Visitor figures 2016: Christo helps 1.2 million people to walk on water

While the Whitney breaks the hold of New York’s Met and MoMA


Christo’s triumph in Italy, a ravenous appetite for French art abroad and a shake-up in New York are the big stories of The Art Newspaper’s 2016 attendance survey.

Christo’s Floating Piers (2016) on Lake Iseo—the New York-based artist’s first outdoor installation since 2005—was the world’s most-visited work of art last year. Christo erected 3km of fabric-covered pontoons between an island and the shore and invited the public to walk on water. In total, 1.2 million people experienced the site-specific installation over 16 days last summer (an average of around 75,000 a day).

French museums were responsible for many of the more conventional blockbusters last year. They sent shows around the world that enticed huge audiences. An exhibition of Post-Impressionist works from the Musée d’Orsay’s collection, organised in partnership with Spain’s Fundación Mapfre, drew big crowds to Rio de Janeiro’s blockbuster mill, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) (9,700 visitors a day). Another 100 works by Renoir, mostly from the D’Orsay’s collection, attracted around 6,600 visitors each day to the National Art Center in Tokyo. Meanwhile, around 4,100 daily visitors went to see a show of works by Monet drawn from various Paris collections at the Hong Kong Museum of History.

Step aside, MoMA and Met The Whitney Museum of American Art, which moved to its new Renzo Piano-designed home in downtown Manhattan in 2015, has put an end to the city’s traditional duopoly of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Whitney hosted five of the ten most-attended exhibitions in New York in 2016. Its strong programme, prime location and sweeping city views drew crowds to a series of solo shows titled Open Plan on its cavernous fifth floor. The experimental, five-part exhibition turned over the largest column-free museum space in New York to five artists, including Steve McQueen, Lucy Dodd and Michael Heizer, for several weeks at a time. On average, more than 4,000 visitors saw each of the five presentations, roughly equivalent to the number that visited the museum’s Frank Stella retrospective.

Despite the Whitney’s rapid rise, MoMA and the Met continue to lead the league in New York. MoMA remains at the top, thanks to staffers who performed each afternoon over a long weekend last October in a production directed by the French choreographer Jérôme Bel. The event drew an audience of around 6,800 people a day, boosted in part by its central location in the museum’s atrium. Meanwhile, in MoMA’s galleries, a more traditional show, Picasso Sculpture, co-organised with the Musée Picasso in Paris, attracted around 5,900 visitors a day.

The Costume Institute at the Met staged, by its own recent standards, a stripped-back presentation of haute couture meets high-tech with the exhibition Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, which drew around 6,100 visitors a day. (In 2015, around 6,600 visitors a day visited the institute’s theatrical exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass.)

A heavy French accent in London Impressionism remains a reliable crowd-pleaser. An exhibition with a heavy French accent—Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse—was the most-attended paying exhibition in London. It attracted around 5,100 visitors a day to the Royal Academy of Arts, which makes it the UK institution’s fourth most popular show since we began our survey nearly two decades ago. (The art may have mainly come from France, but the show came from the US; it was co-organised by the Cleveland Museum of Art.)

It was a quiet year for other major London institutions. Shows at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the National Gallery did not match figures in previous years, but Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern attracted just short of 3,000 visitors a day.

Female artists draw big crowds Female artists feature prominently in our survey. At the Guggenheim Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois’s Cells attracted around 4,600 visitors a day. The Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who in 2014 proved a phenomenon in South America and Asia, continued to pull in the crowds—this time in Scandinavia. A show that included her psychedelic clothing drew 3,000 visitors a day on average to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. And in Brazil, a show headlined by Frida Kahlo drew twice that daily figure to São Paulo’s Instituto Tomie Ohtake.

Surprisingly, all of these shows were eclipsed by a free exhibition of work by a female contemporary artist from Australia. Patricia Piccinini’s fantastical, mutant human and animal sculptures drew 8,300 visitors a day to the CCBB in Rio de Janeiro, 5,200 to its Brasilia venue and 3,100 to its São Paulo branch. That makes Piccinini the top contemporary artist in this year’s survey.

