Britain's booming museums and galleries, already buoyed by free admission and record levels of public interest, are predicting that 2003 will break all attendance records as they prepare for a series of exhibitions ranging from the grandeur of Titian to the psychedelic art of Bridget Riley.
The Titian, a vast exhibition of the only Renaissance artist to truly rival Michelangelo, will bring pieces from around the world to the National Gallery in London in February for the biggest exhibition of his works ever held in Britain.
At the Royal Academy, the Aztecs exhibition billed as the greatest collection ever of pre-Columbian art, will run until April. The show is likely to break records with more than 80,000 people having attended in the first month.
The RA's follow-up for later in 2003 will be announced in the next month. But after its success with Masters of Colour, a private collection of art owned by Swiss collectors, which was extended this year because of demand and attracted more than 225,000 people, the RA is particularly excited about a small exhibition of works from the Dresden Gallery that was flooded earlier in the year and which have rarely been lent abroad before.
Another, much bigger show, mixing masterpieces through the ages, is planned to mark the centenary of the National Art Collections Fund charity. Around 300 works saved for the nation with its assistance, including Velasquez, Holbein, da Vinci and Picasso, will go on display at the Hayward Gallery in London in October.
Matisse Picasso at Tate Modern and Lucian Freud at Tate Britain will prove tough acts to follow. But the Tate has pulled out all the stops for its retrospective at the Tate Britain of Bridget Riley, with collectors worldwide implored to lend the most important works of her career.
And among a clutch of other shows, the public vote-winner is likely to be an exhibition devoted to JMW Turner's trips to Venice, which will go on display, also at Tate Britain, in October.
Stephen Deuchar, Tate Britain's director, said: "In the British imagination, Venice is one of the top three romantic cities. And this is about Turner as a tourist in Venice, responding to this strange and wonderful city in a highly evocative way."
Elsewhere in London, The National Portrait Gallery will present an exhibition of portraits of servants, including John Brown, Queen Victoria's personal attendant.
And David Starkey is following his television success with Queen Elizabeth I by curating a show for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich marking the 400th anniversary of her death. It will include many objects never before seen in public.
The National Portrait Gallery is also showing works by Julia Margaret Cameron, an early and notable photographer.
Headline-grabbing shows will also be held outside London. In Liverpool, the Walker Art Gallery unveils one of its most famous and popular works, a full-length portrait of Henry VIII by an unknown Tudor artist, after a two-year restoration returning the work to its original appearance.
The painting, based on a Whitehall mural by Holbein which was destroyed by fire more than 300 years ago, will be joined by three other full-length portraits of the king in an exhibition opening in January.
And in October, a major retrospective of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's work from around the world opens at the Walker for three months before touring to Amsterdam. It will include some works by the Pre-Raphaelite artist which will not have been seen in England for half a century.
The National Galleries of Scotland inaugurate the newly refurbished Royal Scottish Academy with a display of Monet, carefully timed to capture the Edinburgh Festival crowd in August.
The show will bring together 80 paintings for the first exhibition looking at the period when Monet worked at Vétheuil on the Seine and in Normandy.
But Colin Tweedie, the chief executive of Arts and Business, which encourages business sponsorship, warned that mounting major exhibitions was going to become more difficult. While the National Maritime Museum has secured substantial backing from Morgan Stanley for its Elizabeth show and galleries expressed confidence that major displays will be sponsored, the threat to blockbusters in future is a downturn in business support for the arts, he said.
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