Museums Attendance United Kingdom

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What happened when 200 paintings from Paris, and “The Cult of Beauty” from London, went on tour

You might expect the same exhibition to do equally well in cities with similar metropolitan populations, such as London, Paris or New York. But it is not quite so simple. Paris, however, usually outperforms London when it comes to big, high-profile exhibitions. A case in point is a show on the aesthetic movement that opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and then travelled to the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, where it attracted three times as many visitors (see box). Queuing outside the Musée d’Orsay, Pompidou Centre, Louvre and Grand Palais is almost the norm, whereas it is less common in London (although the past few months have been exceptional, with Leonardo at the National Gallery and David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts pulling in the crowds). Paris is closer to New York than London when it comes to exhibition attendance. For example, the best-attended charging show in London in 2011, “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” at the Tate Modern, attracted almost 4,000 visitors a day. In New York to make the top ten a show needs at least that number of daily visitors. Kathleen Soriano, the exhibitions director at the Royal Academy (RA), London, says: “My impression is that Parisians have more of a culture of exhibition-going than Londoners… They seem more tuned-in to what’s on and like to take in the shows.” The staff of institutions are often fearful that big shows at a rival venue across town will take away their trade, but that does not seem to happen in Paris. The Parisian experience suggests that if people enjoy exhibitions, they go more often. The Monet retrospective at the Grand Palais (22 September 2010-24 January 2011) confirmed Soriano’s view, attracting 913,000 people (7,600 a day). In the past five years the best attended charging show in London has attracted “just” 4,800 visitors a day. This was “The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and his Letters” at the RA in 2010. London’s most famous blockbuster, “The Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the British Museum in 1972, attracted 1.7 million visitors (or 6,300 a day). Figures for the Musée d’Orsay’s two travelling shows during 2010 and 2011 reveal a lot about blockbusters in different cities. The 200 paintings, worth more than €2 billion, went around the world while the museum’s galleries were being refurbished. The figures remain confidential, but the tour may have helped raise half of the €20m cost of the refurbishment. Canberra was the first venue for the Orsay’s post-impressionist works in 2010. At the National Gallery of Australia, the show attracted 476,000 visitors (around 3,500 a day), the most successful ever in the country. The city has a population of only 350,000, so the number of residents does not always determine how well a show does (but as the capital, Canberra gets plenty of visitors). Next stop was Tokyo, where 778,000 people (around 11,000 a day) went to see the show at the National Art Center, a reflection of Japan’s seemingly insatiable appetite for late 19th-century French art, as well as a great enthusiasm for exhibition-going (five of the top 30 shows in 2010 were in Tokyo, a figure matched in 2011, although it was knocked off the top spot by Rio de Janeiro). The final venue was the De Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where the show attracted 458,000 visitors (around 4,600 a day). This makes a total of 1.7 million visitors, a huge number in a year. However, to put this in context, more people would have seen the paintings if they had remained on display at the Musée d’Orsay, even if many of the visitors would not have lingered as long in front of them. (Last year the museum had 3.2 million visitors, and perhaps three-quarters would have at least briefly visited the post-impressionist galleries.) The Orsay’s second touring show, of impressionist paintings, also went to the De Young Museum in San Francisco, where it received 432,000 visitors or 4,600 a day, almost exactly the same as the post-impressionists. At Madrid’s Fundación Mapfre, the figure was 327,000, or 3,300 a day. Admission there was free, which is unusual for a major loan exhibition. The show finished at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, where it was seen by 125,000 (1,300 a day). This figure reflects Nashville’s lower metropolitan population (1.6 million). Ticket prices for the Orsay’s touring shows varied considerably, although this did little to explain the different visitor numbers. Standard adult tickets were: in Canberra, A$25 ($27); in Tokyo, ¥1,500 ($19); in San Francisco, $25; and at the Frist, Nashville, $10. How well a show performs tends to be related to the population of the city and its hinterland, although as the Canberra example shows, this is not always decisive. The size of the venue is another factor. “Cézanne’s Card