Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Top 10 Art Exhibitions in the UK in 2010

Which were the top ten art exhibitions in the UK in 2010?  If the Art Newspaper’s 17th annual survey of attendance figures (pdf file) and London Top Ten list (see end) is correct then some of the major London Art Galleries and Museums will need to answer some difficult questions from the Arts Council and their exhibition sponsors. 

I started off thinking that the major London galleries and museums were doing rather well. (See Top 30 art galleries and museums in 2010)

I started off thinking that the problem lay in the way the Art Newspaper counts the numbers and assesses which are the top exhibitions.

For example, the process they use is fine (see below), the question lies in whether or not it's the "right" methodology to use to assess the top attendance figures
All figures were calculated automatically by our database, which computes the number of days an exhibition was open using the following formula: total number of days between start date and end date, divided by seven, multiplied by the number of days per week the institution is open, minus exceptional closures.
The thing is for me, the top exhibitions are those that generate the top attendance numbers.  It's really not about how many did they average each day - that's purely a function of how long the exhibition is and that might be a function of how long lenders will allow works to be in another place.

I agree that in terms of cost-effectiveness, the figures might be better judged by visitors per day - but only if we also know something about whether they recovered their costs and that's a difficult issue to factor in.

However the fact is that I managed to establish that there is in fact a broad correlation between the way the Arts Newspaper counts and the way I count (once exhibitions have been allocated to the right year!) - see the listings at the end for an illustration of this.

A major surprise

Studying The figures published in The Art Newspaper meant that I did learn - to my big surprise - that an awful lot of the exhibitions in London put on by major galleries and museums attracted relatively small numbers of visitors (however some were relatively small exhibitions).

I was left with the feeling that I'd rather like to see publicly funded museum websites reporting more transparently on whether or their target attendance figures were met.  It's all important fodder for the funding debate - not least for the sponsors who are becoming increasingly important to the Arts in the UK.

Here are the simple facts which puzzle me:
  • London has 3 of the top 10 Art Museums and Galleries in the world (based on total attendance figures in 2010)
  • London has 6 of the top 30 Art Museums and Galleries in the world - the following figures are where they rank in the world based on the number of visitors they got in 2010
    • 2.   5,842,138 British Museum, London
      4.   5,061,172 Tate Modern, London
      5.   4,954,914 National Gallery, London
      12. 2,269,900 Victoria and Albert Museum, London
      18. 1,819,442 National Portrait Gallery, London
      19. 1,665,291 Tate Britain, London
      30. 1,271,174 Saatchi Gallery, London
    • None of the top 3 art galleries and museums in London (and the world) have ANY of their MAJOR exhibitions listed in top 50 exhibitions.  So what does that mean for their choice of exhibitions and future sponsorship?
    • One UK exhibition appears in the top 30 exhibitions in the world ( at #30) and that's an exhibition in a gallery which is NOT in one of those top 6 galleries/museums in London (Royal Academy of Arts | The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and His Letters)
    • Of the major publicly funded galleries only the National Portrait Gallery manages to combine performance on its permanent collection (#18 in the world) with the delivery of two of the top 10 exhibitions in the UK
  • From a technical perspective, there are some anomalies. 
    • The treatment of exhibitions across years is inconsistent. For example exhibitions listed as "top exhibitions" in 2010 included
      • one which was only open for 17 days during 2010! (eg Abstract America: Painting and Sculptures 29th May 2009 - 17th Jan 2010 at the Saatchi Gallery The figures quoted relate to 2009)
      • while Gauguin 30 September 2010 – 16 January 2011 is not listed at all
      • an exhibition which spanned 2009 and 2010 more or less evenly is included ie the 2009 exhibition of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 5 November - 14 February 2010
    • The omission of the Gauguin - without comment - is absolutely astounding given what I understand to be the popularity of that exhibition. Does nobody ever ask questions about what's missing or which year an exhibition really belongs in?
Also, I don't have a problem with statements like this as such
Van Gogh’s paintings and letters at london’s royal Academy of Arts returned the institution to the top of that city’s exhibition attendance league.
I know that the RA's figures are very reliable as they always count visitors into all their exhibitions even if, like me, you are a Friend of the RA.   However as a statement it might be more balanced if there were some modicum of recognition of the fact that total attendance at the other FREE galleries and museums was way in excess of anything the RA ever achieves!  In other words permanent collections are also exhibitions!

Or to put it another way round it would be nice to see more comment on how the permanent collections fared or how museums and art galleries performed in terms of all their round performance.

