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Art's Most Popular: here are 2018's most visited shows and museums

Mar 25, 2019

Rihanna attends the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rihanna attends the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art© Photo by Taylor Jewell/Getty Images for Vogue


Nearly two decades have passed since the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last topped The Art Newspaper’s annual museum exhibition attendance survey with its 2001 show on Vermeer and the Delft School. The US institution made a spectacular re-entry into our leaderboard this year with not just the one, but the two most popular exhibitions of 2018. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, a Costume Institute show that boldly mixed religious works of art—including 42 ecclesiastical pieces from the Sistine Chapel sacristy—with haute couture, was seen by nearly 1.7 million people (10,919 visitors a day), breaking the Met’s previous record set in 1978 with Treasures of King Tutankhamun(nearly 1.4 million).


The largest exhibition ever mounted by the museum, Heavenly Bodies was seen by around 1.43 million people at the Met’s main Fifth Avenue location and a further 230,000 trekked uptown to Washington Heights to see its continuation at the comparatively sleepy Met Cloisters. According to the museum, the show helped set a new attendance record for the Cloisters (349,513 in total). (The Met has not previously provided us with separate figures for the Cloisters and its Fifth Avenue locations.) The Met’s other major blockbuster of 2018 was Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (7,893 visitors a day), which presented sculpture, a painting and more than 100 drawings by the Renaissance master as well as an Instagram-friendly digital replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and which ranked second in our survey.


The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, helped the US secure a hat-trick with its free presentation of colourful installations by the Korean artist Do Ho Suh. A favourite with Instagrammers, 7,853 visitors a day immersed themselves in his large-scale fabric sculptures.

Top 20 most popular exhibitions

Top 20 most popular exhibitions


The Shanghai Museum, which boasts vast exhibition halls, hosted five of the ten most popular exhibitions in 2018, including presentations comprised solely of collections from foreign museums. Its show of masterpieces from London’s Tate Britain attracted 7,126 visitors a day (around 618,000 in total), which not only makes it the fourth most popular exhibition in our survey but has the added cachet of being the UK institution’s most visited show to date (though you had to travel 9,000km from London to see it). The Chinese museum also collaborated with the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow to bring paintings by a group of 19th-century Russian realists to Shanghai for a special exhibit. The Wanderers show drew 6,666 visitors a day to the Chinese museum. None of the exhibitions mounted by UK museums featured in our top 20.


The Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and the Melbourne’s NGV International both benefited from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York’s decision to send works from its collection abroad during its building works. Their MoMA shows drew 5,171 and 3,312 daily visitors to the French and Australian museums respectively. Meanwhile, MoMA’s desire to give over its entire sixth floor exhibition space to Adrian Piper proved popular as the US artist’s work, which addresses issues such as racism and sexism, was a surprise hit (3,993 visitors a day).

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