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Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition makes gallery's top ten

It's official: we're hooked on European art, and the visitor numbers from the latest blockbuster show at the National Gallery confirm it.

Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris & the Moulin Rouge attracted 170,201 visitors from all over Australia, making it one of the gallery's top 10 shows.

The show, which closed on Tuesday, was the first major retrospective of works by one of the most influential post-impressionists, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Almost 80 per cent of the people coming through the doors were from interstate, bringing a welcome $37 million boost into the ACT economy at what is traditionally a tough time of year in tourism terms.

Gallery director Ron Radford said the show had even brought in a "small profit" for the gallery, an unanticipated benefit given the huge expense of such shows. He said visitors were drawn to the show by the iconic poster art and the mystique surrounding the artist himself. ''People know a little a bit about his personality. They know he was a dwarf, they know the Moulin Rouge, they know a little bit about the decadence, so his interesting life story is one aspect,'' he said.

''But the other aspect is that the


posters are really well known … even those who have hardly heard of Toulouse-Lautrec have heard of the posters. I think that's a main attraction, but of course when they got there, what people really liked was the paintings.

''Toulouse-Lautrec has never been promoted, and should be, I always think, as a portrait painter, and really pushed portraiture in an area that had never gone in that direction before, and I don't think he's been given enough credit for that.''

Summer is a notoriously difficult time for tourism in Canberra, with the public service shut-down period and notable shift of much of the population to the south coast.

Indeed, Dr Radford said there was a moment when it seemed likely the gallery would not break even, due to various extreme weather events around the country.

''When we had those bushfires in Victoria and NSW and then almost at the same time floods in Queensland, our attendances instantly dropped.

''It never goes well for us when there are those things because people do not want to get in the car and drive to Canberra under those conditions, or fly. They just don't want to leave. I thought, 'Oh my god, we're not even going to make budget.' And then of course there was this final, unbelievable surge in the last month.''

The gallery adjusted its advertising campaign away from the famous posters to the paintings, the weather improved and Canberra celebrated its 100th birthday, an event that brought 7000 people through the doors in one day.

There were more than 12,000 visitors over the Easter weekend, allowing the show to go out with a bang.

The show is just one in a list of favourites from Europe and Britain, with 2010's Masterpieces from Paris shattering all attendance records throughout the country.

It brought 476,212 people through the door, many of whom had queued for many hours.

The gallery's top 10 shows indicate our appetite for European and British art shows no sign of waning, with Rubens, the Renaissance, Monet and Renoir all in the list. Third is the 1996 Turner exhibition that brought in 240,502 people, which bodes well for the next big show, Turner from the Tate in June.

Dr Radford said the gallery had staged a number of shows featuring significant US artists, and boasted one of the largest collections of Asian art in the region, but they never did particularly well.

''I don't think Australians associate America with art much, even though the art is very good. They're not really that popular,'' he said. ''I think people think that France and Italy and then perhaps Britain are the highest places of art. We have lots of Asian art and do exhibitions but they're never as popular. We would like to change that, because each time we do one of those shows they get more popular, but not blockbuster-popular.''

ACT Minister for Tourism Andrew Barr said our expectations needed to be kept in check.

''You always want more … but I think it's well within the benchmark we set for these sorts of events,'' he said.

''After Masterpieces from Paris set an all-time Australian record for attendance at a cultural event, we do need to be realistic about the sorts of numbers we're going to get to blockbuster exhibitions.''