After five years of touring internationally, the record-breaking David Bowie career retrospective 'David Bowie Is' will take its final bow at the Brooklyn Museum beginning on March 2. But when the exhibit first premiered at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in March 2013, expectations were low. “No other museum had booked it for the tour,” co-creator Victoria Broackes confessed, “and we'd published 10,000 copies of the catalog. There wasn't a lot of optimism that it was going to be a rip-roaring success.”
As the London museum’s theater and performance curators, Broackes and her co-creator Geoffrey Marsh wanted a show as innovative as its subject. “Bowie pushed everything to the next level. We needed to reflect that in the exhibition,” Broackes said.
But with each idea came new challenges for the museum: incorporating music would be imperative, but asking museum-goers to wear headphones would be alienating. Broackes saw the importance of Bowie’s live performances, but bringing them to life in a museum environment, she feared, would “likely be the kiss of death.” David Bowie, who was still alive when planning began, allowed the museum to borrow freely from his archives, but did not get involved with the curators’ storytelling. Broackes and Marsh needed to dive into a near-bottomless archive to showcase a fluid and evolving artist, with both the museum and Bowie fans only showing cautionary interest. Still, the curators insisted on taking riskier options, if only to do the artist justice. “We were very, very conscious that we had to do this in new and interesting ways,” Broackes said.
The risks paid off. David Bowie Is became the London museum's fastest selling show, with 312,000 visitors lining up on the first day. The museum had to extend its hours some nights just to accommodate flocks of tourists who saw the temporary exhibit as one of London’s top new destinations. A tour suddenly became inevitable, and the exhibit has gone on to sell roughly two million tickets across 11 cities, now holding the record for most visited exhibit in the Victoria & Albert’s history. “We were not expecting this degree of success whatsoever.”
Broackes’ innovative form of storytelling suggests a new methodology in how to engage with musical subjects. “Sound and vision came first here,” Broackes explains. “They’re as much an object as any of the objects.”
Although she was originally reluctant to use headphones in the exhibition, fearing it would prevent visitors from socializing, Broackes recruited German audio company Sennheiser to create an immersive audio experience. “We had not used or seen headphones of this type, where the sound follows you. You don’t have to press any buttons, it knows where you are and it plays you the right thing at the time.”
Rather than taking cues from other museums, Broackes’ reference points came from live events. Leading a team of performance designers and audio technicians, sections of the exhibit begin to feel like private concerts.
The sprawling exhibit, which includes over 60 performance costumes, handwritten lyrics, and Bowie’s own oil paintings, breaks new ground through its non-linear storytelling. Rather than a chronological walk-through of the music legend’s life, David Bowie Is creates separate spheres for Bowie’s creations, encapsulated by the cities, people and artists that shaped them. The exhibit functions as a constellation of Bowie’s varied experiments, where fans can ditch ground control and float between each era like Major Tom.
“I really think that if you go through the show you're going to feel a sense of being an explorer,” Brooklyn Museum’s Matthew Yokobosky said. After five years of touring, New York will host the last run of David Bowie Is. As director of exhibition design at the Brooklyn Museum, Yokobosky is adding 80 new pieces to the show, many of which focus on Bowie’s years in New York City.
“We have the original backdrop from when he performed in The Elephant Man on Broadway, and moments from when he worked on Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat, on the life of New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.” Yokobosky’s New York curation delves into Bowie’s collaboration with other locals in film, theater, and television, not to mention that time John Lennon swung by the recording studio while he was recording "Fame." “While most of the Young Americans album was recorded in Philadelphia, 'Fame' was actually recorded in New York City. That's how John Lennon just happened to stop by the studio that day,” he explains. “He actually did a drawing for David in the studio and I have that drawing in the show.”
Yokobosky is one of the many exhibition designers to expand the collection to showcase Bowie’s local influences. While in Germany, the exhibition added more pieces from Bowie’s time in West Berlin, his collaborations with then-roommate Iggy Pop, and the pivotal albums his time there yielded: Low, Heroes, and Lodger. When David Bowie Is opened in Tokyo in January 2017, Bowie’s collaboration with designer Kansai Yamamoto took a main stage, highlighting some of Bowie’s most iconic costumes for Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.
The way David Bowie Is presents the artist’s work alongside his influences is an ideal set-up for expansion. Without having to be anchored to a chronological timeline, visitors can move through a topography of scenes and cities where he experimented, and host cities are encouraged to add to that map. The more David Bowie Is toured, the more its universe expanded.
The feeling of floating in space while seeing the exhibit was intentional. “I really feel that Major Tom, his creation of the character of an astronaut, an explorer, really was the person that he was.” Yokobosky said. “When people leave the exhibition, I'm hoping that they're going to feel that sense of exploration and want to try new things.”
The Victoria & Albert Museum might be disappointed to see their most successful show retire, but Broackes finds it important that the exhibit take its final bow in New York City.
“Bowie was a New Yorker,” she said. “It’s the only other place apart from London that he chose to make his home for any length of time, a place he identified with and could be free in and could be creative in. So it just seems absolutely appropriate that just as he based his life here and there, the exhibition should start in London and end in New York."
“David Bowie asked that the exhibit open in London and close here,” Anne Pasternak, the Shelby White and Leon Levy director of the Brooklyn Museum, told press ahead of the exhibit's Brooklyn debut.
While Broackes and her crew were shocked by the success of David Bowie Is, the Brooklyn Museum is prepared for the rush of fans in their last chance to see the show. Jean-Jerome Peytavi, Brooklyn Museum chief marketing and communications director, said, “advance sales for David Bowie Is have been the most successful to date compared to any exhibition presented at the Brooklyn Museum.” Only a few advanced tickets were made available online prior to the show’s opening, and yet 20,000 tickets have already sold.
In the five years that David Bowie Is has toured, the show moved from risky experiment to breaking records internationally, much like its muse. After David Bowie’s unexpected passing in 2016, the museum tour almost came to a halt, with growing concerns for if and how the show would go on. “But there was so much demand for it,” Broackes explained. “It seemed quite mean to bring it to a close.”
“We obviously changed parts of it, but we what we haven’t done is wrap up on Bowie.”
After Bowie’s death, the present-tense nature of the title, David Bowie Is, felt uncomfortable to some. Fortunately, the exhibition was never meant to be a sequential walk-through of David Bowie’s life and therefore didn’t need to be wrapped up into a definitive ending. Not only has Yokobosky added New York influences to the exhibition, but he has also created a new section dedicated solely to Bowie’s personal collection of fan art, a genre that has no end in sight.
“People made art for him beginning in the 1970s and he always kept all of his fan art,” Yokobosky said, “but it's never been seen in public before.”
David Bowie continues to exist as many things to his fans, which is what inspired the exhibition’s title. “David Bowie Is was very much conceived as a sentence that could be completed by everybody, and puts him very firmly in a present tense,” Broackes said.
“We considered whether [the present tense] was still appropriate, and in a strange way, it seemed more appropriate than ever.” After five years, the exhibition continues to be an evolving body of work that orbits around David Bowie. His influence isn’t fading, and Yokobosky’s addition suggests that art inspired by Bowie will only keep growing long after David Bowie Is closes. But for now, fans can still have their very own Space Oddity, floating inside Bowie’s celestial body of work at the Brooklyn Museum. As Broackes insists, “all of his art and influences are, just as much as when he was alive, all around you.”