Can European Museums Lure Visitors Once Again?

VENICE — A year after the European Union declared the COVID-19 emergency phase over, major European museums are experiencing a surge in visitors as art enthusiasts flock to exhibitions. The just-closed Vermeer exhibition at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum attracted a record-breaking 650,000 visitors, perhaps an accurate gauge of pent-up demand after two years of lockdowns and travel restrictions. But while the show made global headlines, the Rijksmuseum was far from the only European institution to set records for attendance and special exhibitions in recent months.

In 2019, the year preceding the pandemic, the Amsterdam museum welcomed 2.7 million visitors. It fell dramatically to 675,000 in 2020, declining further to 625,000 the following year. In 2022, it rose by more than 180% to 1.7 million — still a million visitors short of its pre-pandemic highs.

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“The Rijksmuseum was well aware of the popularity of Vermeer,” spokesperson Casper van der Kruit told Hyperallergic. “For the Rijksmuseum, it was never about the numbers.” The public was assigned turns with start times to offer them a high-quality experience, and yet Vermeer was still the most visited exhibition in the museum’s history — even leading to a booming resale market for coveted sold-out tickets.

The Louvre Museum in Paris (photo Avedis Hadjian/Hyperallergic)

Across Europe, many large museums hit attendance records in 2019, the year immediately before the pandemic. The Louvre in Paris, the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid attracted unprecedented foot traffic, a phenomenon largely driven by so-called “once-in-a-lifetime” exhibitions — a trend that began well before COVID.

The Louvre, which leads Europe in terms of attendance, drew 7.8 million visitors in 2022, 170% more than in 2021 — yet 19% fewer as compared to 2019. Its most popular exhibition ever, Leonardo da Vinci, also took place right before the long period of lockdowns. By its closing on the evening of Monday, February 24, 2020, Leonardo had attracted some 1,071,840 visitors, breaking a record for the museum previously set by the 540,000 visitors to its Delacroix retrospective in 2018.

The National Gallery in London still has not surpassed its record, set over two decades ago with the exhibition Seeing Salvation (2000), though it came close with its Picasso and Ingres show that closed last fall. Its most visited ticketed exhibition also took place a decade ago: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, which opened in 2011, drew almost 324,000 visitors.

“Our domestic numbers are close to recovery; however, our international numbers are not,” Neil Evans, a spokesperson for the National Gallery, told Hyperallergic. In the 2019–2020 financial year, the museum had 5.4 million visitors, 64% of whom were from overseas and the rest domestic. By the 2022–2023 financial year, which is how the institution measures its data, the numbers had dropped by nearly half, to 2.8 million, and the ratio of domestic to international visitors almost reversed, with 57% of all visitors coming from the UK.

“There are multiple factors that influence visitor numbers, which vary from institution to institution,” Evans said. “However, the National Gallery saw a 274% increase in the 2022 calendar year visitor figures, moving it from the 15th to the sixth most visited UK attraction,” he added, citing the figures of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, made up of museums, parks, and other attractions in the UK. (The list is topped by the Crown Estate, Windsor Great Park; the Tate Gallery was fourth on the list.)

Evans also cites the National Gallery’s “pay what you wish” scheme in place until August 13, which offers tickets for a minimum of £1 (~$1.27) to see After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art on Friday evenings. The modality was initially introduced for the Lucian Freud: New Perspectives show that closed earlier this year.

Installation view of Eleonora di Toledo and the Invention of the Medici Court in Florence at the Pitti Palace, one of the spaces of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (courtesy Gallerie degli Uffizi)

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence saw a record attendance of 4.4 million visitors in 2019. However, during the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 — when Italy was among the nations hardest hit by COVID — numbers plummeted to 1.2 million and 1.7 million, respectively. Nevertheless, in 2022, the museum witnessed a strong resurgence, attracting over 4 million visitors. The Uffizi anticipates breaking the 5 million visitor mark in 2023. Its most popular exhibition to date, The Colors of Judaism in Italy in 2019, drew more than 923,000 visitors.

Like the Louvre and Uffizi, the Reina Sofía in Madrid set a record in the year before the pandemic. In 2019, the museum had 4.4 million visitors; during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, the numbers dropped by almost three quarters and by more than 60%, respectively. But the museum seemed to be getting back on its feet in 2022, reaching 3.1 million visitors. And yet, the museum’s most popular exhibition to date is still Dalí: All of the poetic suggestions and all of the plastic possibilities, in 2013. The retrospective of more than 200 works by the Surrealist painter — including loans from the Salvador Dalí Museum of St. Petersburg, Florida, and 30 paintings never before displayed in Spain — drew more than 732,000 visitors.

Dalí: All of the poetic suggestions and all of the plastic possibilities has been the most successful exhibition to date at the Reina Sofía in Madrid. (photo by Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores, courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía)

The same attendance pattern is observed at the Museumsinsel in Berlin. In 2019, the museum welcomed over 3 million visitors, but the numbers dropped to around 740,000 in 2020 and 832,000 in 2021. Like other institutions, the museum experienced a rebound in 2022, drawing 2.2 million people.

At the Acropolis Museum in Athens, which just celebrated its 14th birthday, 2019 saw a record 1.76 million visitors. The numbers sunk by more than 80% in 2020, and by 2022, the museum was still below its pre-COVID levels, with 1.45 million visitors yet brimming with activity and creative new programs — including the August Full Moon evening, offering stunning views of the Parthenon on a clear night.

In the UK over the last year, Tate’s four galleries in London, Liverpool, and Cornwall (known as Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St Ives) have collectively welcomed over 6.3 million visitors. The four galleries are currently at around 80% of pre-COVID visitor numbers, rising to over 90% on busy days, a Tate spokesperson said. In the decade preceding the pandemic, they welcomed an average of 7.6 million visitors annually. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular ticketed exhibition in the Tate’s history was Matisse: The Cut Outs at Tate Modern in 2014, with over 560,000 visitors. 

A full moon over the Acropolis of Athens, Greece (photo via Getty Images)

Tate is adopting a new philosophy in the post-pandemic era, which somehow echoes the approach at the National Gallery and at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. 

“Instead of going back to business as usual, Tate is developing more environmentally and financially sustainable ways of working — from extending the run of our major shows to showcasing more of our world-class collection — as well as making the most of this opportunity to deepen visitor engagement,” a representative for the museums said.

As for the most popular exhibitions, as the Guardian’s art critic Maev Kennedy wrote back in the day, “People may not know much about art, but they know what they like: old pictures.”

Her observation came just after the 2001 exhibition Seeing Salvation at the National Gallery. “The exhibitions people queued around the block to see were of old masters or of long-dead craftsmen,” Kennedy observed. In the critic’s immortal words, a cheeky rebuke to a certain contemporary artist’s infamous formaldehyde sculpture: “It is enough to make a pickled shark weep.”


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