A retrospective of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen was the most popular show ever staged at the Victoria and Albert museum, deputy director Tim Reeve has said. More than 480,000 tickets were sold for Savage Beauty, the V&A’s theatrical, romantic and sometimes eerie exhibition of McQueen’s work which closed on Sunday night.
High demand during the 21-week run saw V&A chiefs open the museum overnight for the first time for an exhibition. The overnight openings were introduced in the final two weekends and ran from 10pm to 5.30am, adding 15,000 tickets to the overall sales.
“We planned for it to be more successful than David Bowie [the V&A’s 2013 showwhich sold 311,956 tickets] but getting 480,000 visitors is over 100,000 more than we expected to get,” said Reeve. “We have a lot of experience running big exhibitions but we did not predict it would be that big.”
Savage Beauty saw far more visitors than the numbers who went to the V&A’s next biggest sellout exhibitions, including Art Deco, which sold 359,499 tickets in 2003, and last year’s Wedding Dresses exhibition, which pulled in 316,090 visitors. The Hollywood Costume show in 2012 sold 251,738 tickets while 245,112 visited the Ballgowns: British Glamour exhibition in the same year.
Reeve said Savage Beauty was delivered on a £3m budget which is “way more than this museum has ever spent on a show before”.
Everything was turned off and cleaned for 90 minutes after the overnight openings ended at 5.30am before the museum reopened at 8am.
“It is very tight. During these two weekends the museum got to rest for an hour and a half every 24 hours. It was quite a tech-heavy exhibition with a lot of equipment, holograms, audio and film.”
The show featured McQueen’s eye-catching and bizarre creations in materials ranging from wool to feathers and shell, starting from his days as a degree show sensation through to being a global design star. It included a 3D hologram of Kate Moss gently twirling in a glass pyramid.
McQueen, 40, a taxi driver’s son from London and a frequent V&A visitor, killed himself on the eve of his mother Joyce’s funeral in February 2010.
Savage Beauty has been a balancing act between getting people in, ensuring they can enjoy the exhibition and managing the inevitable queues. A specialist firm was hired to manage the waiting times including 15-minute slots for people to enter the show.
Reeve said: “Your first reaction is ‘Oh my God, we have committed to spend £3m on a show that is going to be on for 21 weeks – what happens if they don’t come?’
“Then you see all the reaction on social media and see that the world is waiting for this to happen.
“About four of five weeks in we knew it was going to be successful and then could enjoy it and try to improve it. You are able to start figuring out which galleries people are enjoying and spending their time in.
“It is then as a team at the museum you feel a sense of pride. Everyone in the museum and fashion world has been talking about it.
“The museum’s less sexy collections will get a benefit from that. Many people who came to see the Alexander McQueen or the David Bowie show had never come to the V&A before. Many became members to get in and then they stayed.”
V&A also lured overseas visitors from places such as Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Spain on the basis that they were close enough to Britain to consider a day trip to the McQueen retrospective, which will not be staged again.
It was based on the Savage Beauty show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011.
Planning for the London exhibition started in 2012 but contracts were only signed about 12 months before it opened in March.
With all the research and talks needed to agree loans of objects from private collectors for something of this scale, an exhibition like this could have been four or five years in the making, according to Reeve.
He said: “It was skin-of-teeth stuff but it was all worth it. Shows like this do not come along very often. This will never be seen again.”