By Rod Bastanmehr
It was a grueling 14 weeks when our TV sets were off. Fourteen weeks and two days, to be exact.
Now, it’s over. The writers have returned, our shows will (eventually) be back on the air, and all is right with the world. But while television executives breathe a great big sigh of relief, the fact of the matter is that not everyone is happy about the return of television.
“It may sound terrible, but the writers’ strike may have been one of the best times that the art world has seen recently,” said Anthony Meier, a fine arts collector who has a gallery in San Francisco. “Their return is great for the industry, but we could all use another 14 weeks.”
In short, the revolution that allowed things to be televised may have had a premature return for art lovers who embraced the surge of gallery-goers.
The writers’ strike brought on an intense creative drought, yet the world was somehow able to move on. By pressing the power button on their remote controls for good, viewers migrated, and movie theaters weren’t the only places filled with spectators.
“I am honestly shocked as to how many people in the area started showing up after that Monday,” said Steven Lederer, an independent art gallery owner in Marin County, referring to Nov. 5, when the strike officially began. “I mean, it wasn’t like I opened the store and suddenly thousands of people came pouring in.”
Over the course of that week, however, Lederer began to notice a steady increase in attendees of his gallery. “[My gallery] is located close to where a lot of senior citizens live. They don’t usually go out much,” Lederer said. “But with the TV off, suddenly it was like a gathering. I was shocked… it was a demographic I had never targeted as art lovers.”
Lederer’s surprise is valid. According to his records, the gallery’s attendance went up 65 percent. But what really surprised him was the increase in sales — he sold upward of 35 percent more paintings than his typical three-month tally. Lederer attributes this to the lack of TV viewership, meaning less advertising for viewers to be swayed by — or in Lederer’s words, “People weren’t being bombarded with things to throw their money at… I guess they turned to my paintings.”
The lack of quality television isn’t the only factor when it comes to understanding the sudden increase in art-world interest. Robin Wander, media relations officer for the Legion of Honor and other San Francisco-based fine arts museums points the finger to various other factors as well.
“The specific exhibitions we have do play a key role in the amount of attendees we usually receive,” Wander said. “Believe it or not, we find that weather is another key variable when conducting a basic census of museum-goers.”
While Wander brings up numerous factors, he is quick to point out that the sudden increase in attendance over the last 14 or so weeks did not go unnoticed. “It was definitely on our radar,” Wander said. “After being in this work so long, and seeing numbers fluctuate to such massive degrees, you notice when there is a significant increase.”
Unfortunately, museum policy prohibits attendance numbers and ticket sales from being publicly announced, but Wander affirmed that the rather noticeable increase since November had the museum heads supporting the writers’ strike for more than political reasons.
“We were definitely on cloud nine for those four months,” Wander said. “The outcome of the strike won’t have a terrible effect on the art world, but it will definitely bring things to a somewhat disappointing halt.”
If the Neilson ratings are any indication, however, television might not receive a warm welcome. This year’s Oscars were the lowest-watched in history, with only 32 million viewers. ABC is down 21 percent in viewership. While FOX Broadcasting viewership is up 41 percent, much of that jump is attributed solely to the Super Bowl, which was the most-watched in the last eight years with a towering 97.5 million viewers.
So what does this all mean? The art world may have benefited from the writers’ strike, but even with their return, all may not be lost.
“Let’s hope those numbers speak for themselves,” Meier said. “Maybe all that people needed was some time away from television to show them that they don’t need it.”