Exhibitions Museums Attendance Japan

Attendance survey 2012: Tour de force show puts Tokyo on top

Dominance of Modern and contemporary art shows challenged by Dutch Old Masters as they tour the world, starting in Japan

Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, the pride of the Mauritshuis, surrounded by her admirers in Tokyo. Credit: The Asahi Shimbun, for the Mauritshuis Exhibition in Tokyo and Kobe, Japan

The art of today might overshadow the art of the past in the salerooms and university lecture halls, but in the temporary exhibition galleries of museums worldwide, Old Masters still punch their weight, albeit when they travel a long way from home. Top of our international survey of exhibition attendance during 2012 was a show of Dutch Old Masters that started a world tour in Japan.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum reopened after a refurbishment with paintings lent by the Mauritshuis, which is closed for modernisation until 2014. The main attraction of the Mauritshuis show, which also visited Kobe, was Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, around 1665. The portrait, as well as works by Rembrandt, Hals and Van Dyck from the Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague, attracted 10,573 visitors a day in Tokyo. (The Kobe leg ended in January; the next stop is San Francisco.) Also in Japan’s capital city, 400 year’s-worth of European art lent by St Petersburg’s Hermitage did not disappoint at the box office of the National Art Center (5,362 visitors a day).

To read the full 2012 attendance figures survey in Section 2 of the April edition, which includes exhibition rankings, extra features and analysis, subscribers can log in to our digital edition, or new readers can subscribe now for immediate access.

It was a different story in the leading ­museums of New York, London and Paris, where contemporary and Modern art dominated the city’s top shows. Around 5,700 visitors a day went to see the Cindy Sherman exhibition organised by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In London, David Hockney’s large-scale works on canvas and iPad attracted 7,512 visitors a day to the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) while in Paris Daniel Buren’s installation in the Grand Palais for Monumenta drew 6,498 visitors a day. “Leonardo” at the National Gallery was the highest ranking show to feature pre-20th century art in London’s top ten (3,856 a day). It required the appearance of Saint Anne by Leonardo, billed as his “ultimate masterpiece”, at the Louvre for a show of older art to make the top ten in Paris, and then only just in ninth (3,985 visitors a day).

The appetite of Brazilians for exhibitions is remarkable, as we noted in last year’s survey, especially for the (non-charging) shows organised by the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. The exhibition halls in its Rio de Janeiro space were crowded thanks to an ambitious visual history of the Amazon, its best attended show, at 7,928 visitors a day, followed by the British artist Antony Gormley’s sculpture (6,909 a day). When Impressionist works from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay visited the bank’s cultural centre in São Paulo, they attracted just short of 6,000 visitors a day. The Rio leg of the tour, which ended in January and so will appear in the survey next year, attracted almost 8,000 visitors a day, confirming the Orsay’s faith in Latin America as a lucrative tour destination besides Asia.

The word “masterpiece” appeared in the title of 22 shows in the survey, often followed by “from the”. Besides the Mauritshuis, Orsay and Hermitage, lending institutions that sent shows abroad which attracted big crowds included the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Madrid’s Prado and the Musée National Picasso, Paris. Boston’s Japanese art and the Prado’s Goyas were popular in Tokyo. Picassos from the Musée National Picasso pulled in the crowds (and income for the Paris museum, which is closed for refurbishment) in Toronto and Sydney as they did in 2011 in Seattle, San Francisco and Richmond, Virginia.

As in recent years, the best attended exhibition worldwide does not feature a famous artist’s name or the word “masterpiece” in its title. It does, however, include the much used exhibition noun: “treasure”. In Japan, the spiritual power of artefacts from the Shoso-in temple puts their annual autumn exhibition in a category of its own: 14,240 visitors a day came to venerate as well as admire a selection of temple treasures during a 17-day-long exhibition at the Nara National Museum.

Monographic exhibitions by women artists did well in 2012. At MoMA, besides Cindy Sherman, Sanja Ivekovic’s work caught New Yorkers’ interest (5,045 visitors a day). Francesca Woodman’s photographs at the Guggenheim, New York, attracted almost the same number of visitors a day as John Chamberlain’s sculptures (3,501 for the former and 3,583 for the latter). In Washington, DC, Annie Leibovitz’s photographic “Pilgrimage” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum drew almost as many visitors as Doug Aitken’s “Song 1”, a video installation that used the rotunda of the Hirshhorn as a 360-degree screen (3,367 for the Leibovitz and 3,401 for the Aitken).

The best attended of the numerous ­exhibitions organised in Los Angeles and Southern California as part of the Pacific Standard Time (PST) initiative was “California Design 1930-65” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), attracting 1,724 people a day. Another flagship PST show, “Crosscurrents in LA Painting and Sculpture”, drew 1,340 visitors a day to the Getty Center. But in Los Angeles both were trumped by “Herb Ritts: LA Style” and another photography show running concurrently at the Getty that explored the cult of celebrity, “Portraits of Renown”, which between them attracted around 2,800 visitors a day.

Museum attendance

The ranks and position of the top ten most visited art museums in 2012 showed little change from the year before. However, the Louvre in Paris, which opened a wing of Islamic art, received almost a million more visitors, keeping it at the top of the list, well ahead of its peers.

The opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York of its Islamic Galleries, as well as galleries devoted to American art, helped it increase its visitor numbers (6.1 million visitors up from 6.004 million in 2011, although the 2012 figure includes the Cloisters, which benefited from a show of the Lewis Chessmen).

Tate Modern’s excellent year was all the more impressive as London hosted a competing attraction, the Olympic Games, in 2012. Tate Modern moved up one place to fourth, ahead of the National Gallery, London. Around 5.3m ­visitors headed to the Bankside museum (up from 4.8m in 2011), of which 2,912 people a day came to see the Damien Hirst retrospective and around two million experienced the ­inaugural performances, video and installations in the Tanks.

New museums that recorded impressive visitor figures include the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is free to enter thanks to Walmart’s sponsorship. The $317m campus, designed by the architect Moshe Safdie, is home to a fast-growing collection founded by the Walmart heiress, Alice Walton. Her museum attracted 565,448 visitors in 2012, more than double the number expected.

Another new, private museum, which is also free to enter, proved a popular if not immediate critical success. The Museo Soumaya, which is housed in a shiny tower in a suburb of Mexico City, attracted 833,196 visitors in its inaugural year. The museum was built, and its fast-growing collection formed, by the world’s richest man, the telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim.

Thank you to all the press officers and their colleagues who supplied attendance information for around 1,800 exhibitions and the total annual number of visitors to around 500 institutions, making this survey possible.

Research led by Toby Skeggs and compiled with the assistance of Pac Pobric, Laurie Rojas, Vanessa Saraceno and Victoria Stapley-Brown

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6 Nov 13
15:10 CET


"Tate Modern’s excellent year was all the more impressive as London hosted a competing attraction, the Olympic Games, in 2012." That is a very strange statement to make. I would think that the Olympic Games helped in attracting more visitors to the city and therefore to its musea.

8 Apr 13
15:55 CET


Thank you João for bringing this to our attention. Unfortunately, owing to a technical glitch in our database, the Prado was left off of our list of the top 100 art museums. The Prado had 3.1 million visitors in 2012, which makes it the 13th most visited art museum in our survey. We apologise to the Prado for the error.

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