The late, late shows: art galleries burn midnight oil for blockbusters

Soaring demand for Lucian Freud exhibition typical of growing thirst for art in the capital

The National Portrait Gallery has released thousands more tickets for its Lucian Freud exhibition in a bid to keep up with huge demand, as "blockbuster" art shows become the hottest ticket in London in the run-up to the Olympics.

The news follows a similar move by the National Gallery to extend opening times for its Leonardo exhibition, the enormous success of which led organisers to consider 24-hour opening. Experts predict that the public's appetite for art will see more exhibitions burning the midnight oil.

The National Portrait Gallery yesterday announced it had made 7,000 extra tickets available for "Lucian Freud Portraits", which opened at the beginning of February, after extending its Saturday opening hours. The exhibition, which has already seen 50,000 visitors, already opens late on Thursday and Friday.

It is expected to be a bumper year for art in the capital, with galleries planning further blockbuster shows. Among the most anticipated is a Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern. Denise Vogelsang, the National Portrait Gallery's head of marketing, said: "This year is such an incredible year for art in London. Galleries are increasingly looking to opening longer because there are so many blockbuster shows."

The National Gallery had desperate visitors camping out to get their hands on some of the 500 tickets for Leonardo released every morning until the exhibition closed.

The final attendance figures hit almost 324,000, the most popular and fastest-selling show for a National Gallery exhibition of that size.

Jill Preston, the gallery's head of communications, said: "Throughout the exhibition, there was a lot of pressure to open later. Even when we did, there was pressure to open later, even for 24 hours." In the final week, the gallery extended opening hours until midnight for two days "to mop up the queue". The idea of 24-hour opening was shelved, however, after it emerged that the delicate Leonardo paintings could not be exposed to the light for that amount of time and amid questions about staff working hours and gallery maintenance.

The Royal Academy has also seen queues for its exhibition of works by David Hockney. The show "A Bigger Picture" prompted the gallery to extend its opening times until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts, it has emerged, has decided to go from a five-day operation to six and will open an hour earlier. The ICA will open from 11am rather than midday when its new exhibition "Remote Control" opens next month. ICA managing director Karen Turner said it was a "reflection of the increasing demand from the public".

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