What Kind of Art is the Most Popular?

It’s not always in museums—and historic name recognition is starting to matter less

Christo Pier
Christo's "Floating Piers" racked up 1.2 million visitors in just over two weeks. cowboybeboop - Flickr/Creative Commons

People look at art for their own reasons—to soothe their souls, shake up their everyday lives, and reencounter old friends. But which exhibitions do people like most—and what kinds of art are waning in popularity?

The Art Newspaper has answers. It just published special reports on both visitor figures and the popularity of contemporary and historic art, and the results are fascinating. The newspaper’s annual survey uses data supplied by museums around the world, giving their list an international flair.

When it comes to total visitors, the Museum of Modern Art’s Picasso Sculpture exhibition, which ran between late 2015 and February 2016, took the cake. More than 851,000 visitors went to the exhibition, which featured more than 100 of Picasso’s dynamic sculptures. Perhaps a gushing review from the New York Times’ Roberta Smith helped drive all of those visitors. “Many exhibitions are good, some are great,” she began her review, “and a very few are tantamount to works of art in their own right — for their clarity, lyricism and accumulative wisdom.” She went on to call it “one of the best exhibitions you’ll ever see at the Museum of Modern Art.”

Picasso may have drawn in the most visitors overall, but a Brazilian museum saw the most visitors per day. The Post-Impressionist Masterpieces exhibition at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro pulled in 9,700 visitors per day, hitting the No. 1 spot on the list. (The museum also hosted the second and third most-trafficked exhibitions in the world last year—a Patricia Piccinini exhibition and one devoted to Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum.) Jérome Bel, Renoir, Frida Kahlo and Hieronymus Bosch also drew numbers worldwide last year.

This year’s blockbuster exhibitions are part of a bigger trend toward contemporary art, writes The Art Newspaper’s Julia Halperin. Between 2007 and 2015, 44 percent of the shows at major U.S. museums were devoted to contemporary artists active after 1970, she reports—a shake-up from previous decades in which Impressionists and other historical artists reigned supreme.

High auction prices and new museum boards appear to be driving that shift, says Halperin—and perhaps social media, which has skyrocketed selfie-friendly exhibitions like Yayoi Kusama’s blockbuster "Infinity Mirrors," is helping, too. It’s certainly changed the way art is sold—and has become a subject of great debate in the art world for shaking up the dynamics of how art is sold, exhibited and publicized.

Speaking of selfies, it turns out that last year’s most-trafficked piece of art wasn’t in an exhibition—or a museum, for that matter. Christo’s “Floating Piers,” a triumphant installation on Italy’s Lake Iseo, pulled in 1.2 million visitors over just 16 days, putting everything inside four walls to shame. With over 44,000 tagged photos to its name on Instagram and an iconic artist who uses landscapes as his canvas, it’s no wonder the exhibition was so successful. Perhaps 2017’s most-trafficked art event won’t be in a museum, either. Wherever it is, The Art Newspaper is sure to find out.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.