When staff at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum first started working on an exhibition about David Bowie in 2011, they thought they likely had a hit on their hands — they just didn’t know how big a hit.
“We expected there to be a lot of interest, but there was concern that we may not be able to bring such a subject to life in a museum environment and do it justice,” says Victoria Broackes, co-curator of “David Bowie is,” which ran at The V&A from March to August 2013. “It wasn’t until we opened and the audience came in that we knew we had a success.”
Since then, the exhibition — which features over 300 items from Bowie’s personal archive, including stage costumes, handwritten lyrics and original set designs — has been seen by 1.8 million people around the world, generating over $40 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard estimates. On March 2, “David Bowie is” debuts at the Brooklyn Museum, the final stop on its record-breaking five-year, 12-city world tour and its second U.S. outing after a 15-week run at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2014/15 that drew 193,000 visitors.
“Bowie was much more than his music — he was the whole package,” says Broackes, citing the late artist’s “wide-ranging influences and inspirations” among the factors that “make him such an ideal exhibition subject.”
It’s not just the Thin White Duke who’s proving a star attraction for galleries and museums, however. In recent years, there’s been blockbuster gallery shows about everyone from The Rolling Stones to Elvis to Annie Lennox — all of which debuted in London and then went on to draw huge crowds internationally.
In 2017, The V&A broke its own sales records for a music show with “Their Mortal Remains,” an immersive multi-sensory exhibition charting the career of Pink Floyd that drew over 400,000 visitors during its inaugural London run. The exhibition is currently on display at Rome’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MACRO) with further host cities to be announced.
“These shows give fans a whole new way to be part of an artist’s world,” says Angie Marchese, director of archives at Paisley Park and curator of “My Name Is Prince,” the first-ever official exhibition about the late superstar, which ran at London’s O2 Arena from October to January. “Not everybody gets a chance to go see a concert, but an exhibition can really bring an artist’s music and career to life for them and provide that deep personal connection.”
Production and staging costs aren’t cheap, with each exhibition taking years to develop. But the potential returns make them an enticing prospect for veteran acts and museum owners alike, with tickets averaging $25 to $35. VIP and upscale options further boost the grosses: the most expensive ticket for “David Bowie is” at Brooklyn Museum runs $2,500.
Artist retrospectives can also generate a significant spike in catalog sales, says Dan Chalmers, president of Warner Music label Rhino in the U.K., who worked with Pink Floyd on a range of 50th anniversary releases to accompany their V&A exhibition. “These things are great for bringing on new fans and exposing a band to new parts of the market, as well as re-engaging core fans,” he says.
Chalmers notes that the most successful exhibitions so far have focused on iconic acts with “a legacy and wealth of material,” but believes “there’s plenty more artists who could explore this route to market.”
“As long as there is an audience for an artist — of any time period — there’s the opportunity to do an exhibition about them,” says Marchese, who has one piece of advice for today’s music stars. “Anything that means something to you can be used in an exhibition,” she says, “so save everything you can!”