A dash of fashion and a pinch of gratis: the perfect recipe for a sell-out show

From creating “experiences” to being fashion-friendly, museums are getting savvy at driving visitors to their exhibitions. Here are some tricks of the trade

Get out the glad rags: V&A’s Dior show draws fashionistas and couldn’t-care-lessers alike Adrien Dirand

Get out the glad rags: V&A’s Dior show draws fashionistas and couldn’t-care-lessers alike Adrien Dirand

Call it an “experience”

Like it or not, immersive experiences are moving into territory traditionally reserved for conventional exhibitions. And moreover, the art-loving public cannot seem to get enough of them, with people queuing for hours to experience (and take those all-important Instagram photographs of) multi-sensory exhibits such as Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Room or David Bowie Is... If you want people to come, try calling it an experience.

Namedrop like it’s hot

A sure-fire way to entice the public to see a show is to include blockbuster-friendly words such as “treasures”, “masters” or “Impressionist” in the title. Case in point is Impressionists in London, which opened at Tate Britain in 2017. Although the show was panned by critics, it was the UK institution’s most popular fee-charging show in this year’s survey, with 1,041 visitors a day. Namedropping art-history heavyweights in the show’s title, such as Leonardo, Michelangelo (or any of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), also helps to lure visitors.

Be a dedicated follower of fashion

If you think you are not a slave to fashion, think again. You may not be able to tell the difference between tulle and taffeta, but the overwhelming success of the Met’s Heavenly Bodies exhibition in New York shows that the general public’s appetite for fashion-focused exhibitions is stronger than ever. Even those of us who happily spend most of our time in jeans and trainers cannot resist the chance to see how the other half lives.

Exit through the gift shop

Do not underestimate the pulling power of a well-stocked gift shop offering a veritable smorgasbord of goods—from catalogues and cross-stitch kits to branded pencils and tote bags. A dose of retail therapy is often a just reward for spending two hours jostling for position in front of works of art. Am I happy to pay £7.50 for a tiny box of merlot-flavoured gummy treats with no obvious connection to the exhibition I just visited? Sadly, the answer is often yes.

The best things in life are free

Although taking in a free show at a museum is rarely free when you tot up obligatory stops at the café and gift shop, our visitor survey has shown that the public loves the idea of a bargain. Exhibitions at all four branches of Brazil’s Centro Banco do Brazil, which does not charge entry to its shows, regularly appear in our top 20, and in our 2017 survey we noted that a free show on plywood (yes, plywood) at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) was seen by 2,324 visitors a day—more than the same institution’s fee-charging Pink Floyd show.

  • For The Art Newspaper's full Art's Most Popular visitor figures survey, see our April issue. To read a selection online, see