John Steuart Curry’s The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne (1928–40) now hangs in the MFAH’s beautifully reinstalled American collection galleries, but how many people have seen it? © John Steuart Curry Estate, Kiechel Fine Art

John Steuart Curry’s The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne (1928–40) now hangs in the MFAH’s beautifully reinstalled American collection galleries, but how many people have seen it? © John Steuart Curry Estate, Kiechel Fine Art.

General Admission Visits Are Less Than 19% of Beck, Law Building Tallies

Having spent two weeks poring over annual reports and attendance data, I’ve got good news and bad news about the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston that couldn’t be more timely or relevant to our art scene’s conversations about the image it wants to present to itself and to the world. Unfortunately, while I’m all too confident about the accuracy of the bad news – that the MFAH wildly inflated its visitor reports for years and only recently (and quietly) stopped, and that its King Tut show of 2011-2012 bombed spectacularly – the good news is harder to confirm.

Caught somewhere in the middle is director Gary Tinterow. Shortly after his arrival last year, perhaps wondering why admissions revenue was so low at a museum that’s supposedly been getting well over a million annual visits for years, Tinterow implemented a more reality-based approach – or “conservative,” if you prefer the MFAH’s euphemism – to tallying visits.

To follow along, start by downloading the MFAH’s annual report for the 2010-2011 fiscal year – we’ll get to last year’s later – click here. On the attendance page, you’ll see the museum recorded a whopping 3.61 million visits, which sounds amazing until you realize they’re including 1.33 million visits to mfah.org – a stunning conflation that negates the need for museums to exist at all. Unless we’re talking about Internet art, if the museum thinks clicking on a web page is just as good as spending time with a painting or a sculpture, what’s the point of keeping its doors open? (This is not to say the MFAH and the Menil Collection shouldn’t put images of as much of their collections online as possible; they should. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a new site they might want to explore emulating.)

So subtract the 1.33 million. Next, subtract the 606,346 “visits” to off-site exhibitions and programs, which, while also worthwhile and important, also aren’t the same thing; and the 1,120 visitors to the Brown Foundation Fellows Program’s Dora Maar House in the south of France. You’ll end up with a still-formidable 1.68 million visitors to the MFAH’s various main-campus facilities (the Beck and Law buildings, the sculpture garden, the Glassell School of Art) and its house museums, Bayou Bend and Rienzi. The Beck and Law buildings drew the lion’s share of visits with an impressive 1.35 million between them.

It’s when you start to turn to the attendance page in the 2011-2012 report, only to discover no such page exists, that you realize something’s wrong while wondering if the MFAH does. Eventually, in board chairman Cornelia Long’s letter, you read that “we recorded 875,271 visits among our various facilities.” She neglects to mention that that’s 48 percent fewer visits than the 2010-2011 figure.

“The museum’s attendance numbers were previously based primarily on clicker counts, rather than scanned tickets, for all of Beck and Law,” MFAH communications and marketing director Mary Haus wrote in an email. “Anyone coming or going through multiple passages had the potential to be counted more than once. In addition, ‘reach’ was a factor – teachers participating on site who accounted for a reach of say 120 students, or people exposed to the museum through off-site events and programs.”

Wrap your head around that. In 2010-2011 (and for untold years prior), the MFAH apparently “factored” a teacher’s “reach” and/or participants in off-site events and programs into how it counted who actually went to the MFAH to look at art, even as it maintained a separate count of 606,346 “visits” to its off-site exhibitions and programs.

“Soon after Gary’s arrival, he wanted to institute a more conservative method to track paid and unpaid attendance, through scanned entries as much as possible,” Haus continued. “Now, we report the actual number of people who buy tickets, obtain their membership stickers, attend events or enter with school programs. We continue to use clicker counts for those areas of the campus that have less potential for repeat counting and are not tracked with a scanned ticket – the sculpture garden, house museums, school, etc. We no longer include reach.” I should hope not.

