Visitor figures 2014: the world goes dotty over Yayoi Kusama

Taiwan’s National Palace Museum clinches top spot in our attendance survey, but Japanese artist’s retrospectives are a phenomenon in South America and Asia


Jeff Koons provided the Whitney Museum of American Art with a memorable bon voyage before the New York museum left the Breuer building for its shiny new home downtown. But when it comes to global exhibition attendance, last year belongs to Yayoi Kusama. The 86-year-old Japanese artist’s retrospective “Infinite Obsession” has been seen by more than two million people in South and Central America. Starting in Buenos Aires in 2013, her polka-dot and mirror installations drew huge crowds last year in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasilia, and visitors camped outside Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo, where the show ended in January after a marathon final weekend. It will, therefore, feature in next year’s survey, as will the show’s last leg in Santiago, Chile (until 7 June). A second Kusama retrospective has been touring Asia since 2013; launched in South Korea, it is now on show in Taiwan and is due to travel to New Delhi. Koons may be triumphant in Paris, where his survey closes at the Centre Pompidou on 27 April, but with the Americas and Asia covered (after big shows at the Whitney, the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern), Kusama is the poster girl for the globalisation of contemporary art.

Taiwan on top—again

The National Palace Museum in Taipei organised the top three best-attended exhibitions in 2014. More than 12,000 visitors a day saw paintings and calligraphic works by Tang Yin (1470-1524); the show was the third in a quartet of collection-based exhibitions devoted to great artists of the Ming dynasty. A similar number of people visited a show about the Qing Dynasty emperor Gaozong (1736-95), which included 45 loans from the Palace Museum, Beijing. Half of the Taipei museum’s visitors are from the mainland; one-third are locals. Visitors to Taipei also flocked to see the accompanying show “Qianlong C.H.A.O.”, in which the popular image of the great emperor was reinterpreted by contemporary artists.

End of the Brazilian boom?

The Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) continues to stage the best-attended non-charging shows: “Salvador Dalí” in its Rio de Janeiro branch took top spot, with 9,782 visitors a day. Loans came from the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation in Spain, as well as from the Dalí Museum in Florida. (In 2012, a different Dalí show was a hit in Paris’s Centre Pompidou and Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.) The Kusama retrospective packed the former bank’s halls in the Brazilian city, as well as the Instituto Tomie Ohtake in São Paulo, but a contemporary Brazilian artist, Milton Machado, attracted a fraction more people a day in Rio’s CCBB than the Japanese artist. It is unclear whether big-budget, non-charging shows are sustainable. With corporate sponsorship sharply declining as a result of Brazil’s weakening economy, 2014 may mark the end of the country’s exhibition attendance boom. That said, a big show of Spanish Modern art led by Picasso opened in São Paulo’s CCBB last month.

Mighty MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York can look back on 2014 with pride in terms of its programming (although, after its much-criticised Bjork show, 2015 may be different). Last year, it presented eight out of the top ten shows in the city. In 2013, it had “only” five in the top ten. Looking at a larger number of exhibitions, MoMA’s pre-eminence is underlined by the fact that it staged 21 of the 30 most-visited shows in New York last year. At the top of the list is “Magritte: the Mystery of the Ordinary”, which was seen by around 6,100 visitors a day. For all the hoopla surrounding the Koons retrospective at the Whitney, the exhibition was only the tenth most visited show in the city (3,869 visitors a day)—four visitors a day ahead of “Italian Futurism” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, but attracting fewer than Lygia Clark at MoMA (3,960). The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s revamped and expanded costume galleries, relaunched with a Charles James fashion show (and the blessing of the First Lady, Michelle Obama, who cut the ribbon), provided the museum’s only show in the top ten in the city; in 2013, it had three.

Van Gogh a safe bet

Works that had travelled abroad on a lucrative tour returned to Paris for the Musée Picasso’s belated but triumphant reopening at the end of 2014, which might explain the conspicuous absence of the Spanish artist’s name from the top 15 shows in the US, Europe and beyond last year. Georges Braque, a co-pioneer of Cubism, was the toast of the Grand Palais in Paris (4,856 visitors a day).

Van Gogh can always be relied on at the box office. The most visited show in Paris, which also features in the top 15 worldwide, was organised by the Musée d’Orsay. “Van Gogh/Artaud”, which featured the museum’s most famous and lesser-known works, was presented dramatically (a soundtrack included shrieks). The artist’s troubled life and works were interpreted through the writings of the poet and playwright Antonin Artaud. The artist and writer both spent time in asylums.

