Picasso, even as a youngster, had star power, and he proved it last year by becoming the art world's box-office champion.
There's no People's Choice Award or television rating list to mark the occasion, but "Picasso: The Early Years" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington drew more visitors than any other show in 1997 at an art museum in the United States. According to a tally by The Art Newspaper, a London-based monthly, the Picasso count, 530,911, was the only one exceeding a half-million.
"Renoir's Portraits" at the Art Institute of Chicago came in second, with 489,423 visitors, and "The Glory of Byzantium" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art placed third, with 460,864 people surveying cases full of icons, ivories and manuscripts from the 9th to the 13th centuries.
In box-office terms, 1997 was a banner year for museums. Eighteen exhibitions in the United States attracted more than 200,000 visitors each. In 1996, only 14 exhibitions in the United States drew more than 200,000 visitors. The Cezanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art led the list with 548,741 viewers, followed by "Picasso and Portraiture" at the Museum of Modern Art, with almost exactly a half-million.
Although museums have long collected audience statistics, they rarely shared them in any systematic, comparative fashion. The Art Newspaper's list, now in its third year, does just that for dozens of exhibitions, down to "John Martin" at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, which was seen by 8,824 people last fall.
The newspaper's roster also includes museums in Europe, Canada and Australia; the biggest attraction outside the United States in 1997 was "Treasures of Mount Athos" at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Salonika. That display of icons, carvings and other artifacts lent for the first time by the Orthodox monasteries nearby lured 486,100 people to northern Greece.
Museum officials do not always like the list's results. "We get shrieks of horror sometimes," said Anna Somers Cocks, The Art Newspaper's editor. "People are upset to see themselves way down on the list." But museums, in their own quiet way, are now watching their audience figures almost as intensely as television networks or Hollywood studios do.
Nearly every sizable museum looks at weekly figures. Some, from big institutions like the Metropolitan to smaller ones like the Portland Museum of Art in Oregon, track the numbers daily. Many keep a running year-to-date count. The daily report of the Metropolitan, which considers itself the most sophisticated people counter among museums, includes the day's weather and the weather of a year before, to gauge the outside competition. It also tracks the effects of media coverage, advertising and other variables, which it declines to disclose.
The goal is obvious. "It's very important to get people in the door," said Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "Then you can start to win them over to the fine arts."
Judging by the numbers over the last three years, what gets people in the door are the familiar, universally recognized geniuses, especially those who painted beautiful canvases. "Picasso is always at the top, and van Gogh and Monet are neck and neck with him," said Ms. Cocks. "And the Impressionists. They are the great, great draws."
In any recent year, a half-dozen exhibitions exploring various aspects of Picasso and of Impressionism seemed to be in circulation.
All of which raises the specter that the public's taste drives the content of exhibitions much more than it once did. "Absolutely, that's true," said Ms. Cocks. "It is such a risk to put on a big exhibition that you have to put on ones that will get a big crowd. You daren't risk not drawing a huge crowd. Scholarly shows don't get the machinery of publicity behind them."
In general, people prefer monographic exhibitions of one artist's work over theme shows, she said, and paintings and sculpture over the decorative arts.
Museum officials differ somewhat on the numbers' import. "Attendance is significant at budgeting time," Mr. Rogers said. "But we are not doing exhibitions in pursuit of the highest number of people. That would be ridiculous."
His view was echoed at other museums. "Attendance is very important," said Sherwood D. Spivey, the deputy director of the Phoenix Art Museum. "But we have a certain educational responsibility, too. So we try to have one exhibition with a large audience appeal a year." For 1998, he is pinning high hopes on a traveling exhibition called "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," which arrives in Phoenix in October.
Museum directors say they have to watch the numbers because admission fees contribute a substantial portion of most museums' income, and special exhibitions continue to outdraw permanent collections by a wide margin. Potential corporate sponsors of special exhibitions often want to see attendance projections for shows they may sponsor.
In recent years, museums around the country have been refining their people-counting methods, which vary. Ticketed exhibitions provide reliable numbers, but some museums, like the Metropolitan, do not issue separate tickets for special shows.
Instead, the Met said it gets reliable general admission numbers by having its guards count people with a clicker at the museum's entrance and by counting the number of buttons handed out. An electronic eye at the museum's front door, serviced every Monday, double-checks.
The Metropolitan and other museums also station guards with clickers at the entrances to special exhibitions. But some, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, count all visitors and assume that each one is going to the special show.
The Art Newspaper's annual list has limitations. The museums report their own numbers, and some -- despite what Ms. Cocks says is a lot of badgering -- are absent altogether. (These include the Whitney Museum of American Art, whose biggest attraction last year was the 1997 Biennial, with 116,288 visitors, a spokeswoman said.)
Location matters, too. Some cities have a deep cultural tradition that includes regular museumgoing; others, particularly in the West, do not. New York and Washington benefit greatly from tourism.
Museums fees, which can vary greatly, can also affect the size of crowds. The Picasso exhibition, for example, was free at the National Gallery. But in Boston, art lovers had to part with $15 to see it. In Boston, the exhibition drew only 283,423, short of its projected 300,000.
But Mr. Rogers, the museum's director, does not blame the cost for the shortfall. "Boston is conservative," he said. "And for Boston this was a more difficult subject than for Washington."
Museums also complain that some exhibitions run for longer periods than others, which affects the totals. "And they say, 'You didn't take into account that the museum was closed for such and such a time,' " said Ms. Cocks. Such carping prompted The Art Newspaper to reorder its 1997 list. It now uses the daily total, rather than the gross total, to rank the popularity of the exhibitions, but it prints both numbers.
By the daily count, Impressionism, represented by "Renoir's Portraits," outscored Picasso, 6,042 to 4,424.