The Dallas Morning News‘ coverage of the King Tut exhibition, coming to the Dallas Museum of Art in October, has been marked by a strong note of cheerleading — notably the breathless excitement when the exhibition was first announced. How often does a cultural event merit Mayor Tom Leppert’s personal involvement? (And I should add, the personal involvement of former Mayor Laura Miller and council member Angela Hunt and a host of other city dignitaries in originally sealing the deal)?
But Michael Granberry’s thorough front-page story in yesterday’s News laid out the case for the exhibition — as well as the doubts and questions that many professionals and critics in the museum world have been raising about the for-profit venture. Understandably, many people see the benefits of the Tut show as fairly obvious: What’s wrong with a museum bringing in a popular show, working with a corporation to turn a little profit?
It’s hard to argue against the numbers that Tut can draw — 1.3 million in Philadelphia alone, for instance. Perhaps it’s worth noting, though, that those numbers were at the Franklin Institute, which is a science and nature museum, complete with an IMAX theater, soon to show the Batman movie, The Dark Knight.
But let’s set aside the mission of non-profit arts organizations — we don’t tax them because they do the hard, non-commercial things that we believe will benefit the community, works involving scholarship and education and bringing in rare objects and shows for our enlightenment. If we set aside all that — a big step — we’re still struck by one of the surprises in Granberry’s story: the statement by DMA director Bonnie Pitman that she expects the museum will only break even on Tut. That means, not surprisingly, the lion’s share of revenue from all the hooplah and special events, all the trinkets and books sold, will go straight back to AEG Exhibitions, the parent company.
But that also means, despite what cynics might immediately conclude, profit wasn’t the motivation for the DMA.
So the debate would seem to be this: Are the other benefits that supposedly accrue to the DMA — vastly increased traffic, the introduction of thousands of new visitors to the museum — are they worth it? Does a museum in such a situation risk anything — in reputation, in stepping on a slope leading away from its core mission as a non-profit?