The global art-goer

There’s a scene in the cult coming-of-age comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), in which the truanting Ferris and his friends visit the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s the middle of a school day and the place is all but empty. Pollock, Picasso, Henry Moore, Monet, Modigliani: they’re all there in wide open galleries. As the scene ends, one of the group becomes entranced by Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, gazing with increasing intensity at the small girl in the middle of the scene until all he can see are dots of colour.

This kind of intense, almost private experience in the airy emptiness of a museum is one that is increasingly unfamiliar to today’s art lovers. As the Art Newspaper’s recently published figures for museum attendance in 2012 reveal, the world’s galleries are getting ever busier.

When the newspaper began its annual survey in 1996, a temporary exhibition needed about 3,000 visitors a day to make the top 10. By last year, most shows in the top 20 had more than 6,000 a day. The recently published list for 2012, taking in 1,800 exhibitions at 500 institutions, was topped by Masterpieces from the Mauritshuis at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Art Museum. Over two-and-a-half months, the show of Dutch Old Masters, which included Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, attracted 758,266 visitors – a daily average of 10,573.

In fact, the three most visited Old Masters shows in the world were all in Japan. The country’s museum shows have headed the list for much of the past decade. The 2008 survey, for example, was led by an exhibition in Nara of 8th-century treasures that drew almost 18,000 visitors a day.

The survey ranks museums in order of annual visitors as well as average daily visitors to temporary exhibitions, which are also broken down into genres and periods. It paints a complex picture of an increasingly globalised art world. Crowds flocked to 19th-century Italian paintings at the Hermitage in St Petersburg (2012’s third most visited exhibition), and to works by the British sculptor Antony Gormley in Brazil (in seventh). An exhibition of Indian art in Brazil ranked 11th, higher than any in New York.

By contrast, David Hockney’s show of predominantly English landscapes at the Royal Academy was London’s most popular exhibition (fifth on the list), while Paris’s busiest show featured French conceptual artist Daniel Buren at Grand Palais (10th). The exhibition that was second overall also had a local flavour: a detailed visual history of the Amazon drew nearly 8,000 a day to Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) in Rio de Janeiro.

Visitors look at Johannes Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' at the 'Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis' exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

Until the mid-2000s, countries outside the US and Europe barely featured in these annual surveys. By 2012, however, the likes of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Pompidou Centre in Paris were being blasted out of the top 10 by the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and CCBB in Rio. CCBB is a free institution that made headlines by topping the 2011 survey when it attracted almost 10,000 visitors a day to an exhibition of the Dutch graphic artist MC Escher. Last year, there were more top 20 exhibitions in Rio than in London.

But amid the trends and counter-trends, bigger themes emerge. Impressionist and Old Masters shows used to dominate these surveys but contemporary art has been an increasingly big draw in public art museums, mirroring its popularity at auction. Anish Kapoor’s immense walk-through sculpture “Leviathan”, which filled Paris’s Grand Palais in 2011, attracted almost as many as visited the Monet exhibition at the same venue that year.

Last year, modern and contemporary art came out on top in London, New York and Paris, with blockbusters devoted to Hockney, de Kooning and Buren respectively. Photography exhibitions were also more popular in the US than elsewhere: seven of the world’s top 10 at MoMA, the Guggenheim, LA’s Getty Center and Renwick in Washington, DC.

The appetite for contemporary art was reflected at museum level as well as in temporary shows: in London, Tate Modern (5.3m visitors) overtook the National Gallery (5.1m) to become the fourth most visited museum in the world, while seven of the top 10 exhibitions in New York were at MoMA.

Trendspotters might conclude, given the dominance of contemporary, modern and photographic exhibitions in the west and the popularity of more traditional art in Asia, that the audience for new art is largely western. Yet that’s far from true. Japan, its fondness for Old Masters notwithstanding, provides a good example. Big exhibitions of western art have been mounted there since the late 1940s. Jackson Pollock’s work was first seen in Japan in 1951. Impressionism was a speciality for the country’s collectors as far back as the 1920s. As David Elliott, a curator and founding director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, tells me: “There’s almost nothing from the west that hasn’t been seen in Tokyo.”

Top 10 most popular exhibitions in 2012
10,573758,266Masterpieces from the MauritshuisTokyo Metropolitan Art MuseumTokyo
7,928374,876*The Amazon: Cycles of ModernityCentro Cultural Banco do BrasilRio de Janeiro
7,747425,000Nineteenth-century Italian PaintingState Hermitage MuseumSt Petersburg
7,611235,931*Colourful Realm: Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800)National Gallery of ArtWashington, DC
7,512600,989David Hockney RA: A Bigger PictureRoyal Academy of ArtsLondon
7,374540,382Japanese Masterpieces from the MFA, BostonTokyo National MuseumTokyo
6,909271,443*Antony Gormley: Still BeingCentro Cultural Banco do BrasilRio de Janeiro
6,716161,176*Little Black JacketSaatchi GalleryLondon
6,672789,241Golden FlashesGalleria degli UffiziFlorence
6,498240,414Monumenta: Daniel BurenGrand PalaisParis
*indicates that entrance to the exhibition and museum were free
Source: The Art Newspaper Exhibition & Museum Attendance survey 2012

But Japan’s museums are now beginning to address the lack of public knowledge about homegrown contemporary work. Alexandra Munroe, Samsung senior curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim in New York, cites an excellent show at the National Art Centre in Tokyo last summer that focused on Gutai, an avant-garde Japanese collective formed in 1954. “Twenty years ago [such exhibitions] were few and far between. It’s now an accepted part of programming,” she says.