Paris and Brussels slow as Madrid surges A drop in foreign tourism in Paris after a series of terrorist attacks continues to have an impact on the Louvre’s attendance, but the museum still tops our survey with 7.4 million visitors in 2016 (down from 8.6 million in 2015). It has experienced a decline of nearly two million visitors since 2014, which represents a significant dent in income from ticket sales at a time when security costs have soared. The Musée d’Orsay also experienced a fall, down to three million visitors from 3.4 million in 2015. But the Centre Pompidou, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, is less dependent on visitors from the US, China and elsewhere. Its attendance went up by 275,000, to around 3.3 million visitors.

The terrorist attacks in Brussels last March also seem to have had an effect on the number of visitors to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, which includes several venues such as the Musée Magritte and Musée d’Art Moderne. The Belgian museum saw its attendance drop by more than a third from 776,000 in 2015 to less than 497,000 in 2016.

Madrid’s major museums, on the other hand, saw a surge. Nearly 400,000 more people (3.6 million) visited the Reina Sofía in 2016 than in 2015, while the Prado broke the three million barrier—a feat it had not accomplished since 2012. Nearly 600,0000 people—or one-fifth of its total annual visitors—went to see the Prado’s major Hieronymus Bosch show organised to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Gains and losses in London A slight fall in visitor numbers at the British Museum and an expansion at the Met mean that the London and New York institutions are now at level pegging. The Met does not separate attendance at its three venues: the Fifth Avenue flagship, the Cloisters in upper Manhattan and the Met Breuer, which opened in March 2016. Together, they attracted a record seven million visitors. In London, the single-venue, free-to-visit British Museum drew 6.4 million visitors last year.

London’s National Gallery has bounced back after strikes in 2015 led to the temporary closure of many galleries. Its nearly 6.3 million visitors kept the gallery ahead of the newly expanded Tate Modern, which had a total attendance of 5.9 million—its highest ever. The Tate Modern remains the most popular Modern and contemporary art museum in the world, according to our survey. Attendance at New York’s MoMA dipped slightly, to around 2.8 million from 3.1 million in 2015, which will please those who criticise the museum for being overcrowded.

Lacma grows and grows The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) has seen year-on-year growth in attendance since its director Michael Govan took the helm a decade ago. Last year, it experienced the highest attendance in our survey to date (1.6 million). When Govan arrived, attendance was less than 700,000 a year—roughly equivalent to the attendance at the new Broad museum. The downtown Los Angeles institution, opened by Eli and Edythe Broad in 2015, chalked up an impressive 753,000 visitors in 2016.

But the private museum with the largest attendance is not, in fact, in Los Angeles. It is in a former industrial neighbourhood turned luxury shopping destination in Mexico City. The Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya had 2.2 million visitors pass through its futuristic doors. Next year, another private museum may vie for the title: Bernard Arnault’s Fondation Louis Vuitton. The Paris museum drew 1.2 million visitors to its show of Modern art from the Shchukin Collection, a blockbuster that made it the envy of many larger institutions. That show, which closed in March, will be considered in our 2017 survey.

The National Palace Museum in Taipei, which topped our list of most-attended exhibitions in 2015, was unable to provide individual figures for its exhibitions in 2016. Its total museum attendance for 2016 was around 4.7 million, 600,000 fewer than in 2015.

With additional research by Hannah Newell, Laura Pomari and Jessie Sentivan

Methodology The daily figures are calculated automatically by our database, which computes the number of days for which an exhibition was open using the following formula: total number of days between start date and end date, divided by seven, multiplied by the number of days a week the institution is open, minus exceptional closures.  All of the data used were supplied by the institutions concerned. Some institutions offer a number of exhibitions for a single ticket: these are shown as one entry. Exhibitions that were free to visit—ie neither the museum nor the show had an entry fee—are indicated with an asterisk (*).

• For the full list of exhibition and museum attendance, see our April 2017 issue