The 100 most popular art museums in the world—blockbusters, bots and bounce-backs

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Every year since the Covid-19 pandemic forced art museums around the world to shut their doors, we have been asking the question: when will visitor numbers get back to where they were before? Or has the jolt of the lockdowns changed how museums operate and who comes to them?

This year we can finally answer: things are back to normal. Mostly.
Our exclusive survey reveals that in 2023 many of the world’s largest museums recorded very similar numbers to those of 2019, the last full year before the Covid lockdowns began.

The top 100 museums received 175 million visitors in 2023, up on the preceding year’s 141 million

Some museums have hit the target almost exactly, suggesting that they have a natural capacity that they are once again bumping up against. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, recorded 2.7 million visitors in 2019 and the same in 2023, helped by the vast crowds who came to see its Vermeer blockbuster. The Getty Villa in Los Angeles (442,000 vs 443,000) and the National Museum of Scotland (2.2 million vs 2.2 million) also in effect recorded the same figures
as before.

A host of other museums were in the “back-to-normal” club—with 2023 totals within 10% either way of their 2019 figure. These include the Vatican Museums (-2%), The Broad in Los Angeles (-2%), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (-3%), the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid (-5%), the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (-6%), the British Museum in London (-7%) and the Musée du Louvre in Paris (-8%).

Some museums benefited from new spaces such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, which opened a new extension in 2022. It received 1.9 million visits in 2023, up 51% from 2019. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2017, perhaps never got a chance to reach its full potential before Covid: it got 1.2 million visitors, up 28%.

In total, the top 100 museums in our chart received 175 million visitors in 2023, up on the preceding year’s 141 million, but still shy of the 230 million visitors recorded in 2019.

Stragglers and strugglers

However, the picture is not rosy everywhere. A group of museums still seem to be unable to attract as many visitors as they once did. In some cases the explanation is fairly obvious.

In Moscow, the Kremlin Museums were down 67% from 2019 and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art was down 65%—clearly impacted by Russia’s war against Ukraine and the collapse in foreign tourism to the country.

On average the top ten museums in the UK are down by 13% compared with 2019

But other strugglers are harder to understand. We found last year that UK museums seemed to be down on their luck, and the picture is still bleak for many. Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool were both still down 40%, although the former was partly closed for a rehang and the latter closed from October; Kettle’s Yard, near Cambridge, was 47% down, while V&A Dundee is 45% down (perhaps a consequence of reducing its exhibition programme to one show a year).

On average the top ten museums in the UK are down by 13% compared with 2019. Last year, some London museums pointed to a lack of tourists to explain their falls: however, figures from Visit Britain for the first nine months of 2023 showed international tourism was down just 7% on 2019.

The National Gallery in London had 3.1 million visitors in 2023, which was 2.9 million fewer than in 2019 © National Gallery, London

And, like in last year’s survey, we found that the National Gallery in London is the museum with the most missing visitors compared with 2019. Although some other institutions had bigger percentage falls, the National Gallery received 2.9 million fewer visitors in 2023 than in 2019, a fall of 48% from six million to 3.1 million. While the gallery last year blamed London’s sluggish post-Brexit tourism, the National Gallery performed a lot worse than comparable venues such as the British Museum (-7%), Tate Modern (-22%) and the V&A (-21%).

Weighing on its already weak numbers from 2022 was the closure of the gallery’s Sainsbury Wing (in stages from August 2022) for renovation, and the consequent hoardings and fencing that now surround the building’s Trafalgar Square frontage. The museum has also had to increase security arrangements after several attacks on paintings by climate protesters.

A spokesperson says: “Our planning for this period acknowledged what would inevitably be a smaller capacity for the gallery, which is why our efforts have been focused on reaching beyond the gallery walls with the international and national touring programmes, and ensuring as many people can access and enjoy the collection and its stories digitally.” With a full reopening due in 2025, the museum will be hoping to rebuild some momentum and start to bring people back, especially off the back of this year’s 200th anniversary celebrations.

Perhaps all the National Gallery’s visitors have gone to its neighbour instead. The nearby National Portrait Gallery skipped the Covid climb back; it had already planned to shut for a comprehensive renovation in 2020, so opted not to reopen after the first UK lockdown. The new Tracey Emin-designed doors were flung open in June 2023 and 1.2 million people visited in the final six months of the year. This is a 31% increase on the same period in 2019, and in the opening month the museum received a record 263,000 visitors. Another successful reopening in London was Young V&A, formerly the Museum of Childhood. Between July and the end of the year, it received 405,000 visitors, with hour-long queues forming during school holidays. This is more than double the number for the same period in 2019.

Met back on top

In our report last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was toppled from its customary place as the US’s most-visited museum by the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC. In 2023 normality was restored as visitors to the Met surged 67% to 5.4 million, outpacing the NGA’s 3.8 million. The Met actually received 10% more visitors than it did in 2019, after revising its previous figure down due to a change in counting methodology.

Elsewhere in New York, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had more than 2.8 million visitors, 2% up on 2018, which was its last full year of opening before the pandemic. (In 2019 the museum closed for half the year for a major refurbishment.) The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum had 861,000 visitors; it now receives fewer visitors each year than its sister museum in Bilbao (1.3 million) but still more than the considerably smaller Peggy Guggenheim in Venice (379,000). The fourth of the big New York museums, the Whitney Museum of American Art, had 768,000 visitors, down 26% on 2019.

Fondation Louis Vuitton saw its figures soar to almost 1.6 million, more than its previous record in 2017

Los Angeles is cementing its place as one of the main US art museum hotspots. The Getty Center and the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens both received more than a million visitors, while the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Broad were close behind on 902,000 and 896,000 visitors respectively. The latter held its most successful ticketed exhibition ever, a survey of Keith Haring, which welcomed 171,000 people.