This greater curatorial confidence in indigenous contemporary art mirrors a wider change in attitudes to “non-western” art, says Elliott, pointing to the Mori’s recent, successful surveys of contemporary Indian and Arab art. “The Japanese are not chasing the west,” he says. “They’re looking at the rest of the world and putting together their own shows. They don’t feel it has to be accredited somewhere else first.”

The recent inclusion of Brazil in the Art Newspaper surveys reflects the rise there of a prosperous middle class, a wave of museum-building following an economic boom and more media attention on the arts.

However, despite the headline-grabbing visitor figures for free exhibitions in major centres such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília, a different picture emerges elsewhere in Brazil. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics reported last year that 93 per cent of Brazilians had never been to an art exhibition. Compare this with British government figures that showed almost half of Britons visited a museum or art gallery between April 2011 and March 2012.

As to which countries might dominate future museum surveys, Georgina Adam, FT columnist and Art Newspaper editor-at-large, points to China, where almost 400 museums were built in 2011 alone, funded by both the state and, increasingly, by the private sector. This boom has quickly translated into high visitor numbers – in 2012, two exhibitions of Chinese art at the Shanghai Museum made the top 20 – though the sudden profusion of museums could eventually dilute attendances.

Adam rules out India, where there is “very little state-sponsored museum structure” despite economic growth. Referring to Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, where Louvre and Guggenheim franchises are due to open in 2015 and 2017 respectively, she says: “I don’t see attendance going up to the level of the Louvre [in Paris] because you can’t get there so easily.”

If the list of best-attended temporary exhibitions has an international flavour, the list of best-attended museums is still dominated by institutions in the US and Europe. Few visit the French capital without taking in the Louvre – the world’s most popular museum, with 9.7m visitors in 2012.

London, which hosted the rival attraction of the Olympics, had a mixed summer. Attendances at the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery fell 25 and 27 per cent respectively compared with July 2011. And though Tate Modern’s annual attendance was up on 2011, its Damien Hirst retrospective, which ran from April to September, attracted fewer than half the daily average at the RA’s Hockney show in spring.

As the tourist map shifts, museums outside Europe and America will inevitably see more visitors. As one curator put it, it’s about “international brand recognition”.

Top 10 most popular museums
1Louvre, Paris9,720,260
2Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York6,115,881
3British Museum, London5,575,946
4Tate Modern, London5,304,710
5National Gallery, London5,163,902
6Vatican Museums, Vatican City5,064,546
7National Palace Museum, Taipei4,360,815
8National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC4,200,000
9Centre Pompidou, Paris3,800,000
10Musée d’Orsay, Paris3,600,000
Source: The Art Newspaper Exhibition & Museum Attendance survey 2012

The idea of museums as brands is not universally popular. “The big museums have become more and more like supermarkets,” says curator David Elliott. “It’s more and more about packaging and branding and less about content and quality.”

In Britain, the introduction of free entry to government-funded UK museums has seen attendances at previously charging museums increase 150 per cent in the past decade; those that were already free, such as the National Gallery and Tate, have seen a 21 per cent rise in visitors.

Thanks to National Lottery funding since 1994, the UK has also experienced what art historian Helen Rees Leahy describes as “the biggest museum-building boom in this country for over 100 years”. Many modern museums are social spaces as much as educational ones – they now have shops, play areas and cafés. A controversial advertising campaign for the Victoria and Albert Museum anticipated the mood: “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached.”

Increasing numbers of visitors have had other consequences. When the term “gallery rage” was coined in response to Tate Modern’s crowded Gauguin show in 2010, museums took heed. The following year the National Gallery limited numbers to its Leonardo da Vinci exhibition but the “rage” only spilled from the gallery on to Trafalgar Square, where people queued for hours – and still those inside complained it was too full.

Museums are not about to limit visitor numbers drastically but some are changing their approach in other ways. Nicholas Serota, Tate’s director since 1988, recently said: “It has ... become apparent that our audiences seek different forms of participation and engagement. They want dialogue and discussion.” Suzanne Lacy’s new “participatory artwork” at Tate this year provoked just that as hundreds of women met there to discuss their experiences of activist protests from the 1950s to the 1980s in a public performance, with their debates carried on via Twitter.

The internet has given museums an unprecedented opportunity to reach new audiences. “Museums were traditionally very good at broadcast mode,” says Rees Leahy, “but you’ve now got to have a dialogue with your audience, it’s a much flatter relationship.”

As public art institutions attract new visitors, they must strike a balance between treating them as an audience and as a community. Fail to adapt to their changing desires and habits, and you risk obsolescence. But lose sight of the fact that you are a place of culture and expertise, and you might as well be an ace caff without the museum attached.

For more on the Art Newspaper survey,

Georgina Adam on the Art Market

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