The smartest travel pieces on Houston have emphasized homegrown free attractions like the Menil Collection, not pricey blockbusters. The Menil’s Byzantine Things in the World continues through August 18. Courtesy photo.

The smartest travel pieces on Houston have emphasized homegrown free attractions like the Menil Collection, not pricey blockbusters. The Menil’s Byzantine Things in the World continues through August 18. Courtesy photo.

Under the MFAH’s new reality-friendly method, recorded visits plunged at Rienzi while enjoying healthy increases at Bayou Bend, the Glassell School and the sculpture garden, according to a breakdown Haus provided.

Meanwhile, the Beck and Law buildings recorded 120,722 general-admission visits in fiscal year 2011-2012 and 393,295 visits to ticketed exhibitions such as Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. Another 127,186 visits were logged at school programs, films and fundraising events, though I’m not clear on why the MFAH combined those three tallies.

To recap, the Beck/Law tally for 2010-2011 was 1.35 million visits; for 2011-2012, it was less than half that: 641,203 visits, of which less than 19 percent were general-admission visits; that is, visits to the permanent-collection galleries and/or temporary exhibitions that didn’t require a special ticket to see. Could there be a harsher indictment of general-admission fees and the MFAH’s box-office-driven priorities?

Haus added that the revised pool of data, when applied retroactively, shows that attendance has risen, not fallen, over the past few years. For both the 2012 and 2013 fiscals, the MFAH “paced and are pacing ahead of previous years in terms of number of visitors recorded at the museum’s various facilities,” she said.

We’ll see. “Pacing” has proved even more difficult for the museum to track accurately than actual museum visits. When the Tut show opened in Fall 2011, it was supposedly “pacing” to reach 570,000 visitors, but you won’t read that in Long’s report, which breezily boasts that the $33-a-ticket show, which was mounted by a for-profit organizer under appallingly opaque terms, “welcomed more than 250,000 visitors.” In Long’s world, apparently, missing your attendance projections by 56 percent is cause for celebration.

Mine too, in this case. Once you get over the shock of realizing just how at odds with reality the MFAH’s self-image has been, you start to notice that reality – at least when it comes to the question of what kinds of exhibitions Houston audiences will visit – may not be so bad. During the Peter Marzio/Gwendolyn Goffe era, the prevailing orthodoxy held that while scholarly shows have their place, Houstonians will only show up en masse for Tut-style spectacles. A few months before he died in late 2010, Marzio told me even a Jackson Pollock retrospective “certainly wouldn’t be a blockbuster” – not in this town.

Actually, what’s now certain is that the pricey Tut show, which the MFAH gave a six month-run and kept the Law building open seven days a week to accommodate hordes that stayed away in droves, was no blockbuster. It didn’t even come close to being the MFAH’s most popular show in recent years, especially when measured by visits per day as reported by The Art Newspaper.

I doubt Marzio could have predicted the sheer variety of recent shows that have outperformed Tut’s daily-visitor average (1,590), including such ambitious, scholarly exhibitions as Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts (2,103), Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Open Sea (1,636), German Impressionist Landscape Painting (2,055), Sargent and the Sea (2,551), and Prendergast in Italy (2,123). The tremendously important Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, which the National Geographic Society insisted not require a special ticket so as many people as possible could see it – what a concept! – drew 317,233 visitors in just over two-and-a-half months for a daily average of 4,735.

In fact, none of the exhibits I’ve listed, which don’t even include shows that wrapped up in calendar-year 2011, since the MFAH didn’t submit figures to The Art Newspaper that year, required a special ticket. Does the fact that these shows weren’t used to raise money at the gate diminish their importance in trustees’ eyes?

Surely a Pollock survey would do at least as well as Alice Neel: Painted Truths, which lured just 102 fewer daily visitors than Tut to see a still underappreciated painter’s unsparing, often disturbing portraits. And it would probably easily eclipse Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography, a group show of 40 up-and-comers that topped the boy king’s bling by 58 visitors per day.

