Upon becoming a member of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft earlier this year, I was surprised to learn that it has over 20,000 members and it is the second largest museum membership program in Europe after that of the Tate in London. This, with a city population of about 380,000 – 1.1m including the suburbs. Which makes Zurich, on a per capita basis, the place with the highest density of paying museum supporters in Europe.
But tonight, leafing through the assoication’s annual report, I found out that in 2008 visitor numbers at the Kunsthaus Zürich dropped to the lowest level in 10 years: only 214,000 visitors (vs. 310,000 in 2007 and the all-time high of 364,000 in 2000, the year of a Cézanne blockbuster). On the one hand, the report says, a few of the 2008 exhibitions (particularly Europop and Rivoluzione! Italian Modernism from Segantini to Balla) fell short of expectations; on the other hand, Zurich and Switzerland hosted a number of Euro 2008 soccer games as well as other competing events supposedly hurting museum attendance. Also, they make they rather unconvincing argument that since the exhibition program stretches over a three-year time horizon, there can be holes that imapct a given year’s numbers disproportionately – if so, we should see a steep rebound in 2009. In the meantime, twenty teams of architects are competing to build an extension to the Kunsthaus, with the winners to be announced in June and construction to be completed by 2015 at a cost of CHF 150 million, half from private sources and the other half committed by the city and the canton.
I have not yet seen any other museum’s 2008 visitor numbers and I don’t know whether the recession has caused other places to lose 30% of their visitors year on year. I would tend to guess, though, that there are places where the media would get at least a good crisis story out of this. Switzerland is probably too distracted by other shock news (unemployment breaking the 5% threshold! UBS announcing layoffs!) to start a conversation about the health of its cultural offerings.
Or, most likely, everybody is waiting for Art Basel in June. Last year’s edition packed 60,000 visitors (myself included) in just five days; it is the most important commercial thermometer of the art market in the Continent. But with fewer people with serious money to spend, I doubt that even Art Basel will come close to last year’s success.