Runaway Hit

Lifelike sculptures by Ron Mueck draw record crowds to MFAH's most popular exhibition ever

Ron Mueck's lifelike sculptures draw record crowds to MFAH

Ron Mueck: Couple under an Umbrella
Ron Mueck's lifelike sculptures are drawing record crowds to the MFAH. This one is titled "Couple Under An Umbrella." Photo by Patrick Gries

When it comes to art, impressionist painters are usually the biggest crowd pleasers at museums around the world. But at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, an exhibition of hyperrealistic creations of everyday people by London-based Australian sculptor Ron Mueck has turned into a runaway hit.

The exhibition of the lifelike figures made of resin, silicone, and other materials — some oversized and others much smaller — has captivated large crowds since opening in late February in the museum's Audrey Jones Beck Building. With a few weeks to go before it closes on August 13, Mueck's work has attracted nearly 108,000 visitors, making it already the MFAH's most popular exhibition of all time.

"Ron Mueck is on track to be our most popular exhibition ever and we've had some of the biggest days ever at the beginning," MFAH director Gary Tinterow tells CultureMap. "And what's especially satisfying is the exhibition is strongly appealing to college students. We've had the largest proportion of college students attend that exhibition than any other. And also nonmembers. So it means we're reaching a new audience and that's what we hope to do."

Tinterow chuckles when asked if he thought the Mueck exhibition would be this popular. In fact, he did, he says, since an exhibition of Mueck's work drew more than 1 million visitors at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris four years ago and has drawn large crowds in museums around the world since then.

Why has it connected with audiences? "I think we're all fascinated to see ourselves and other humans from beginning to end, from birth to death. It's a very moving exhibition," Tinterow says.

In a review of the exhibition, CultureMap arts writer Tarra Gaines noted:

The exhibition offers 13 sculptures, but since Mueck takes approximately a year to complete a work, the galleries contains almost “one-third of the artist’s total oeuvre,” according to the MFAH. And yet, we could probably spend a full afternoon staring at this baker’s dozen of sculpted people (and one dead chicken) as our gaze turns into a kind of visual exploration into the intricacies of their bodies and faces: the creases of wrinkles, the fine hair on an ankle, a line of veins under the skin, even the smear of blood glazing a newborn. 

Mueck purposely crafted the sculptures to be larger — or smaller — than life; some figures are big enough to fill one gallery while others are only three-feet high. “I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting,” he explained in a rare interview in 2003. “We meet life-size people every day. (Altering the scale) makes you take notice in a way that you wouldn’t do with something that’s just normal.”

Other popular exhibitions at the MFAH have included:

  •      Degas: A New Vision (October 16, 2016 to January 16, 2017) — 82,004
  •      The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (December 21, 2013 to May 3, 2014) – 78,498
  •      Picasso Black and White (February 23 to May 26, 2013) – 74,267
  •      Monet and the Seine (October 25, 2014 to January 31, 2015) – 71,486

Another exhibition currently at the MFAH might join that list. Pixel Forest and Worry Will Vanish, a grand-scale immersive exhibition created by video artist Pipilotti Rist, has already drawn more than 46,000 museumgoers since it opened earlier this summer. It runs through September 17. "The average daily attendance for the show, so far, in the first four weeks, has been higher than any recent ticketed exhibition, so it is proving to be just as, if not more, popular than expected," a museum spokeswoman said.

Like Ron Mueck, the Rist exhibition has proved popular with a millennial crowd that doesn't often frequent museums. To make it more attractive to that demographic, the MFAH is offering at "2 Pack" Combo Package, with admission to both exhibitions for $25. Advance reservations can be made online. (A "3-Pack" Combo Package, which also includes admission to the new Mexican Modernism exhibition, is $30.)