As in the UK, there is a lot of variability in the performance of US museums, without a clear pattern. Some had their best years ever: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art recorded 785,000 visitors, many more than the 60,000 resident population of its hometown, Bentonville, Arkansas. It was helped by big shows of Annie Leibowitz and Diego Rivera. The museum, which was founded by the Walmart heir Alice Walton in 2011, offers free entry, which is uncommon in the US. Across the Pacific Ocean, the Honolulu Museum of Art beat its 2019 figure handily with 93,000 visitors, up from 55,000. Despite these success stories, the top ten US museums in 2023 were still on average 9% down on 2019.

The Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence had a record attendance with two million visitors Photo: Luigi Spina; Courtesy of Galleria dell’Accademia

Springtime for Europe

Although the Musée du Louvre tops our chart once again, there were mixed fortunes for its fellow Parisian museums. The Fondation Louis Vuitton saw its figures soar to almost 1.6 million in 2023, usurping the heady heights of its previous record year in 2017 when it had 1.4 million visitors, which was then thanks to an exhibition of Modern masterpieces from the Shchukin Collection. In 2023 it was a show of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat that pulled in the crowds (662,000 visitors). The Musée d’Orsay also did well with 3.9 million visitors, up by 6% compared with 2019. But over in the Beaubourg district, the Centre Pompidou’s figures were 13% down on the previous year, with 2.6 million compared with 3 million in 2022, and 20% down on its pre-Covid numbers.

In Germany the Humboldt Forum is going from strength to strength since opening three years ago, with 1.7 million visitors in 2023 making it the country’s most visited art museum.

Hong Kong’s M+ museum, which opened in 2021, reached its highest number so far, with 2.8 million visitors

Meanwhile in Italy, the country’s most popular museums are well and truly buzzing, with several reporting record attendances. In Florence, the Uffizi had its largest ever attendance with 2.7 million visitors, up 15% on 2019, as did the Galleria dell’ Accademia, smashing its previous 2018 record of 1.7 million visitors to welcome two million in 2023. The Museo Egizio in Turin, which celebrates its bicentenary this year, also had a record year, breaking the one million mark for the first time with 1.1 million visitors in 2023, up by a quarter compared with 2019. Meanwhile, the Vatican Museums—the country’s most popular art venue—with almost 6.8 million visitors was down just 2% on its record 2019 figure but still well above previous years.

Norway’s Nasjonalmuseet had its first full year since moving to a new building, with 1.2 million visitors Agenzia Sintesi Alamy Stock Photo

In the Nordics, Finland’s most popular art museum, the Ateneum Art Museum, had almost 534,000 visitors, beating its 2017 record by an impressive 20% despite only opening from April onwards following renovation work. The National Gallery of Denmark also had a record year with 617,000 visitors (up a whopping 58% on 2019). The Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo welcomed an impressive 1.2 million visitors during its first full year of opening, becoming the most popular art museum in Scandinavia.

Chinese boom

China was the first country to be hit by Covid-19 and instituted some of the world’s most stringent lockdowns to combat it, which heavily impacted museum visitor numbers. Now the doors are back open and 2023 saw a boom in museum visiting, according to Chinese state-owned media. According to the state-owned China Central Television,
1.2 billion visits were made to Chinese museums (of all types) in 2023, surpassing 2019. The newspaper China Daily reported that many museums are operating at capacity, and using timed online tickets to manage demand. However, touts are using online bots to snap up the available tickets, making it difficult for the general public to visit. “Even though we have lifted the cap on visitors to the maximum number, we can’t meet the rising demand,” Zhu Yuanyuan, the director of Nanjing Museum’s public education department, told China Daily. “The museum is always full of visitors. It is noisy and crowded, and this is not a good experience.”

Hong Kong’s M+ museum, which opened in 2021, reached its highest number so far, with 2.8 million visitors, while Beijing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art doubled its 2022 figure, with 503,000.

Elsewhere in Asia, National Gallery Singapore received 1.7 million visits, just below 2019. The National Art Center, Tokyo had 2.3 million visitors, up 17% on 2019, while the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum was still 33% down on 2019, with 1.9 million. South Korea’s museums had already bounced back strongly in 2022, and 2023 saw them attract even more visitors. With 4.2 million visitors, the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Korea gained 25% on 2019.

After a hard few years, the future looks bright.

  • Venues marked with a dagger (†) indicate institutions with more than one building. We have separated the venues to give a more accurate reflection of footfall. The institutions’ additional venues and combined totals are: The Met (Met Cloisters: 227,000; total for the Met: 5,591,000); National Galleries Scotland: National (Modern: 308,386; Portrait 264,866; total with National: 2,409,309); NGV International and Ian Potter Centre (total for National Gallery of Victoria: 2,532,238); Reina Sofia (Palacio de Velázquez: 536,425; Palacio de Cristal: 479,281; total all three sites: 2,530,560); Upper Belvedere (Lower Belvedere: 395,710; Belvedere 21: 98,630; total for Galerie Belvedere: 1,834,000); Getty Center (Getty Villa: 441,913; total for both: 1,693,047); Smithsonian American Art Museum (Renwick Gallery: 281,035; total for both 1,447,434); de Young (Legion of Honor: 345,221; total for Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: 1,344,866). *The Met revised its 2019 visitor number to 4,898,474 due to a changed counting methodology. **In 2019 we reported Reina Sofia venues as a combined figure, but we now split them to be consistent with other venues. ***NPG and SAAM share a building, hence reporting the same figure. We have therefore ranked them equally and counted these visitors only once in our overall totals
  • All the data is supplied by the institutions concerned. The research for the 2023 report was conducted via email and telephone during February and March 2024. Museums who did not supply data do not appear on the table

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