"Betty Blockbuster" was an unfortunate nickname invented by a Canberra-based journalist to describe one aspect of the reign of Betty Churcher as director of the National Gallery of Australia between 1990 and 1997.
It was on her watch that some very successful exhibitions were hosted at the gallery, including Rubens and the Italian Renaissance (1992) with 242,701 visitors and Turner (1996) that attracted 240,701 visitors. Back then, it was still an age of innocence as far as blockbuster exhibitions were concerned, where loans were comparatively easy and costs were moderate. In the subsequent couple of decades, the growing international appetite for big-name shows led to a scarcity of available international loans at reasonable prices and costs multiplied to make such exhibitions prohibitively expensive.
In the 21st century few blockbuster exhibitions made money and they were generally justified as a means of growing audiences and enriching local economies. The golden age of the blockbuster had passed, although individual maverick exhibitions broke all records, including the National Gallery of Australia's Masterpieces from Paris (2010) with 476,212 visitors, while interstate, Picasso in Sydney (2011-12) attracted 366,286 visitors, Impressionists in Melbourne (2004) 371,000 visitors and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier (2014-15), also at the National Gallery of Victoria, drew 226,000 visitors. Of course all results need be refined through such factors as the duration of the exhibition and full paid admissions as opposed to concessions, complementary admissions or free admission, however the raw figures do tell a story.
Blockbuster exhibitions dealing with Australian art, that have admission charges, rarely succeed in attracting large numbers. Canberra's Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy exhibition in 2014 bombed out rather badly with only 36,821 visitors, not assisted by its short two-month duration and somewhat cumbersome exhibition title. The John Brack retrospective in 2009 in Melbourne drew a record crowd for a single Australian artist show of 98,000, outstripping Brett Whiteley (1996) with 87,000, Arthur Streeton (1996) with 76,000 and Sidney Nolan (2008) scoring 59,000 visitors.
The National Gallery of Australia's Tom Roberts exhibition had by last Sunday clocked 114,000 visitors and the gallery expects that by the time the show closes, on Easter Monday, it will have attracted about 125,000 visitors. So what went right? Firstly, the so-called "Heidelberg School" remains the most popular "art movement" in Australia and historically these exhibitions have proven to be great people magnets. In 1986, the Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond exhibition attracted a stunning 169,000 visitors when shown in Melbourne, while in 2007, the Australian Impressionism show, also at the National Gallery of Victoria, drew a healthy 140,000 visitors.
Secondly, the time was ripe for another look at Roberts, with the last major Roberts retrospective back in 1996, a good generation ago. It is also a new and highly intelligent look at Roberts, designed by one of Australia's most professional and respected curators of Australian art, Dr Anne Gray. For the first time she managed to secure the "big picture", Opening of the first parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 9 May 1901 (1903), for a Roberts show, placed a new focus on his activities as a portraitist and seriously examined his late work. The combination of evergreen favourites with rarely seen paintings made the show a "must see" event for anyone interested in Australian art.
Gerard Vaughan, the director of the National Gallery, pointed out something that was unusual in the pattern of attendances for the exhibition. He said: "The classic pattern for an NGA summer exhibition is a dip in attendances in February once the holidaymakers return and the kids go back to school, followed by a pickup in March. This time the dip never happened and numbers just kept rising." He also pointed out to me that there was a change in demographics -- "the country came to town" as rural New South Wales arrived by the busload and have kept coming. It is an exhibition that is not only of interest to the "big smoke", but also to the bush, where Tom Roberts remains one of the best-known and most-loved artists.
It has also been an intelligent audience that has been attracted, one that is particularly interested in the exhibition, so that the scholarly monographic catalogue, written mainly by Dr Gray, has sold out and been reprinted and by the time the show closes all 10,000 copies will be sold. Dr Vaughan reflects, "Today, Australians appear to enjoy visualising the idea of Australia at the period of Federation." After a general dip in gallery attendances last year, Tom Roberts is providing a timely boost for Canberra and is living proof that if you present a great exhibition, Australians will come in their tens of thousands.
What of future blockbuster exhibitions in Canberra? The next summer show at the end of this year will be on the theme of the Culture of Versailles, where the total experience of the Palace of Versailles will come to the National Gallery with its paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, panelling and outside garden furniture. Before that we are promised Fiona Hall's Venice Biennale exhibition supplemented with her works from the gallery's rich holdings.
It is a rich art harvest at the National Gallery of Australia this year.