Imps and Mods

An institution seeking a surfeit of visitors cannot go wrong with French Impressionism. A loan show of 84 works from the Musée d’Orsay drew admiring crowds to the National Art Center Tokyo (7,547 visitors a day), putting it in the top 15 shows worldwide. Henri Matisse flew the flag for French Modern art: a show of his cut-outs opened at Tate Modern and provided the gallery with London’s best-attended charging exhibition, and with a record 562,622 visitors overall, helped by a nearly five-month-long run. The show was co-organised by MoMA, where it closed in February. The figures for the New York leg will appear in our 2015 survey.

London dominates

For all the investment in new cultural venues and the revamping of older art museums in regional cities in the UK, there has been no change in the dominance of London-based venues. The only exhibition outside London to feature in the top 30 shows in the UK is “Mondrian and Colour” at the four-year-old Turner Contemporary in Margate. Featuring loans from the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, among others, it coincided with Tate Liverpool’s “Mondrian and His Studio”. But although 1,471 visitors a day went to see Mondrian in Margate, only 306 people a day went in Liverpool.

Museums in the top ten

At the start of 2014, Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, announced a 48-hour visa for Chinese visitors to France. It is too early to tell what the impact will be in terms of attendance at Paris’s museums. But, mindful of the Louvre’s crowded entrance, Jean-Luc Martinez, its new director, made revamping the space beneath the pyramid one of his top priorities. Just as well, as the Louvre remains the most visited museum since we added total attendance figures seven years ago. It drew 9,260,000 visitors in 2014, around half a million fewer than in 2012, but the museum believes that attendance could grow to 12 million by 2025. In the near future, the city’s major museums could open seven days a week, something mooted last year by the then culture minister Aurélie Filippetti.

Will more tourists be tempted to visit the Louvre Lens? Despite its high-profile and well-attended exhibition about the Etruscans, the satellite museum in northern France saw its visitor figures fall from 825,000 in 2013—its inaugural year—to 530,000 in 2014. One satellite shone as brightly as its mothership: the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao’s annual attendance nearly matched the Guggenheim in New York, with both welcoming more than one million visitors.

In London, the British Museum saw a slight dip in visitor numbers (down to 6,695,000 from 6,701,036 in 2013), despite the opening of a new wing including space for blockbuster exhibitions. Roughly the same number of visitors a day went to see the inaugural show, “Vikings: Life and Legend” (2,645), as did the Royal Academy of Arts’ “Summer Exhibition” (2,385). The annual show achieved its highest daily attendance since our survey began in 1996. But the non-charging British Museum remains ahead of its New York peer, the Met (where a donation is requested at the door), which also saw attendance dip fractionally in 2014 (down to 6,162,000 from 6,227,000 in 2013).

The National Gallery in London had a good year, moving ahead of the much larger Met. Around 6.4 million visitors went to see the collection of Old and Modern Masters in London. “Veronese” proved its busiest charging show, with 1,135 visitors a day, and “Late Rembrandt”, which opened in October, gave the gallery a year-end boost.

The National Museum of Korea in Seoul made the world’s top ten, thanks to a 500,000 increase in its annual attendance to 3,537,000. Attendance at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has steadily risen since it reopened in 2013. Last year, 2,450,000 people visited (one million used to go before the revamp), among them the US president, Barack Obama, who spent quality time with the Rembrandts.

Too many visitors means that the Palace Museum in Beijing has capped its daily attendance at 80,000 people a day—currently, more than 100,000 arrive. This meant that the museum had more than 15 million visitors last year, up from 14.6 million in 2013. But, as in previous surveys, we have treated it as a special case. Situated in the Forbidden City, it is part of a larger visitor destination and so it is difficult to compare it with a standalone institution. The Nara National Museum’s annual temple treasure shows are another category of their own. Last year, the 66th annual exhibition of Shoso-in treasures in the Japanese museum was seen by 13,966 visitors a day.

Research led by José da Silva and compiled with the assistance of Amy Page, Stephanie Souroujon, Victoria Stapley-Brown and Vanessa Thill

For our complete 2014 Visitors Figures survey see the April issue of The Art Newspaper, which is on sale now, or download the app from the App Store and Google Play