tate opened its doors 24 hours at the end of its Picasso Matisse show.
SFMOMA, on the other hand, had other ideas. Firstly, they never had timed tickets
at all: the closest that they ever came was offering admission for a specific
day, which meant that if lots of other people turned up at the same time, the
queue to get into the show – even for ticket holders – could be
the best part of an hour long.
Also, SFMOMA never saw any need to change its ticketing situation. The Friday
I went, the members stood in a short line waiting for three employees to hand
out their free tickets, while the non-members stood in a two-hour queue
waiting for two employees to get around to serving them. Yes, that’s
two hours just to get into the museum, over and above the amount of time spent
waiting to get into the show itself. I fear to think what the situation was
come the weekend.
Even if you really, really wanted to see the Chagall show – say, because
you were in town with your mother, who named you (middle name, at least) after
him – the wait was daunting. The obvious alternative to standing in line
was to phone up SFMOMA’s ticketing agent, TicketWeb, and book a ticket for that
or a different day. But here’s where SFMOMA’s unique brand of genius comes in
to play: at the end of the Chagall show, when demand for tickets was higher
than it had ever been, the museum simply stopped selling them through TicketWeb.
No one was to be able to buy their tickets in advance: everybody had to suffer
equally in line.
And even the one thing that SFMOMA did do right – expanding its opening
hours – it still managed to cock up. For one thing, the only difference
between Chagall hours and normal hours was that the museum stayed open a bit
later on Friday nights. More germanely, however, the new hours were not well
advertised: they were nowhere on the information line, and only on the special
exhibition page (not the general information page) of the website.
SFMOMA sits in the heart of Silicon Valley, where sporting stadiums are named
things like Network Associates Stadium and 3Com Park. It gets funding from Hewletts
and Googles and everything. But it can’t manage a basic technology like timed
tickets, with the result that whenever more people turn up than can fit into
the exhibition, the only mechanism it has to deal with the problem is to let
lines grow to the size at which people give up and go home instead.
Here’s what would have happened in a halfways-sensible world. We would have
turned up on Friday morning and the show would have been sold out, certainly
for the morning, and maybe for the rest of the day. Either by joining a queue
or by buying tickets from TicketWeb over the phone or online, we would have
got ourselves admission for a set time in the future. We would have gone off
to enjoy one of the most beautiful cities in the world, come back when our tickets
told us to, and entered with almost no wait: after all, with timed tickets,
the museum can ensure that it has never admitted more people than can fit into
Here’s what actually happened: we turned up on Friday morning and waited interminably
for our tickets, then waited all over again to get into the show. Total time
in line: two and a half hours, give or take. Children, pregnant women, elderly
patrons, anybody without five hours to spare – all of these potential
patrons were denied any entry at all. And, of course, the Diane Arbus show languished,
all but unseen, a victim of the Chagall show’s mismanagement.
Meanwhile, the Chagall show itself was packed insanely tight, as harried SFMOMA
employees desperately tried to deal with the lines by letting in as many people
as they possibly could. Here, in a nutshell, is the difference between a timed-ticket
system and the lack of one. When you don’t have timed tickets, frazzled patrons
just want to be let in, with the result that so many people pack the galleries
that you can barely see the art. When you do have timed tickets, patrons complain
about the crowded galleries, with the result that the Royal Academy in London
(to take one recent example) extends its opening hours and reduces the number
of tickets that it sells for any given time, making life much more pleasant
A free suggestion, then, for SFMOMA: get a tech-savvy donor to give you a timed-ticketing
system. Your patrons will be happier, your employees will be happier, and when
people talk about your headline exhibitions, they might even mention the art
rather than just griping about how horrible they were to get into.
Oh yes, the art. How was it? Good, although the exhibition seemed intent on
presenting Chagall as an Important Artist rather than as the more or less unchanging
maker of beautiful paintings which he really was. There’s no real need for a
chronological approach in the case of Chagall, since his work from 1920 is not
all that different from his work from 1970.
Biggest disappointment? The emphasis on large-scale spiritual works meant that
my favourite part of his oeuvre – the heartbreakingly simple pastorals,
with maybe a goat, a tree and a farmhouse – were glaringly absent from
the show. Biggest revelation? The works on paper, stunningly preserved, with
a wonderfully vibrant immediacy.
Was it worth a 160-minute wait to get into the packed galleries? No: I can’t
imagine any exhibition which would be. Art appreciation is a solitary affair,
and tough enough in a popular exhibition at the best of times. When you’re physically
exhausted from the queuing process and mentally drained from trying to comprehend
the paintings through the crowds, there’s a limit to how much you can take from
any exhibition. I’d recommend going to your local museum and checking out its
two or three Chagalls instead. There won’t be any crowds, you can go back as
often as you like, and you can develop a relationsip with the specific pieces.
In the case of Chagall, there’s nothing bigger that you really need to know
about the artist’s life and work as a whole.