The most popular exhibition in the world last year was an unprecedented display of ancient Buddhist sculptures at Tokyo National Museum. Gathering 21 works by the 12th-century sculptor Unkei from across Japan, the show brought in over 11,000 visitors every day — far more than the daily attendance of blockbuster exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, from a major gathering of Impressionist paintings to a Yayoi Kusama retrospective.
Analysis by The Art Newspaper spotlights these figures for the publication’s annual survey of global museum attendance trends, the most comprehensive of its kind. It found that many major international institutions attracted record numbers of visitors last year, from the Guggenheim Bilbao to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The latter, just four years old, hosted 2017’s second-most popular exhibition, a display of Russian industrialist Sergei Shchukin’s modern art collection that attracted over 1.2 million people.
In the United Kingdom, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and Tate Britain brought in record attendance. Tate Britain, which mounted a major David Hockney retrospective, saw an impressive 60% increase in visitors. However, TAN found that, across England, the total number of visitors to government-funded museums has declined annually since 2014. One museum that witnessed a major drop in visitors this year was the National Gallery, whose attendance fell by one million.
Still, the Covent Garden institution maintains a spot on TAN‘s list of the top 10 art museums worldwide, coming in sixth behind the British Museum and the Tate Modern. At the very top is the Louvre, which has held that position for a few years despite a dip in attendance in 2016 after the deadly Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015. The museum attracted 8.1 million visitors, just 100,000 more than the runner-up, the National Museum of China in Beijing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art follows in third place, with about 6.7 million visitors (this figure considers the Cloisters but not the Met Breuer).
It was the Museum of Modern Art, though, that hosted New York City’s most-visited ticketed exhibition last year: its Robert Rauschenberg retrospective, which drew 5,500 daily visitors. Impressively, one single-object display at the Guggenheim attracted over half that number, with about 3,000 people waiting to see it every day: Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet. TAN points out, however, that “it is difficult to ascertain how many people visited the work (and how many just needed a comfort break).”
TAN‘s report, which receives data directly from the institutions concerned, also breaks down 2017’s top exhibitions around the world by category, including Asian art, works by Old Masters, contemporary art, and antiquities. It also offers an additional tidbit this year, a comparison of exhibition titles in 1997 and in 2017. Visualized as word clouds, the infographics show that while “Picasso” was one of the most widely included words two decades ago, “calligraphy” is now in frequent use. These results are published online as well as in the 300th issue of the newspaper, a special collectors’s edition, which is out on April 1.