Japanese treasures draw astounding crowds in Nara and Tokyo

But other institutions became wary of blockbuster shows

LONDON. For regular readers of The Art Newspaper, it will probably come as no surprise that a Japanese show once again tops our annual survey of most visited exhibitions. The country's massive exhibition halls can accommodate thousands of visitors at a time -- a feat that its western counterparts simply cannot match.

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The Nara National Museum, located 850 kilometres west of Tokyo, not only tops our 13th annual survey with a display of items from Shoso-in, the imperial treasure house of the Todai-ji Temple, but also sets a new record of attendance with a staggering 17,926 visitors per day (as a comparison, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's show, 'Gustave Courbet' drew in 4,741 daily visitors). Over a two-and-a-half week period, the museum offered the public a rare view of objects housed within the imperial repository which is not open to the public. Established in the eighth century, the core of the treasury consists of items once belonging to Emperor Shomu (701-756).

This is the third year that Japan heads our list of most visited exhibitions, with another four of the top ten shows from Japanese institutions. Similar to last year, the country's top museums drew crowds with displays of Asian art or work by Asian artists. The Tokyo National Museum, which has held the top slot since 2004, ranks second with a display of national treasures from the Yakushi-ji Temple which attracted an average daily attendance of an astounding 12,762 people. In third, and one of only three western institutions to break into the top ten, is the Grand Palais Nave in Paris, a 13,500 sq. m exhibition hall which reopened in 2005 after a 12-year renovation. The Nave saw an average of 10,357 people per day for a display of digital art including film, videos and installations staged to mark the end of France's presidency of the European Union.

But apart from the Nave, Paris could not repeat the figures achieved in 2006 when it played host to five of the 20 highest ranking shows. That year, all eyes were on the French capital which mounted blockbuster exhibitions such as 'Klimt, Schiele, Moser and Kokoschka' at the Grand Palais. In 2008 it was the closure of Paris's Musée National Picasso for refurbishment that helped catapult Madrid's Reina Sofia to the top of the ratings (see box p28). A large-scale exhibition of Van Gogh's works at the Albertina resulted in the Viennese museum achieving the country's highest ranking show. Once again the Met and the Museum of Modern Art did well in the US, dominating the New York's top ten with shows including Dalí and Courbet. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also realised high numbers with exhibitions of Lee Miller and Frida Kahlo, drawing in more than 4,000 people daily.

However, blockbusters are clearly not the answer for everybody and certainly not a museum's raison d'être. For some in 2008, a blockbuster proved both a critical and commercial success‹the British Museum's 'Terracotta Warriors' show being a prime example. But others like the Dallas Museum of Art have resorted to offering discounts for its high-profile touring King Tut exhibition in response to the current economic crisis.

Meanwhile, some are following a middle line. Tate Britain had a rare year in 2007 with its hugely successful Holbein and Hogarth shows, each bringing in more than 2,000 people per day. Last year's Millais exhibition achieved respectable visitors figures, yet failed to break a daily attendance of 1,500. Although the museum is mounting fewer blockbusters, visitor numbers are certainly a concern as it recently cancelled its 2010 Johann Zoffany show for fear it would not attracted the desired 80,000 people.

Figures compiled by Richard Hore, Estella G. Shardlow and Alex Stoilas

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