Official figures provided to an MP by arts minister Mark Fisher show that the number of visitors to the three Tate galleries, in London, Liverpool and Cornwall, fell by nearly a quarter in the year to April.
The Tate Gallery at Millbank in London, where numbers fell by 550,000 to 1,830,000, a decrease of more than 23 per cent, denied that the fall was evidence that the gallery had reached its peak.
The gallery, which received pounds 18.7m from the National Lottery earlier this year, said it could not put on "blockbuster" exhibitions all the time and had a duty to show "discovery exhibitions". Damien Whitmore, spokesman for the Tate, said: "You cannot have Picasso every three months or you would not be doing your job.
"Yes, you want shows like Cezanne and Picasso which do reach new audiences but you have got to have shows which are about discovery, introducing new artists and new ideas."
Last February, the gallery staged "Cezanne at the Tate", an exhibition of nearly 100 paintings which was billed as "the most important survey of Cezanne's work for nearly 60 years", and attracted 400,000 to Millbank.
In fact, the exhibition straddled the financial year and a third of the Cezanne visitors are included in last year's figures.
The difference in attendances for special exhibitions accounted for some 150,000 of the 550,000 visitor shortfall in the Tate's centenary year.
During the year to April, the Tate has featured exhibitions by Leon Kossoff, one of the most important British artists of the post-war period (only 22,000 visitors and the least successful Tate exhibition for seven years), and Lovis Corinth, a pioneer of German Impressionism (29,000). Both exhibitions pulled in less than 400 visitors a day; Cezanne attracted an average of more than 5,000.
The Tate also staged "The Grand Tour", designed to capture the lure of Italy to writers, artists and art lovers during the 18th century and attracted 58,000. It featured works by Batoni, Canaletto and Piranesi.
But it is the overall attendance figures - provided to Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack - which are likely to be a disappointment to the Tate director Nicholas Serota. The number of visitors for the three Tate galleries is down by over 161,000 on the average for the past five years. Mr Serota, who is to oversee the creation of the new Tate Museum of Modern Art, to be built for the millennium in the transformed Bankside power station, had watched annual attendance figures rise markedly since he came to the gallery in 1988, when there were 1,500,000 visitors.
This year's stay-away comes in spite of the determination by Mr Serota and the Tate's trustees not to introduce admission fees for the gallery's permanent collection.
The Tate at St Ives in Cornwall maintained its annual attendance level at 190,000 but the Tate in Liverpool saw a decline of 30,000 to 460,000.
Mr Fisher's figures show, however, that many museums which do charge for general admission are pulling in an increasing number of visitors.
The Natural History Museum in South Kensington enjoyed rise a of more than 24 per cent, while attendance at the nearby Victoria and Albert Museum rose by 6.8 per cent. The Imperial War Museum in south London was up by 6.5 per cent.
Other major museums which do not charge admission prices were also increasingly popular. The British Museum had an extra 700,000 visitors and its 6,800,000 annual figure made it the most popular of the national museums and galleries. The National Gallery reported an annual attendance of 5,000,000 last year, which was 500,000 more than 1995.
The Top Ten Tate exhibitions
Cezanne 1996, 5,109 visitors per day
Dali 1980, 3,878
Constable 1976, 3,872
Picasso 1994, 3,617
Pre-Raphaelites 1984, 2,642
David Hockney 1988, 2,474
Picasso 1974, 2,344
Whistler 1994, 1,812
Constable 1991, 1,783
Late Picasso 1988, 1,584Reuse content