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Bowie a pop hit for MCA, which ponders what's next

David Bowie Is, unquestionably, a success. But can the MCA keep the hits coming?

The Museum of Contemporary Art's blockbuster "David Bowie Is" exhibit closes Sunday and, therefore, you have only a handful of days left to experience the following uncommon phenomena: packed MCA galleries.

Moreover, because the show was designed to be immersive — and because every ticketholder is given a set of headphones at the door — those packed MCA galleries are silent MCA galleries. Even by museum standards. The only sound heard is the faint headphone-leak of Bowie songs and an occasional tap of toes.

It's a little surreal.

As is the mix of faces. Anyone who regularly visits this Chicago institution will tell you, it's not a typical contemporary art audience but rather: elderly women, middle-aged guys with mullets, students forced to attend, teenagers who want to attend, families from Iowa, hipster couples from even farther out and lots of men.

Since its September opening, "David Bowie Is" has given the museum a rare taste of the bustle, hot ticket sales and winding lines more often associated with its bigger rival, the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, the Bowie show is on track to be the MCA's most popular exhibit in decades, according to chief curator Michael Darling, who lobbied hard for the show and landed its only U.S. stop. Final figures won't be available until next week, but the museum is expecting to outpace its previous best-attended show, a 2009 exhibit of massive installations from Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson that drew 163,000.

Weekends have been consistently sold-out; the museum has averaged 2,000 visitors a day during the show's run (it's typically closer to 700). The MCA museum store has seen its best business in years. Even if you flip through the show's guest book, many of the comments ("religious experience," "very emotional," "got me through a deep depression") seem more in line with church testimonials.

"When we went into this, we had a business model that basically broke down to how many people we needed to get into the door and pay $25 to make this work," Darling said, "and though that model was always pretty conservative, this has been something else entirely. We've outpaced every expectation we had. The show has done just phenomenally well. People are averaging 90 minutes (in the show), and when they leave — and we don't see this often — they look happy. Or the impact was so huge, they're crying."

Crying? Really?

Really.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Jardine, a Trader Joe's employee from Hinsdale, stepped out of the show and choked up, saying to a reporter: "It was overwhelming." Then she broke down, saying: "I don't know why I'm crying. I saved this for today. It's my birthday, but the show was so moving, so inspirational."

How often does she come to the MCA?

"Not as often as I should, I guess."

She walked off, replaced by Bloomington, Ill., resident Marjorie Warehime and her sons, one a college student, the other home from work in Houston for the holidays. Marjorie described them as "a real museum family — we even have a membership to the Art Institute." And yet she had never been to the MCA. They came because someone her son works with in Texas flew to Chicago, saw the show and recommended it.

Then came Mike and Donna Hurst of West Chicago. "I was worried it would be just a lot of costumes, but it was so much smarter," he said, adding that he hadn't been to the MCA in maybe a decade.

Would he return?

He thought a moment, then said, "Maybe for a graphic novelist? Someone like (cartoonist) Lynda Barry?"

And therein lies the rub for the MCA.

"Bowie was a game changer for them," said Lisa Corrin, director of the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. "They worked in collaboration with one of the best museums in the world (London's Victoria and Albert), they illustrated the intersections of pop culture and art, they came up with a thoughtful and intellectually engaging museum show and they sent out a message to the broadest possible audience they could have wanted: You do not need a Ph.D. to 'get' contemporary art, you don't need to be so hierarchical."

The problem with that message, however, is it's not every month that a museum, particularly a contemporary art museum, can rustle up a show that would appeal to as wide an audience as an exhibition about a multidisciplinary superstar rock singer with a long, artful history. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has an upcoming show dedicated to the aesthetic legacy of the Icelandic avant-garde singer/artist Bjork, Darling notes with a tinge of envy. And the MCA has upcoming shows that explore the art of avant-garde jazz, the work of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham and, a few years away, the anime-tinged imagery of Takashi Murakami.

"I won't lie," Darling said, "the challenge now is to find the next thing. And something with a broad hook that doesn't make us feel as if we're selling out? Well, I definitely don't have a follow-up act in my back pocket."

There's irony in this, of course.

As big as Bowie has been for the MCA, the Art Institute, continuing its long tradition of gargantuan shows about masters, had an even bigger show this year, a study of the experimental images of Rene Magritte that drew more than 250,000.

And, as Lisa Yun Lee, director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago (and a member of the MCA's performance committee), said: "There was a lot of concern going into the Bowie show among MCA staff and even donors. There was worry a show like that would demolish the aesthetic credibility of the museum. But a lot of contemporary art is about changing boundaries, and I think (the MCA staff) grappled — and to an extent the audience grappled — with those issues in the right way.

"But if you just measure success by attendance figures, that's a shallow bar at a time when museums are looking for new audiences — I'd be interested to know what parts of the city the Bowie show pulled from."

The MCA said it hasn't thoroughly analyzed its audiences statistics yet, but based on ZIP codes of ticket buyers, "David Bowie Is" brought more visitors from the South and West sides than usual. "'Bowie' gave us a new profile not only nationally but locally," Darling said. "Our challenge is to keep talking to those audiences."

Drawing a crowd

Final attendance for the Museum of Contemporary Art's “David Bowie Is” exhibit won't be available until after the show ends Sunday. But museum officials are predicting it will be the institution's most-attended show in its 47-year history. In the meantime, for a bit of context, a list of the MCA's 10 biggest hits since 1999, with attendance figures.

“Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson” (2009): 163,000

“Everything's Here: Jeff Koons and His Experience of Chicago” (2008): 141,000

“Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe” (2009): 133,000

“Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy” (2010): 123,000

“Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Dearths, Disasters, 1962-1964” (2006): 113,000

“Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes” (2013): 93,000

“Dan Flavin: A Retrospective” (2005): 88,500

“Lee Bontecou: A Retrospective” (2004): 86,000

“At the End of the Century: 100 Years of Architecture” (1999-2000): 84,000

“Universal Experience: Art, Life and the Tourist's Eye” (2005): 82,000
 

‘Is’ factor
 
Landing the only United States stop for “David Bowie Is” gave the Museum of Contemporary Art a few perks, one of which was a flood of celebrity visitors. The following is a partial list of who was who during the show's four-month run. Note: One name conspicuously not here is David Bowie, who, as of Wednesday, has not yet made the journey.
 
Jason Schwartzman
William H. Macy
Iggy Azalea
Judy Greer
Adrian Grenier (“Entourage”)
Billy Corgan
Sophia Bush
Peter Wolf
Neil Young (with girlfriend, Daryl Hannah)
Aubrey Plaza
George Lucas
Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie)
Brian Selznick (author of “Hugo”)
Fitz and the Tantrums
Future Islands
Annie Clark (St. Vincent)
Siegfried Fischbacher (of Siegfried & Roy)
Mayor Rahm Emanuel (and family)
Patricia Morrison (Jim Morrison's widow)
Usher
Gillian Flynn
Rob Zombie
Bob Dylan's band (but not Bob Dylan)
Cobie Smulders
Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth)
Cast members of “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago PD”

cborrelli@tribpub.com

Twitter @borrelli

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