The top ten art exhibitions in the UK in 2010

Van Gogh Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2010
The Art Newspaper:  Top Ten London Exhibitions

These are, according to the Art Newspaper's methodology, the top 10 exhibitions in the UK in 2010.  See what you think - are you surprised by what's included and what's not included?  (Below I provide an alternative perspective based in actual attendance figures.)
  1. Royal Academy of Arts | The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and His Letters (411,475 visitors / average of 4,785 per day )
  2. Saatchi Gallery | Newspeak: British Art Now Part One 30th May - 17th Oct 2010 (557,192 visitors / average of 4,097 visitors per day)
  3. Saatchi Gallery | Abstract America: Painting and Sculptures 29th May 2009 - 17th Jan 2010 (837,200 visitors / average of 4,006 visitors per day) (I'd call this an exhibition which very much belonged in 2009!)
  4. Saatchi Gallery | The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today 29th January - 8th May 2010 (407,796 visitors / average of 3998 visitors per day)
  5. National Portrait Gallery | BP Portrait Award (280,673 visitors / average of 3,189 visitors per day)
  6. Serpentine Gallery | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion: Jean Nouvel (294,910 visitors / average of  2,979 visitors per day)
  7. National Portrait Gallery | Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait 2009 (248,083 visitors / average of 2,506 visitors per day)
  8. National Gallery | Kienholz: the Hoerengracht (223,183 visitors / average of 2,400 visitors per day)
  9. Serpentine Gallery | Wolfgang Tillmans (202,133 visitors / average of 2,297 visitors per day)
  10. Royal Academy of Arts | Summer Exhibition 2010 (156,499 visitors / average of 2,236 visitors per day)

The Top 10 Exhibitions in London by total attendance

Here's my alternative perspective (which excludes any exhibitions which were predominantly in 2009).  This indicates the Saatchi Gallery as actually being the top gallery for temporary exhibitions rather than the RA which is highlighted in the Arts Newspaper article.
  1. 557,192 visitors Saatchi Gallery | Newspeak: British Art Now Part One 30th May - 17th Oct 2010 
  2. 411,475 visitors Royal Academy of Arts | The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and His Letters 23 January -18 April 2010
  3. 407,796 visitors Saatchi Gallery | The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today 29th January - 8th May 2010 
  4. 294,910 visitors  Serpentine Gallery | Serpentine Gallery Pavilion: Jean Nouvel 10 July- 17 October
  5. 280,673 visitors  National Portrait Gallery | BP Portrait Award 2010 24 June – 19 September 2010
  6. 248,083 visitors  National Portrait Gallery | Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait 2009 5 November - 14 February 2010
  7. 228,497 visitors  British Museum | The Printed Image in China 6 May - 5 September 2010
  8. 223,183 visitors  National Gallery | Kienholz: the Hoerengracht  18 November 2009 – 21 February 2010  this one squeaks in with marginally more of the exhibition in 2010!
  9. 221,146 visitors Tate Britain | Turner and the Masters 23 September 2009 – 31 January 2010 
  10. 202,133 visitors  Serpentine Gallery | Wolfgang Tillmans 26 June - 19 September 2010
By way of comparison, in 2009, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the RA and the Saatchi Gallery each had two exhibitions and Tate Modern had one exhibition in the top ten in London/UK. 

If contemporary art is the main focus of popular temporary exhibitions in 2010 I am left wondering what's happened to all the major exhibitions at Tate Modern.  Also why the Serpentine Gallery is knocking major publicly funded museums out of the top ten list.

What the Art Newspaper survey does indicate - whichever way you work the numbers - is that the three galleries to go to for TEMPORARY exhibitions of contemporary art are the Saatchi Gallery, the Serpentine Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery!

Which means that I am now more than persuaded that the time is also ripe for a rethink about the exhibitions policy of the UK's top national museums and art galleries - particularly in the light of the cuts in funding the arts in the UK and the increasing importance of sponsorship from corporate and private sources.

PS  I'm also still of the opinion that there needs to be a rethink about how this data is presented!  Can we have an interactive approach next year with a database (like the Guardian does) that we can have access to and rework the numbers please?

Three Questions for you
  • Are you surprised by the UK exhibitions which got the top spots?
  • Why do you think some of the major UK museums fail to deliver top exhibitions?
  • Is there anything else about the Art Newspaper exhibition listing (pdf file) which surprises you?

Note:  The Art Newspaper's article also provides top ten rankings for different types of exhibitions around the world.


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