Blockbusters aren’t the be-all and end-all

Art exhibitions have been pulling in the crowds for centuries

It is often assumed, and sometimes deplored, that a concentration on visitor numbers is a contemporary phenomenon, as if modern museum managers have invented a fetish around these figures, thereby making it difficult for conservative museum curators to pursue their more specialist interests. Critics lament the vulgarity of democratisation.  

A look at the history of exhibition-going, however, reveals that huge numbers of visitors have been attracted to shows in the past. In 1851, six million people poured into London, helped by the new railway system, to see the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. More than a million bottles of soft drinks were sold, and a million Bath buns. “Art Treasures of the United Kingdom”, held in Old Trafford, Manchester, in 1857, attracted 1.3 million visitors to an exhibition of more than 16,000 works, many by Old Masters. In 1972, almost 1.7 million people visited the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum, with queues stretching around the block every day.  

Enlightenment phenomenon

As Francis Haskell demonstrated in The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition, published in 2000, exhibition-going is a phenomenon of the Enlightenment. The Royal Academy of Arts and other equivalent 18th-century institutions paid close attention, as we do now, to daily visitor figures, and for the same reasons.

The first public exhibition of art in Britain, held in London in the Great Room of the Society of Arts in April 1760, attracted more than 1,000 visitors a day. In 1761, the rival Society of Artists introduced a charge of a shilling for the catalogue of its own public exhibition; in 1762, it decided that all visitors should pay a shilling and receive the catalogue free. Samuel Johnson was asked to write the introduction to the new exhibition catalogue, explaining why the society had decided to impose admission charges.  

When the Royal Academy of Arts—founded in 1768—opened its first annual exhibition in April 1769, it received 14,008 visitors over a period of four-and-a-half weeks. In 1780, the first year in which the exhibition was held in Somerset House, it attracted 61,318 visitors over five weeks, an average of 1,751 a day.

In 1805, the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom opened in Pall Mall and inaugurated a tradition of annual exhibitions of Old Masters drawn from private collections, interspersed with occasional retrospectives of the work of British artists, including an exhibition of the work of Joshua Reynolds, held in 1813.

Once the Royal Academy’s new building in Piccadilly opened in 1868, the number of visitors to the annual exhibition shot up. In 1869, over a period of 13 weeks, it was seen by 314,831 people—nearly 3,500 visitors a day. Exhibitions were regarded as big social events, as captured by William Powell Frith in A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, 1883. That year, there were 361,557 visitors, and these huge crowds kept coming throughout the latter part of the 19th century. It was only with the outbreak of the First World War that the numbers dropped, but there were still well over 100,000 visitors a year until 1939 and the start of another global conflict.

Glorious period

Its grand new galleries in Burlington House in Piccadilly made it possible for the Royal Academy to hold winter exhibitions. Burlington House became the major venue for the display of Old Master works, with the Royal Academy taking over from the British Institution, which closed down in 1867 and was transformed into a gentlemen’s club. Initially, these were somewhat haphazard exhibitions, drawn from the collections of English country houses. A work by Henry Jamyn Brooks in the National Portrait Gallery, Private View of the Old Masters Exhibition, Royal Academy, 1888, 1889, shows a room full of men in top hats. The novelist Henry James noted: “A great multiplicity of exhibitions is, I take it, a growth of our own day—a result of that democratisation of all tastes and fashions which marks our glorious period.”

The fall in visitor numbers after the start of the First World War meant that the Royal Academy could no longer survive financially on the basis of the income from its annual summer exhibitions alone. It developed the genre of large-scale cultural exhibitions, organised by national committees and using outside experts to mount them. The most successful was the great exhibition of Italian art held in 1930, which drew nearly 600,000 visitors. As the artist Gerald Kelly recollected in 1956: “In 1928, Sir William Llewellyn was elected president, and during his ten years of office, the academy held this series of fine shows: the Dutch in 1929; the Italian in 1930; the Persian in 1931; the French in 1932; the British in 1934; the Chinese in 1935-36; and the 17th century in 1938. They were wonderful—great and deserved successes.” 

In the past two decades, our most successful exhibitions have been the two Monet shows held in 1990 and 1999, which attracted 7,003 and 8,597 visitors a day respectively. The Van Gogh exhibition in 2010 drew 4,785 visitors a day; David Hockney in 2012 drew an average of 7,512 a day; and “Manet: Portraying Life” in 2013 drew 4,359 a day.  

What conclusions can one draw from a historical analysis of exhibition numbers? Statistically, exhibitions by the Impressionists have always come top, not just in Britain and the US, but most of all in Japan. The Pre-Raphaelites are also popular, as was evident when we exhibited Waterhouse in 2009, and when Tate Britain showed “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” in 2012. In recent years, we have demonstrated that contemporary artists can be as popular as the Impressionists. The Hockney exhibition was a mass cultural phenomenon, not only in London but also, more surprisingly, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, where the show again got more than 500,000 visitors in a city with a population of only one million.

While we study our visitor numbers, and have to, this does not preclude trying to ensure a varied exhibition programme. We try to develop a portfolio of exhibitions in which the more commercial shows subsidise the loss-leaders. This year, “Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined” drew 167,906 visitors; an average of 2,332 a day. Anselm Kiefer drew 184,910; an average of 2,341 a day. What the bald numbers disguise is that both were particularly successful in drawing new visitors to the Royal Academy.  

Beyond the numbers

“Giovanni Battista Moroni”, which closed in January, was, again, counterintuitive: it attracted good numbers of visitors, particularly Friends, to an exhibition of works by an artist who was much better known in the mid-19th century than today. But of all the exhibitions we have staged in the past year, I am as proud of “Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out” as I am of any of the larger shows. It demonstrated the capacity of our building in Burlington Gardens to attract new audiences to an exhibition that was not purely celebratory, but autobiographical, and the thought that goes into architecture as well as the results.

The key now, as in the past, is to focus on content and programme as well as bald numbers. We need to pay attention to the balance of the programme, its quality, its potential to attract new audiences and the way in which it contributes to the prestige of the organisation as a whole.

Charles Saumarez Smith is the secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

He writes a blog at