Tourists flocking from around the world to London's art exhibitions are fuelling a surge in "gallery rage" as the art world's connoisseurs bemoan overcrowding at an elite list of blockbuster shows.
After some visitors to the much-hyped Paul Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern – which closed yesterday – complained that overcrowding affected their enjoyment of the works, art critics say lessons should be learnt for three big shows being staged this year.
They predict that the National Gallery's Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, which opens in November, will outsell "Gauguin: Maker of Myth", which broke records last year to become the fastest-selling exhibition at the advance box office.
The show is part of a new breed of sell-out "blockbuster" exhibitions that will this year include Joan Miro at the Tate and Edgar Degas at the Royal Academy. Erica Bolton, a partner at the arts consultancy Bolton & Quinn, said there would be a "stampede" to buy up to 500,000 tickets for Leonardo when they go on sale in May.
In scenes that denizens of the capital's top galleries have unflatteringly likened to the Selfridges sale, crowds of schoolchildren and parents wielding buggies jostled alongside traditional connoisseurs to see Gauguin's most famous works. The gallery's message board has had many complaints about the exhibition's overcrowding. One visitor, Jane Caswell, wrote: "I found it difficult to enjoy the exhibition due to the extreme overcrowding and being unable to read the small print of the captions. The rooms were too small to be able to appreciate the artist's pieces properly and I missed one of the exhibition rooms due to being forced along with the crowd. I came to the exhibition with my mum, who missed the two central rooms for the same reason."
Critics have suggested galleries should consider longer opening hours, better lighting and bigger spaces to ease congestion. The Royal Academy, which will exhibit Degas from September, says it keeps a store of tickets back for purchase on the day so it can monitor crowds.
The art critic Michael Glover is concerned that the National Gallery's Leonardo show could be overcrowded. "There will be difficulties with light levels, which is always a problem with the older works because it's more difficult to see them anyway," he said. "There will be very high demand: there are very few painters people want to see more than Leonardo. This is one of the very few times [his works] will travel."
While Ms Bolton said she believed it would always be impossible to cater for the demand to see the world's leading artists, a Tate spokeswoman said: "We will certainly be reviewing comments as it is always our aim to build on and improve visitors' experiences in the future."
Three shows to sharpen your elbows for in 2011
More than 150 paintings, drawings and sculptures are set to dazzle the huge following enjoyed by the Catalan surrealist.
Tate Modern: 14 April to 11 September
One of the founders of Impressionism, and everyone's favourite ballet artist, Degas can't fail to pack them in.
Royal Academy: 17 September to 11 December
Leonardo da Vinci
With the Louvre and the Hermitage among the galleries providing examples of the Renaissance genius's work, this show is likely to create the biggest stampede of the lot.
National Gallery: 9 November 2011 to 5 February 2012