She only stayed three and a half weeks, yet Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece still set benchmarks for buzz, audience size and art as diplomacy that stand today. The Mona Lisa came to the United States after first lady Jackie Kennedy suggested the initiative to French minister for cultural affairs André Malraux, even though the painting had only left his home country once before — stolen by a former Louvre employee in 1911. Huge queues formed in freezing temperatures, people fainted and more than a million visitors glimpsed that enigmatic smile. Facing down opposition at home, Malraux told the New York Times: ‘When upon my return some peevish spirits will ask me... “Why was the Mona Lisa lent to the United States?” I shall answer: “Because no other nation would have received her like the United States”.’
Above: Thousands waited patiently in New York for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence
President Jimmy Carter inspects one of Tutankhamun's many treasures during a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Photo: AP Photo/Peter Bregg
Allowing Egypt’s most iconic Pharonic artefacts to leave the country was momentous for many institutions and has done as much as anything else to popularise the idea of blockbuster exhibitions. A mix of fascination with ancient civilisations, the allure of gold, the tragic life of this young ruler and the legends of his discovery proved an irresistible combination. King Tut’s burial goods began their global peregrination in the Sixties, but the next decade set attendance records that stand today. Washington’s Smithsonian saw 836,000 visitors in 117 days, with eight-hour waiting times and queues encircling the NGA’s West Building.
Feature: How the Mona Lisa conquered America / Interview: Guillaume Kientz, curator of The Grand Palais’ retrospective of Diego Velázquez / Interview: Thierry Morel, curator of Francis Bacon and the Masters at the Sainsbury Centre
This mammoth show marked the 50th anniversary of the British Council, a cultural body that had long used the arts to promote UK influence abroad; and one of its most impressive resources was the bequest of works Turner had left to the British people. This was used to the full in what the Council described as ‘The most ambitious Turner exhibition ever staged abroad’. The retrospective included 267 works from the Tate, British Museum and other collections, attracting half a million visitors in a country that Turner enjoyed visiting and whose people cherished him in return.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana were the most high-profile of numerous royal and aristocratic visitors to The Treasure Houses of Britain in Washington DC. Photo by Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Collecting was the subtitle to this luxurious exhibition that brought together opulent items from the across the UK in sumptuous settings to match the stately homes they came from. The gathering of 700 objects and the construction of 17 period rooms made this the NGA’s largest and most complicated show to date. It was another triumph for its famed director J Carter Brown, responsible for the Tutankhamun frenzy, who had persuaded his government to indemnify art works on loan from abroad. Treasure Houses attracted over one million visitors, but was also a social event, attracting British royals and aristocrats to the US capital.
This watershed exhibition, organised with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and London’s Tate Gallery, highlights the public's enduring devotion to Impressionism. In its only US appearance, 548,000 people passed through the doors of this Pennsylvania institution to pay homage to the French master, suggesting to museums a sure-fire way of boosting numbers, and especially membership applications. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s august critic Edward Sozanski noted it had been 60 years since a show last surveyed Paul Cézanne’s full career, advising: ‘You’ll never have a better opportunity to decide for yourself whether he really deserves his “reputation”.’
More than 850,000 visitors thronged to the British Museum for The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army © Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Under the leadership of director Neil MacGregor, the British Museum became the world’s second most visited institution after the Louvre, thanks mainly to blockbusters such as this early triumph. The museum secured this coup after three years of talks with the Chinese authorities, much to French president Jacques Chirac’s chagrin. According to the BBC, he told deputy director Andrew Burnett, ‘I always talked to them but I could never persuade them to send it to Paris.’ MacGregor's efforts paid off, as 850,000 came to see the Terracotta Army.
The fact that art aficionados are willing to go on pilgrimages to see certain works is well known, but there was a genuine spiritual dimension to this commemoration of the 1300th anniversary of Fukuoka Temple in Nara, Japan. This was the first time a set of priceless Buddhist sculptures had left the shrine, including the especially beloved three-headed, six-armed Ashura. Given its own hall, visitors walked around the artefact clockwise, some even praying in front of it. The total attendance of 946,000 was the highest of the year in The Art Newspaper’s annual digest, which noted, ‘Japan’s museums remain in a league of their own when it comes or organising blockbuster exhibitions.’
Such was the interest in Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty that the Met opened up on Mondays while the rest of the museum remained closed © Rex Features Ltd
Previously, couture-based exhibitions had been sedate affairs — the crowds of fashionistas were more often seen at sales — yet interest in this challenging British designer, who had died the previous year, saw numbers comparable to Old Master shows. ‘Even if you never bother with fashion shows, go to this one,’ advised New Yorker magazine. And they did. With 662,000 attendees, the Met rated this retrospective as the eighth highest attended exhibition in its near one and half century existence. To meet such high demand, the museum gave Savage Beauty an extended run and opened its doors on Mondays when the rest of the complex was closed.
An astonishing 601,000 art lovers came to see this focus on landscapes by the Yorkshire-born artist, some having waited in long, rain-sodden queues. The world’s highest attendance for a contemporary artist that year didn’t baulk at the £14 entry charge and some caustic reviews — ‘Why is everything so unreally bright, so garish, discordant, raw and Romany?’ critic Brian Sewell complained in the London Evening Standard. The sense of a painter rediscovering his homeland, especially in seasonal depictions of his native county, some fresh off his new toy — an iPad, offered an eloquent defence against such brickbats.
Mainland China’s first exhibition devoted to the French master took place last year, featuring emblematic works such as a number of his Water Lilies. Master of Impressionism was the initiative of Hong Kong billionaire Adrian Cheng, who set up the K11 Art Foundation and the Art Mall with its museum-retail concept to support home-grown artists and ensure a wider audience. A passionate art lover, Cheng persuaded Paris’s Musée Marmottan Monet to loan 40 works, helping the show to attract 340,000 visitors. To reflect Monet’s subject matter, the South China Morning Post noted, K11 built a Japanese-style bridge and ‘mini-Giverny’ garden. “You can wander through a grassy glade... right up to the entrance of Dolce & Gabbana”.’
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