Monday, April 4, 2011

Visitor numbers as a chart of success

“Attendance at LA Museums lags behind” states a headline last week in the Los Angeles Times. It’s the familiar issue that, like it or not, those visitors coming through the door are the fundamental measure of a museum’s success. In the article Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum in LA bravely states in response to a question about visitor numbers: "We care about it certainly, but it is not at the top of our list of measures of success. When attendance figures are overvalued in museums, it can lead to mediocrity in programming".

Nobody disputes the latter comment - it is just that those that pay the bills, whether they are governments or philanthropic foundations like to see visitor numbers on an upward curve.

Check out the article that prompted all this breast beating at the Art Newspaper
The top ten art museums world wide in 2010 are as follows and there are no surprises here:

8,500,000     Louvre Paris
5,842,138     British Museum London
5,216,988     Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
5,061,172     Tate Modern London
4,954,914     National Gallery London
4,775,114     National Gallery of Art Washington
3,131,238     Museum of Modern Art New York
3,130,000     Centre Pompidou Paris
3,067,909     National Museum of Korea Seoul
2,985,510     Musée d’Orsay Paris

And critical to drawing those crowds are the temporary exhibitions. The article details a most interesting range of statistics drawn from a comprehensive survey of exhibitions around the world listed in order of daily attendance including:
  • The top 30 exhibitions (the top two are both in Tokyo and drew over 10,000 people per day! Not sure what anyone could see at that density)
  • The top ten Decorative Arts, Antiquities, Impressionism, Old Masters, Mediaeval and Thematic exhibitions
  • The top ten 19th Century, Asian, Architecture and Design, and Photography exhibitions
  • The top ten exhibitions in Tokyo, London and Paris
  • Comparisons with previous years
So it looks as though the blockbuster is alive and well and critical to keeping those numbers up. But before we all get too disheartened about this being the only way forward, bear in mind the phenomena of the response to British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s radio program in the UK. Broadcast three times daily on Radio 4, MacGregor gave a series of 15 minute lectures on 100 objects in the BM’s collection. Not only did this result in an extraordinary 20 million downloads from the Museum’s web site, but attendance jumped by 250,000.

What I particularly love about it is the medium MacGregor chose to use. No visuals, just people’s imagination as he described each object and the history behind it. Perhaps that is what largely drew people to explore the Museum’s collections further

Julian Bickersteth

Managing Director

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