Jean-Michel Basquiat, the brilliantly provocative New York artist, has conquered Toronto. And now the stunning show that has been thrilling visitors to the Art Gallery of Ontario for the past three months is moving in June to one of the world’s most celebrated temples of art: the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Now’s the Time was the name of the AGO’s spectacular Basquiat exhibit and attendance numbers prove that now was indeed the time. While final numbers are still being calculated, AGO officials have confirmed the show drew more than 150,000 people.
That makes it one of the top 14 on the AGO’s list of its all-time most popular exhibits.
And along with last fall’s Alex Colville retrospective, Basquiat helped boost the AGO’s attendance to 789,121 for the 2014/2015 fiscal year, which ended March 31.
It also provides a happy exit for Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO’s CEO, who leaves the gallery in late June to take over Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
He had Basquiat on his radar for years and seized a chance to collaborate with guest curator Dieter Buchhart.
“This exhibition was different for us,” Teitelbaum explained on Tuesday. “We asked the community, through our advisory group, ‘How would you present Basquiat’s works? What kind of experience would be meaningful to you?’ We realized right away that the exhibition and the issues it explored would really resonate, so it was important to extend an invitation to people who may not have ever been to the AGO.
“On both the opening and closing weekend we offered special access to community and youth groups, and thousands of people were able to see the exhibition for free. . . . We wanted to make an exhibition of Toronto, not just for Toronto, and I think we did.”
A major plus is that this show was not brought in from another museum. It was created for and by the AGO. Consequently, the AGO earns both prestige and revenue when the exhibition hits the road.
And there’s hardly a more desirable destination than the awesome museum Toronto-born Frank Gehry created in northern Spain.
Now’s the Time is the name of a striking work Basquiat made in 1985 and of a Charlie Parker jazz composition the young painter loved. “Now’s the time” was also a phrase Martin Luther King, Jr. used to crusade for racial equality.
Fast forward to Toronto, 2015. Now’s the Time once again. This was the first big Basquiat show anywhere in Canada. It was the first exhibit anywhere that was thematic rather than a survey. And for people who knew little about Basquiat, who died at 27, it was an exciting discovery.
No wonder he caused a sensation in New York art circles in the 1980s with his groundbreaking use of graffiti, comic books, and icons from the worlds of jazz, sports and racial politics as well as art history.
Oddly, the promotion for the show seemed muted. If there were huge ads in the media or on the streets for Now’s the Time, I missed them. I wonder whether with more promotional clout, this great exhibition could have drawn 200,000 visitors. Clearly it was a costly undertaking and a risk. With luck, additional revenue from Bilbao should help the AGO recoup.
Basquiat’s work creates exactly the kind of excitement that could eventually help the AGO attract more than one million visitors a year, which it should be doing on a regular basis.
Attendance for the past fiscal year was down from 861,991 the previous year and 846,929 in 2012/2013. Attendance for the calendar year 2014, as published in the Art Newspaper, was 757,462 (down from 852,904 in 2013). According to the Art Newspaper, the only art museum in Canada that drew more than one million visitors was Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, with 1,009,648.
There is room at the top for the AGO. Its Gehry transformation was planned on the assumption that it would put the gallery on the plus side of the magic-million visitor number after reopening in late 2008. So far that number has been out of reach, sinking to around 600,000 in 2010 and 2011.
Things have been looking up since then. Indeed, over the past couple of years, I have felt a buzz every time I set foot in the AGO. There’s a sense that people feel happy to be there — with reason.
Now’s the time for the AGO to leap forward and become Canada’s best-attended art museum year after year. More exhibitions like this could be the answer.