Players” attracted 215,000 (2,800 a day) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but around 67,000 (800 a day) at the Courtauld Gallery in London. This mainly reflects the fact that the Met had 6 million visitors in 2011, whereas the smaller Courtauld had 219,000. Other factors influencing attendance include the location of the venue within its city, the attractiveness of the displays, the ticket price, marketing and press coverage. A dominant factor tends to be the degree of interest in the subject matter, an issue familiar to exhibition organisers, but which may throw up some surprises. In the Netherlands, Van Gogh is often dismissed as being an artist for tourists. However, in Japan, he is the most popular western painter. Around 595,000 people (8,400 a day) queued to see “Van Gogh: the Adventure of Becoming an Artist” at the National Art Center in Tokyo in 2010, for example. Similarly, the conventional wisdom is that the French are uninterested in impressionism and post-impressionism (many of the leading scholars are not French, for example). However, this view has recently been challenged by Guy Cogeval, the director of the Orsay. The success of Manet at the Musée d’Orsay, which attracted 470,000 visitors in total or 5,300 a day, and Monet at the Grand Palais, suggests that the French have re-embraced these artists. With the globalisation of the art world tastes are becoming increasingly international. The downside is that the same artists are being constantly requested by borrowers—Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso—plus the big names of contemporary art. Yet despite the competition for loans, travelling shows look set to continue to hit the road. Total visitor figures are rounded to nearest thousand. Ticket prices are the standard adult charge. “The Cult of Beauty” meets the cult of Oscar Wilde “The Cult of Beauty” received 138,000 visitors (1,300 a day) in London, but 423,000 (4,200 a day) in Paris, more than three times the number. In February it opened in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor. The California museum estimates that around 200,000 people will see it during its four-month run. With a few additions and subtractions, there are essentially the same objects at each venue, including Frederic Leighton’s Pavonia, 1858-59 (left), so why the difference? The show opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) from 2 April to 17 July 2011, where it was titled “The Cult of Beauty: the Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900”. After being well received by critics, it turned out to be the museum’s most successful show of the year. The target was 110,000 visitors, and it ended up with 138,000, a good result for London. Admission to the V&A’s permanent collection is free, but the exhibition had a £12 charge, a sum that discourages those with a casual interest. The show then moved on to the Musée d’Orsay (13 September 2011-15 January 2012), where it was presented under a more sensationalist title: “Beauté, morale et volupté dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde” (Beauty, morals and voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde), playing on the French fascination with the poet-playwright, who died in exile in Paris. The display was imaginatively presented, and looked in a space of similar size perhaps even a little better than the version in London. The Orsay show ran for 100 days, compared with 107 at the V&A. The museums have similar visitor numbers for their permanent collection. The V&A had 2.8 million last year and the Musée d’Orsay 3.2 million. The two cities have similar populations for their ­metropolitan areas, with around 13 million for London and 12 million for Paris. So how did an exhibition on a slightly esoteric aspect of late 19th-century British art do so much better in France? Part of the answer is that admission to the show in Paris was included in the Orsay’s admission charge. Entrance to the museum cost €8 (rising to €9 on 1 January). Normally the Orsay charges an extra €3 on top of the general ticket for major exhibitions, but this was dropped as a concession, because the impressionist galleries on the upper floor were still closed for refurbishment (they reopened on 27 October). The arrangement pushed up visitor numbers for the shows in two ways: there was no additional charge and the reopening of the upper galleries attracted extra visitors six weeks after the show opened. Even taking into account the fact that it was cheaper to see the exhibition at the Orsay, the substantial difference does suggest that Parisians are keener exhibition-goers than Londoners. It will now be interesting to see how the show performs at its final venue, the Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (until 17 June). There it is being marketed as “The Cult of Beauty: the Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900”. San Francisco’s metropolitan population, around eight million, is smaller than that of London and Paris, although there are fewer

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