Four-Cornered Hat (detail), 600–1000, feathers, cotton, and reed. Brooklyn Museum of Art. On view June 16-September 8 in Wari: Lords of the Andes at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

Four-Cornered Hat (detail), 600–1000, feathers, cotton, and reed. Brooklyn Museum of Art. On view June 16-September 8 in Wari: Lords of the Andes at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

That Houstonians have seemingly demonstrated they prefer substantive shows over profiteering spectacle affirms that, as city boosters have been telling the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and any other media outlet that will listen, the old stereotypes casting us as a bunch of rubes are dead wrong. (Tellingly, the smartest travel pieces haven’t touted would-be blockbuster exhibits, but homegrown (and free) gems from the Lawndale Art Center to the Menil. I wish they also made a fuss about the MFAH’s reinstalled American galleries, but why would they when the museum hasn’t?)

But the MFAH, which compares itself to non-art museums and zoos when justifying hiking general admission fees (they’ve nearly doubled, from $7 to $13, since January 2012, while the Menil and most other local art museums are free), says I’m not comparing apples to apples. After all, what if someone enjoyed Prendergast or Afghanistan so much she decided to see it twice during the same visit to the museum and got double-clicker-counted? The horror!

It seems at least as likely that the MFAH’s friendly guards might inadvertently undercount by missing a few clicks here and there while interacting with visitors, but never mind. The real reason I may be comparing apples to Raisenettes is that Haus couldn’t confirm that “reach” wasn’t also a factor in tallying visits to individual shows before Tinterow arrived, so maybe the Marzio/Goffe stats for temporary shows are just as inflated as the cumulative attendance figures.

At least now we have a better grasp of what Tinterow, who deserves credit both for wanting to know the truth and for bringing better curated blockbusters than his predecessor, is up against. Many of Marzio’s strengths and weaknesses came from the same place: He understood – and was all too understanding of – what made his well-heeled trustees tick, while mistakenly extrapolating that reading onto the city as a whole. He understood he was serving a diverse city that’s comparatively desegregated along racial lines, yet too often forgot that it’s also the nation’s most segregated along class lines.

As Tinterow plays host to the must-see (and free with general admission) The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, let’s hope he ponders the origins of the Cylinder’s remarkable custodian, the British Museum, which Parliament founded in 1753 with the collection of scholar-physician Hans Sloane and explicitly granted political independence. Director Neil MacGregor wrote in 2004 that “the new museum in London was to be the collection of all citizens, where they could come free of charge and as of right. … It laid the foundation of a quite new concept of the citizen’s right to information and understanding, comparable to … the modern right of access to the internet. … Sloane had declared his desire that his collection should be preserved ‘for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons.’”

That sounds like the MFAH’s mission: that it be “dedicated to excellence in collecting, exhibiting, preserving, conserving, and interpreting art for all people.” All people, not just those who can afford to pay admission. All people, not just tourists. The MFAH’s mission is not what Tinterow told me his No. 1 priority in planning a campus expansion is: to “provide the infrastructure to make us the central destination, the hub for all things cultural.” The visitor bureau’s goals must never again distort and intrude upon an independent MFAH’s mission, and I say this as one of Houston’s most enthusiastic, if low-budget, cultural tourists.

In fact, I know what you’re doing this summer. Sometime between June 16 and September 8, you’re heading to Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum (where general admission is free) to experience the powerful, revelatory Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes, which I saw last fall at the Cleveland Museum of Art (ditto; in fact, the CMA didn’t even ticket this groundbreaking triumph of scholarship and international collaboration, though the Kimbell will).

Then, perhaps when you’ll return, you’ll get lost in the MFAH’s marvelous pre-Columbian collection, which lent objects to the Wari exhibit but has plenty more on view. Who knows? Maybe by then Tinterow and his affluent trustees will have had a change of heart and decided to welcome visitors with free general admission. That truly #houinspired move would make this the feel-good story of the year.

–DEVON BRITT-DARBY