PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 18: Tourists queue for entry into the Louvre Museum, Paris, as temperatures soared towards 38°C and 39°C in what would be a new record for the hottest day in June in the city on June 18, 2022 in Paris, France. Outdoor public events across France have been cancelled as countries across Europe face high temperatures caused by the mass of hot air moving from north Africa, causing health risks as well as wild fires and energy shortages. (Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)
On Art

Declining figures

British museums and galleries have yet to recover from Covid.

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The art world, as with any other corporate sphere, relies on data. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, post-Covid and the other assorted turmoils of the past couple of years, galleries and auction houses around the world have returned to the status quo ante; the numbers, however, show that this is far from the case.

The Art Newspaper has just published its report on museum visitor figures for 2022 and the results are widely varying. Almost all major art institutions around the world have yet to return to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019 but some are doing much better than others. What is noticeable is that British museums and galleries, or more specifically English ones, are limping along.

The top five museums by visitor numbers are the Louvre (7,726,321 visitors), the Vatican Museums (5,080,866), the British Museum (4,097,253), Tate Modern (3,883,160), and the National Museum of Korea (3,411,381). The National Gallery comes in at number eleven with 2,729,119 visitors. The figures seem healthy enough, with the rankings reflecting pretty much the pecking order of 2019. All the top 10 institutions, however, with the exception of the National Gallery of Korea (which is 2 per cent up on its 2019 numbers), are still a long way short of where they were four years ago.

The Louvre, for example, has seen a 173 per cent increase on its 2021 figures but still remains 20 per cent down on 2019’s visitor numbers, while the Vatican is up 215 per cent on 2021 but down 26 per cent on 2019.
Despite their lofty rankings and healthy increases on 2021, the British Museum and Tate Modern are catching up much more slowly, with deficits of 34 and 36 per cent on 2019. The 2,370,261 visitors who put the Victoria and Albert Museum into fourteenth place still represent a whopping 40 per cent drop on 2019.

However, nearly two-thirds of Londons’ museums’ footfall usually comes from overseas visitors. They have not returned

But by far the slowest performer is the National Gallery. Although it saw a nearly 300 per cent increase in visitors since 2021, there is nevertheless a 55 per cent shortfall on 2019: this means it has lost nearly 3.3 million visitors. A turnaround will be all the more difficult since parts of the gallery are currently closed for the major remodelling work scheduled for the NG200 programme to mark its bicentenary, so playing catch up will mean cramming more visitors into a reduced gallery space with fewer facilities.

The effects are serious. The gallery’s accounts show that its income in 2019-20 amounted to £82.4 million, while for 2021-22 it had dropped to £61.7 million. Over the past few years, self-generated income — the money the NG raises from donations, investments, shops, cafés, and ticket sales — has amounted to between 34 and 50 per cent of its total income (the bulk of the funding comes from the government as the DCMS’s grant-in-aid). So the spending power of those missing 3 million visitors is being felt.

The greatest reason for the reduced numbers is the decline in foreign tourism. Domestic visitors to London’s museums have largely recovered, but have yet to surpass pre-2019 figures (a new preference for outdoor R&R rather than indoors). However, nearly two-thirds of Londons’ museums’ footfall usually comes from overseas visitors. They have not returned.

Tate Britain is another institution to suffer: it sits at 58th place in the table with just 913,395 visitors, 49 per cent fewer than in 2019. To put the figure in perspective, only 50,000 fewer visitors went to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, while the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow attracted nearly 60,000 more.

Elsewhere in the world, Russia’s museums have been ravaged by the effects of the Ukraine war and China’s by the length and strictness of its Covid lockdowns. Only one Chinese museum appears in the top 20. This is the M+. It displays visual art, design, architecture and moving image, and not only is it in Hong Kong rather than on the mainland, but it was opened in 2021, so curiosity played a part in it bringing in 2,034,331 visitors.
Chinese retraction may be a national concern, but it affects UK museums too, with the British Museum in particular suffering from the inability of Chinese tourists to travel.

Nearly 80 per cent of sales in Chinese auction houses were made to local buyers; the big push towards a global clientele just didn’t happen

Chinese museums are just one part of a wider retrenchment. That country’s art market has shrunk too. The latest Art Basel UBS report on global art sales shows that China has lost its second place in the pecking order to the UK (the US is number one with 45 per cent of the market; the UK has 18 per cent of sales).
In 2022, a year in which global sales increased, even if by a rather sluggish 3 per cent, sales in China nevertheless declined by 14 per cent to $11.2 billion, a figure last seen back in 2009. The wealth of the country’s billionaires decreased by 27 per cent and 99 people ceased being billionaires.

China’s main auction houses, such as Poly and Yongle, had hoped to challenge the big international companies, but in the event they were outperformed by the likes of Christie’s and Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

Nearly 80 per cent of sales in Chinese auction houses were made to local buyers; the big push towards a global clientele just didn’t happen.

These are just statistics, of course, but in this instance maybe not lies.

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