The presence of important art museums in a country or city is a major tourism drawcard, and those cities with a number of galleries or museums can offer packages to tourists seeking the full cultural experience. 


It’s not just foreign tourists and collectors who bring in the revenues for cities – locals can also enjoy these exhibitions. Indeed, the presence of high quality galleries and museums can be an attraction for those wishing to live in a city or region – whether they’re students, professionals or retirees. 

The Louvre museum in Paris
The Art Newspaper

In 2019, the Louvre maintained its position as the world's most popular museum with 9.6 million visitors.

It’s not just the traditional western countries and cities that draw visitors to their galleries and museums. Three of the top 10 most popular exhibitions in 2019 were in Tokyo, while the National Museum of China (Beijing) was the second most visited museum after the Louvre with 7.3 million visitors in 2019.

The most visited museums in 2019
MuseumVisitors (millions)
Louvre (Paris)9.6
National Museum of China (Beijing)7.3
Vatican Museum (Rome)6.9
Metropolitan Museum (New York)6.5
British Museum (London)6.2
Tate Modern (London)6.098
National Gallery (London)6.011
State Hermitage Museum (St Petersburg)4.9
Reina Sofia (Madrid)4.4
National Gallery of Art (Washington DC)4.0
Source: The Art Newspaper

Museums in the UK also did well in 2019, with three of the most visited museums in the world, namely The Tate Modern, the National Gallery and the British Museum. This may have been the result of Brexit. The weaker pound would have made London and its cultural locations more affordable for many prospective visitors.


However, currency depreciation can be a double-edged sword. A weaker pound may help boost sales and attract tourists, but these benefits could dissipate with time if the best works are sold off to buyers from countries with stronger currencies.


Top-performing art exhibitions

Beyond Paris, London, Rome and New York, a number of other cities enjoyed large visitor numbers for specific exhibitions in 2019, as the tables below show.

Artist Ai Weiwei
The Art Newspaper

Ai Weiwei is officially the world's most popular artist. His travelling survey in Brazil was the highest-ranking show by a single artist in terms of visitor figures in 2019. More than 1.1 million people came to view his work. In Rio de Janeiro, it was seen by 9,172 visitors a day (around 600,000 in total).

2019's most popular exhibitions
11,380663,265*DreamWorksCentro Cultural Banco do BrasilRio de Janeiro6 Feb-15 Apr
9,277605,674*DreamWorksCentro Cultural Banco do BrasilBelo Horizonte15 May-29 Jul
9,172598,818*Ai Weiwei: RootCentro Cultural Banco do BrasilRio de Janeiro21 Aug-4 Nov
8,931669,846Munch: a RetrospectiveTokyo Metropolitan Art MuseumTokyo27 Oct 18-20 Jan
7,808577,828Gustav Klimt: Vienna, Japan 1900Tokyo Metropolitan Art MuseumTokyo23 Apr-10 Jul
7,7351,423,170Tutankhamun: Treasures of Golden PharoahLa VilletteParis23 Mar-22 Sep
7,697463,991To-ji Temple: Kukai and Sculpture MandalaTokyo National MuseumTokyo26 Mar-2 Jun
7,026676,5031Jean-Michel Basquiat/Egon SchieleFoundation Louis VuittonParis3 Oct 18-21 Jan
6,1881,677,000*Diane Arbus: Box of Ten PhotographsSmithsonian (SAAM)Washington, DC6 Apr18-27 Jan
6,019356,867*50 Years of Realism: Photorealism to VRCentral Cultural Banco de BrasilRio de Janeiro22 May-29 Jul
*An asterisk indicates that entrance to the exhibition and the museum was free
Source: The Art Newspaper
Tutankhamun exhibition in Paris 2019
The Art Newspaper

Some 7,735 visitors a day (1.4 million overall) visited the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris. It was the last chance to see the Boy King’s tomb treasures before they return permanently to their new home in Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum.

The Bilbao effect - investing in art museums


Cities can also position themselves as fine art hubs by investing in art museums. One good  example is Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country. Once the centre of the country’s steel industry, Bilbao has managed to reposition itself as an art tourism hub, thanks to the ambitious construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao (pictured below) that was inaugurated in 1997.


A collaboration between the Basque government and the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, the Guggenheim Bilbao was designed by renowned Canadian- American architect Frank Gehry at a cost of US$89m (mostly paid for by Basque taxpayers).

Guggenheim Bilbao
22 million
Visitors to Guggenheim since 1997

The museum, with its striking exterior and permanent external pieces by Jeff Koons, has given rise to the term the “Bilbao effect” whereby a museum can transform a city.


With over 22 million visitors since its opening in 1997 (two thirds of who came from abroad), the museum has certainly had a positive impact on Bilbao, more than paying off the cost to build it through resulting economic activity, estimated at €400 million per year.


Arguably though, the museum is more of an attraction as an architectural feature – much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Sydney Opera House – than simply as a receptacle of great art.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

In a similar vein, Cape Town opened the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) at the V&A Waterfront (pictured above) in 2017. The museum welcomed 350 000 in its inaugural year.

The Zeitz MOCAA is the first major museum dedicated to contemporary art on the African continent.

The Zeitz MOCAA was awarded the overall Cultural Destination of the Year at the Leading Cultural Destinations Awards in 2018. Dubbed the "Oscars of the museum world", the Awards recognise the world’s best cultural destinations. It is fast becoming one of Cape Town's biggest tourist money spinners, with Tripadvisor ranking the museum 8th in the list of the city's top attractions in 2020.

About the author

Patrick Lawlor

Patrick Lawlor


Patrick writes and edits content for Investec Wealth & Investment, and Corporate and Institutional Banking, including editing the Daily View, Monthly View, and One Magazine - an online publication for Investec's Wealth clients. Patrick was a financial journalist for many years for publications such as Financial Mail, Finweek, and Business Report. He holds a BA and a PDM (Bus.Admin.) both from Wits University.