Michelangelo Beats Koons, McQueen, as Met Attendance Tops 700,000

Contemporary art is not all the rage, after all. At least, it’s not the only rage.

“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” a sprawling exhibition that ended its three-month run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday, attracted 702,516 people, landing as the 10th-most-attended show at the New York-based museum.

Sourced from 50 public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe, the exhibition elbowed out “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” a 2011 show that had occupied the slot after attracting 661,509 visitors.

The Renaissance master also beat “Jeff Koons on the Roof,” a menagerie of giant, balloon-like creatures by the most expensive living American artist at auction. That exhibition attracted 657,801 people in 2008. The Michelangelo show is within a stone’s throw of the numbers for a 2010 Pablo Picasso show that drew 703,256 visitors. (The all-time record is held by “The Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which ran in the late 1970s and drew more than 1.3 million people.)

Michelangelo’s  in the Sistine Chapel ceiling: red chalk, with small accents of white chalk on the left shoulder of the figure in the main study. 
Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924.

“We are delighted that more than 700,000 people from around the world experienced first-hand the towering genius of Michelangelo through this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition,” Daniel H. Weiss, president and chief executive officer of the Met, said in a statement. “Eight years in the making, the show was a comprehensive and breathtaking reexamination of a luminary of Renaissance art, and marks the first time a collection of this magnitude has been united in one place.”

The exhibition included 133 drawings and three marble sculptures by Michelangelo (1475-1564), starting with his earliest painting—a torture scene he created at a tender young age. The museum also recreated, albeit on a smaller scale, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the artist's most famous work. There were commissioned portraits, cartoons and architectural drawings. Some items on loan had never before left Italy.

Most people came to see “the hand of the master,” says Susan Schulman, a private art dealer specializing in Old Masters in New York. “Michelangelo is such a massive name. Almost no one of the 700,000 people who attended will ever have this opportunity again.”

The exhibition opened on Nov. 13, two days before another old master made headlines around the world, when Leonardo da Vinci's  painting fetched $450.3 million at Christie's. It was the highest price ever paid for a work of art. The 500-year-old painting was acquired by the new Louvre Abu Dhabi museum.

The reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Met.
Photographer: Kellen Anna-Marie

“The Leonardo effect,” as dealers call the renewed interest in the field, boosted Sotheby's Master Week auctions to a tally of $82.5 million last month in New York, almost doubling from $41.9 million a year earlier.

“The publicity that Christie's generated around the Leonardo sale gave the Met a little boost,” says Schulman.

She saw the exhibition six times. “I wish I could go back more. It's such a deserving show—with all due respect to Jeff Koons.”

Many visitors were repeat offenders. Robert Simon, an Old Master art dealer who was part of the group that rediscovered , went five times. The works “require intensity and study,” he said. “You get more out of them the more you look at them.” In the age when the art world is becoming more about entertainment, he added, it shows that a serious show on the highest level can also be a blockbuster.

Still, as much as they may move the masses, old masters generally remain undervalued, compared to postwar and contemporary art, among wealthy collectors. A single 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat fetched $110 million at Sotheby's in May. Michelangelo's auction record of $12.3 million has remained unbroken since 2000, according to Christie's.

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