Time to turn over a new lily

Is there life after Monet? Charlotte Mullins finds out how the nation's leading galleries plan to keep the crowds coming

Ever had a Cezannewich? Got a waterlily-clad umbrella tucked away at home? Done the Pollock jigsaw puzzle? Blockbuster art exhibitions are big business, not only through merchandising but through ticket sales - the Royal Academy's Monet had 813,000 people pass through its doors during its 86-day run. They are not cheap or quick to put on (Monet cost about pounds 2m and took nine years of planning) but they sell like there's no tomorrow. And when there is no tomorrow, the exhibition is jam-packed with people angling for a last look (witness the Monet: the busiest hour of the exhibition was 4am on a Sunday during the all-nighter that preceded the last day). Blockbusters, for better or worse, are money-spinners, and people obviously crave them. So where and when will the next one appear?


The National Portrait Gallery may be hoping that our fascination with fame will drive us to see "Icons of Pop" this June. Photos of stars will thrill - but it's hardly a major show. In fact the summer months never seem to be a good time to hold a blockbuster: too much sun, perhaps, and too many people on holiday. To draw the crowds, summer shows have to be young and fun ("Abracadabra: International Contemporary Art" at the Tate from June), or of artists who have a dedicated audience: Joseph Beuys's drawings are at the RA from July and his multiples are at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.


The biggest crowd-puller of the summer could well be the National Gallery's "Rembrandt by Himself", from June. He painted himself on an almost yearly basis - a 17th-century calling card shown to possible patrons who could match it up against the real thing to see if he was any good. There's a strong line-up of contenders for autumn. "Van Dyck 1599-1641", at the RA from September, is a retrospective of the Flemish master's work. As the court painter of Charles I he was the business, as far as the nobility who wanted their portraits painted were concerned. (He was more interested in cracking Europe, and superseding his old boss Rubens.) The National Gallery's "Renaissance Florence" will be rich in work by Botticelli and da Vinci, but blockbusters on the whole tend to be solo shows: Chardin at the RA next March will perhaps make the grade; as will the Tate's William Blake show in autumn 2000.


"Lucio Fontana" is at the Hayward this October. The king of slash and burn, his holey canvases look more like Silk Cut adverts now than avant- garde paintings, but his importance as a post-war artist is significant. This will be the nearest the Hayward gets to a blockbuster this year (impressive that it gets this close, considering it has had to scrabble together a programme as it expected to be closed for redevelopment). From Christmas Magritte is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, although the Hayward's Magritte show of 1992 is a bit recent for this to shake out new things.


The most obvious area of museum-mania is with all things millennial. The V&A in particular has banked on our growing interest in the fin de siecle. "A Grand Design: the Art of the V&A", a look at the history of the museum, has been touring America and opens at the V&A in October. Doesn't sound particularly like a blockbuster? Cumulatively 500,000 people have seen it in America, and it's still touring. Two months later the V&A opens "Art Nouveau", a turn-of-the-century look at all things curly- whirly. The RA celebrates the century's change with "The year 1900: Art at the Crossroads", opening in January. And, for those who have already stockpiled water and tinned food, from December the Tate Gallery Liverpool takes a religious look at the millennium in a show called "Heaven".


Visitor figures tend to rocket when new bits of galleries open, but the most significant change in numbers will be at the Tate. It bifurcates into the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, opening in the old Bankside power- station in May 2000, and the Tate Gallery of British Art which will evolve on the old Millbank site. The arrival of Bankside will be like a honeypot to starved cultural bees, and the Tate's decision to open the gallery without a blockbuster exhibition is not as strange as it seems - who needs a whole stack of Picassos when you have a brand new gallery to ogle? So we'll just have to wait for the mythical Matisse and Picasso blockbuster that at one time was tipped to open Bankside - perhaps it will appear in 2001, no doubt alongside "2001: A Millbank Odyssey".

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