New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is experiencing a level of administrative turmoil unmatched in its recent history. In February, Met director Tom Campbell resigned under a cloud of accusations about how his personal relationships impacted his management. The museum is also facing a budget deficit of up to $40 million, and has laid off employees to cut costs.
Yet, at the same time, the Met has never been more popular. In 2016, the museum set a record for attendance, with over 7 million visitors. From 2008 to 2016, the Met’s attendance grew at a rate of 6.4% per year—the best among the world’s five most-attended art museums.
In fact, due to the Louvre’s recent decline in popularity, down perhaps to fears of terror attacks in Paris, the Met may soon surpass the famous French museum to become the most attended art museum in the world. More people visited the Met than the British Museum last year for the first time in many years. (The museum attendance data in this article come from annual estimates collected by The Art Newspaper.)
The Met’s attendance boom is primarily down to an increased focus on fashion and the opening of the Met Breuer, a new building dedicated to modern and contemporary art.
Since 2008, the majority of the Met’s most popular exhibitions have been organized by the Costume Institute, the museum’s department focused on fashion. Exhibits like Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, China: Through the Looking Glass, and Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology each received over 660,000 visitors each, putting them among the 10 most-visited exhibits in the Met’s history. All three were organized by superstar curator Andrew Bolton.
The Met’s attendance increase is also a result of the popularity of the Met Breuer, which opened in March 2016. The Breuer drew a better than expected 557,000 attendees in its first year. The museum’s chief communications officer Kenneth Weine told Quartz that the museum is particularly pleased that more than two-thirds of Breuer attendees are from the New York area—unlike the main Met building, which is primarily visited by tourists.
The Met’s ascendance is not part of a general increase in interest across major New York museums. The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, the city’s second- and third-most popular museums, have barely budged in terms of annual attendance since 2008.
Still, the Met’s strong attendance hasn’t translated into strong financial performance. According to a recent New York Times investigation, many blame the museum’s budget problems on ex-director Campbell. Under his leadership, the Met embarked on expanding its digital department, rebranding, and building the Breuer. These investments may have led to gains in popularity, but the financial realities have also forced the current management to postpone exhibitions and increase prices at the museum’s retail outlets.
The Met may soon become the most popular museum in the world, but we may look back on this period as the time when it became a victim of its own success.