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MOCA exhibition drew world-class numbers -- but not in L.A. [Updated]

April 1, 2010 |  6:00 am

Here's an ironic footnote to the saga of the near-death experience that L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art endured late in 2008.

While trustees of the economically depleted museum were trying to figure out what to do about its future, visitors to MOCA's galleries were experiencing the world's second-hottest-drawing contemporary art exhibition, and the 13th most avidly attended exhibition of any kind.

The only problem is that "Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective," which was organized by MOCA and curated by its then-senior curator, Ann Goldstein, generated those big numbers only after leaving L.A. for New York's Museum of Modern Art. 

So reports the Art Newspaper in its 15th annual survey of the world's best-attended exhibitions and museums. MOCA reports that it had 148,616 visitors in 2009 -- not enough to make the Art Newspaper's list of about 150 museums, which bottoms out at 314,000 (San Francisco's Asian Art Museum). It didn't help that for most of the year, until its November reopening,the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, one of the museum's two downtown facilities, was closed for financial reasons.

The Art Newspaper uses average daily attendance as its key measure of an exhibition's popularity. At MoMA, it reports, the Kippenberger show attracted 4,945 visitors a day, compared with 608 daily at MOCA. Overall, nearly 306,000 people saw the show in New York; in Los Angeles, the total was 45,269. The survey relies on attendance figures supplied by the museums themselves -- some via estimates, some by actual counts.

In overall attendance, the J. Paul Getty Museum came in ninth in the United States and 37th in the world, but arguably should have been ranked fifth and 21st. The Art Newspaper counted the Getty Center in Brentwood as a separate museum from the Getty Villa near Malibu, home of its collection of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. The Getty makes no such distinction.

Getty Combined, the Getty drew 1.56 million visitors in 2009 (about 400,000 of them at the Villa), placing it behind New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (4.89 million), the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (4.6 million), New York's MoMA (2.67 million), the Art Institute of Chicago (1.85 million) and the de Young in San Francisco, which attracted 1.84 million visitors with "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" hunkered down from late June through last Sunday.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which had its turn with Tut in 2005, reported 696,000 visitors in 2009, placing it 17th in the United States according to the Art Newspaper rankings, although Culture Monster would bump that up to 16th by subtracting the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, which pulled 1.3 million visitors with help from dinosaurs and other natural history exhibits, plus "Tutankhamun: the Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," a sequel to the blockbuster seen at LACMA and the de Young.

The L.A. exhibitions that attracted 1,000 or more visitors per day, according to the Art Newspaper, were the Getty's "Taking Shape: Finding Sculpture in the Decorative Arts," a display of Baroque and Rococo pieces from the 15th and 16th centuries (114,468 total), "Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution" (100,473) and "Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575-1725" (141,080) and LACMA's "Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913–2008" (128,805).

LACMA also topped 800 visitors per day with "Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures" (69,426), "Hearst the Collector" (59,406) and "Pompeii and the Roman Villa" (100,871), which might have scored bigger numbers if not for its special ticket fee of $20 to $25, rather than the usual $12 general admission.

Globally, the Art Newspaper reports, the hottest art exhibitions were in Japan, which hosted the four top-ranked exhibitions, as well as the 10th, and Paris, where three different museums claimed the fifth through seventh spots. New York's MoMA held the eighth and ninth spots, and seven of the top 20.

The top three shows in Japan featured historic national treasures with Buddhist spiritual meaning, the Art Newspaper says, "with some people praying in front of the objects in the museums." But two Tokyo museums, the National Museum of Western Art and the National Art Center, Tokyo, scored Top 10 hits with "17th-Century Painting From the Louvre" and "Treasures of the Habsburg Monarchy," respectively.

In overall attendance, the Louvre (8.5 million), the British Museum (5.6 million) and the Met were the big three art museums, followed by London's National Gallery and Tate Modern, Washington's National Gallery of Art, the Centre Pompidou and the Musee de Orsay in Paris, the Prado in Madrid and the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. MoMA finished 11th.

[Updated at 12:05 p.m. April 1: MOCA spokeswoman Lyn Winter notes that two other exhibitions organized by the L.A. museum finished high in the attendance rankings: "Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave" was at MOCA in 2008, then went to MoMA. The show, organized by MOCA in association with MoMA, was the fourth-hottest-drawing contemporary art exhibition in the 2009 survey and 15th overall, attracting 4,864 daily visitors and 266,821 total during its New York run. Also, MOCA's 2007-08 Takashi Murakami retrospective, a hot draw in L.A., was the Art Newspaper's 52nd-ranked art exhibition of 2009, with 3,239 average daily visits at the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Also, our suggestion that the Getty deserved to rank fifth in 2009 attendance among U.S. museums, factoring in both the Getty Center and Getty Villa, also assumes discounting the de Young's King Tut attendance, in keeping with the precedent that LACMA set in 2005 when it counted its huge Tut attendance as separate from regular museum visits. By that reckoning, the Getty ranked 20th worldwide, not 21st. Otherwise, the combined Getty ranks sixth and 21st in the nation and world.]

-- Mike Boehm


Exhibition and museum attendance figures 2009

Martin Kippenberger retrospective at MOCA

Warts and all

A curated tour through Kippenberger's art

Photos: Martin Kippenberger's huge installation, "The Happy End of Franz Kafka's `Amerika,'" was seen in 2008 at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, but the same show drew much bigger crowds last year in New York; Getty Center in Brentwood. Credits: Estate of Martin Kippenberger/MOCA; Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times (Getty Center).