Museums Attendance United Kingdom

Attendance survey 2011: Brazil’s exhibition boom puts Rio on top

Escher worked his magic in Rio, McQueen reigned supreme in New York, but Tokyo's shows hit by after-effects of earthquake in our annual worldwide survey

The closing night of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which drew an average of 8,000 visitors a day

When we be­gan our annual sur­vey of the best at­tended exhibitions in 1996, to make the top ten a show needed to attract around 3,000 visitors a day. In our survey of 2011 shows, to make the top ten required almost 7,000 visitors a day. Among them was “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”, a posthumous tribute by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. On average, more than 8,000 people a day went (in total around 660,000). The must-see show helped the Met to a record year in our survey, taking its annual total figure to more than six million, up from 5.2 million in 2010.

The increase in the number of people going to see the exhibitions in our surveys over the years has been remarkable. In 1996, around four million people went to the top ten shows. Last year almost six million people went to see the ten best-attended shows (even more if you include our “big ticket” category, see the full pdf).

Rather than a US, European or Japanese institution, a Brazilian one, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil’s (CCBB) Rio de Janeiro space, comes top. The former bank building in the city’s centre hosted no less than three exhibitions that have made the top ten. All were free (indicated by an asterisk in the table), with “The Magical World of Escher” being the most popular (9,700 visitors a day).

Brazil’s appetite for contemporary art is remarkable. The Brazilian mining billionaire Bernardo Paz’s massive art park, Inhotim, in a remote part of southeast Brazil, attracted around 770,000 visitors in total. Laurie Anderson at the CCBB in Rio attracted 6,930 visitors a day, and slightly more enjoyed work by the New York-based artist Mariko Mori (6,990 a day) at the same venue.

The National Folk Museum of Korea deserves a mention. The museum, which provided figures for the first time, organised four shows that attracted more than 9,000 visitors a day. Its popularity is helped by being in the grounds of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, which attracts two million visitors a year, so falls in our “big ticket” group.

The best attended and most crowded show worldwide continues to be the annual autumn exhibition of Shoso-in temple treasures at Japan’s Nara National Museum. A tradition since 1946, this year’s show, which attracted 239,600 people during its 17-day run, included around a dozen artefacts never before displayed in public. More than 14,300 people a day came to venerate and admire the objects, which included one of the original imperial treasures, an eighth-century Chinese sword once owned by Emperor Shomu (701-756), the ruler known for depleting his country’s metal reserves with the commission of a 16m-high bronze Buddha for Nara’s Todai-ji Temple.

Elsewhere in Japan, the earthquake in March took its toll on attendance at, for example, the National Art Center Tokyo. Reduced opening hours meant that “only” around 5,000 visitors a day saw impressionist and post-impressionist paintings from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, whereas in 2010 twice that number went to see post-impressionist paintings from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. (See our April print editition for an analysis of visitor figures for the touring shows.)

Impressionist, modern or Old Master shows used to dominate our annual survey. But, increasingly, contemporary artists figure highly. In 2011, Monet at the Grand Palais, Paris, attracted 913,000 visitors in total, or 7,600 a day. Anish Kapoor’s huge work Leviathan shown in the same space attracted almost that number, with 6,960 visitors a day. Back in 1997, Jasper Johns at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, was the best-attended contemporary art show, attracting 2,700 visitors a day. Ten years ago, Richard Serra, again at MoMA, reached 8,600 visitors a day. In 2011, the best-attended solo artist show was Ai Weiwei’s installation of millions of ceramic seeds in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (another “big ticket” event); the Tate calculates that around 1.2 million visited. There was no charge to see Ai’s epic work, unlike Kapoor’s in Paris.

In the US, the economic downturn in 2008 forced many museum directors to find savings in the exhibition budget. MoMA in 2011, like the Met the year before with its collection-based Picasso show, drew on the strength and depth of its collection to organise its best attended show: “Abstract Expressionist New York”, seen by 1.2 million people (or 5,660 a day). The Seattle Art Museum is the coastal opposite of MoMA when it comes to financial resources. Betting the farm on Picassos from the Musée National Picasso in Paris paid off for the financially stretched Seattle museum. Around 5,500 visitors a day came (406,000 in total), putting it on the top of the tree among US art museums outside New York.

Museum attendance

The number of tourists visiting Paris rose by about 3% according to the Paris Convention and Visitor Bureau, helping the Louvre increase its annual attendance by 400,000 to nearly 8.9 million, maintaining its top position. The Centre Pompidou also saw an increase (from 3.1 million to 3.6 million).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is also riding high, breaking the six million barrier. Free entry to the UK’s national museums helps keep London’s British Museum (5.8m), National Gallery (5.3m) and the Tate Modern (4.8m) in the world’s top ten. Although the Tate Modern had the Ai Weiwei and a popular Gauguin show (charging, 4,000 visitors a day), its overall attendance dipped below five million. MoMA always feels crowded but its total annual attendance was also slightly down on 2010, from 3.1 million to 2.8 million.

In Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, the reunification for the first time in more than 360 years of one of China’s treasures, Huang Gongwang’s 1350 scroll painting Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, helped the Taipei museum to rise to seventh in our survey, attracting 3.8 million visitors.

The Museo del Prado, Madrid, has seen a steady increase in visitor numbers since 2007, which looks set to rise still more now that it is open seven days a week. Around 2.9 million people enjoyed the Spanish national collection, up from 2.7 million in 2010, putting it 11th in our survey. Among its special exhibitions last year were Rubens and Renoir shows, attracting 4,200 and 3,700 visitors a day respectively.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) has also seen a steady year-on-year rise. Helped by high-profile shows in its purpose-built special exhibition space, the Resnick Pavilion, around 1.2 million visitors went to Lacma last year. It is the first time it has broken the one million mark in our survey, and roughly doubles Lacma’s attendance five years ago.

Post expansion, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has seen visitor numbers leap from 911,000 in 2010 to 1.4 million in 2011, a jump in 23 places to 31st in total museum attendance in one year.

We thank all those press officers and their colleagues who supplied statistics for the visitors to around 1,500 exhibitions at around 400 institutions. For the first time they also indicated the shows that were free to visit (ie, neither the museum nor the exhibition had an entry fee).

Figures compiled by Edward Frankel, Giovanna Paternò, Ermanno Rivetti and Toby Skeggs

Crowds gather in Rio de Janeiro to see the works of M.C. Escher
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10 Apr 12
14:35 CET


I was privileged to attend the amazing "India" exhibition at Rio's Banco do Brazil museum. It was rich and very well assembled, truly state-of-the art!

27 Mar 12
21:11 CET


All were free (indicated by an asterisk in the table), with “The Magical World of Escher” being the most popular (9,700 visitors a day). Were is this table? How I find this top 10 list? Thank's

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