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Permanent collection not pulling crowds

by Edan Corkill

As seen in last month’s “Inside Art,” international rankings of art exhibition attendances present the achievements of Japanese museums in the best possible light. Look at annual attendance figures, however, and the picture is very different.

Consider the case of Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. According to an annual ranking of exhibition attendances published by The Art Newspaper in Britain, Japan’s premiere cultural institution has produced the most popular shows in the world each year for the last four years. In 2007, the top spot went to “The Mind of Leonardo,” which attracted an eyebrow-raising (not to mention elbow-knocking) 10,071 visitors per day.

Still, a ranking based on the annual number of visitors to museums last year (also published by The Art Newspaper) had TNM way back at 17th position.

In that list, the Louvre in Paris was out in front, with 8.3 million visitors, Tate Modern was the best performer in London with 5.2 million visitors (ranking third overall; second was Paris’ Centre Pompidou) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art held the crown in New York, with 4.5 million (fifth overall). And TNM? Its 17th position was based on a paltry 1.8 million for the year.

How can that be?

Permanent collections, that’s how. For the Louvre, Tate and Met it is the works on permanent display — at the Louvre, da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” for example — and not the temporary exhibitions that bring in the crowds.

At TNM, the opposite is true. Of the museum’s 1.8 million visitors last year, almost half (796,004) came for “The Mind of Leonardo” and another 425,492 came for another blockbuster, “Legacy of the Tokugawa.” That leaves just 500,000 who came for the collection.

Yoichi Inoue, exhibitions manager from the Tokyo National Museum, admits that getting people to the collection is currently his biggest challenge.

“By the time people have seen the temporary shows, they are too tired to go to the permanent collection,” he says.

“Also, the Japanese tend to think that they can come and see the permanent collections any time,” he continues.

Apart for the odd display tweak, those Japanese are right. Traditionally, it is those who can’t come to the museum “any time” that make up a large portion of museum visitors: tourists, and particularly those from overseas.

Last year, 42 percent of Tate Modern’s visitors, and about 25 percent of the Met’s, were from abroad.

TNM does not compare well. In 2006 — the last time a study was done — just 6 percent of its visitors were from overseas.

Yes, you say, but Tokyo has fewer foreign visitors than New York or London. True. In 2006, Tokyo welcomed 4.8 million foreign visitors compared with New York’s 7 million and London’s 15.2 million.

But consider this: Of all the foreign visitors to London during that year, 11 percent visited Tate Modern; of those to New York, 15 percent went to the Met. TNM’s foreigner tally of around 84,000 represented just 2 percent of the city’s visitors.

Something is keeping international tourists from a venue they should in theory be flocking to.

First, to clear up some potential misconceptions: Tokyo’s tourists are not all going to other museums besides TNM. The Mori Art Museum in Roppongi is one of the only venues in Tokyo with a percentage of foreign visitors comparable to TNM, but it gets fewer visitors in total.

Likewise, tourists in Japan are not spread thinly among an abundance of museums in Tokyo — both New York and Tokyo have about the same amount, around 70, London even more.

Perhaps foreign visitors aren’t happy with the quality of exhibits at TNM? That idea was ruled out after I spent an hour talking with uniformly satisfied punters last Friday.

“The museum provides information about an entire culture and way of life that developed in parallel to the Judeo-Christian tradition,” said Andrew (age 47) from Canada.

Bernhard (age 64) and Marta (age 55) from Switzerland were happy with the quality of the English language information, too.

A little more persuasive is the suggestion that differences in tastes between Western and Asian tourists might be to blame.

Japan’s tourists are very different from Europe’s and America’s. For a start, about three quarters are from Asia — about half of those from South Korea. (Britain’s visitors, by comparison, are similarly skewed toward Europeans.) Research by Japan National Tourist Organization suggests that many Korean visitors come on weekend shopping trips and culture is just not on the itinerary. Still, it’s not possible to make definite assertions here for the simple reason that no one really knows how many Asian tourists are visiting TNM and other museums. Most museum representatives I contacted explained embarrassedly, “Asian tourists look like Japanese.”

Perhaps Steven (age 43), from Canada, had the most plausible explanation: “In the West, the museums are often the only places you can see cultural artifacts. In Japan, they’re all over the place, like in shrines and temples, too.”