With a pair of blockbuster exhibitions expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors in the months to come, the L.A. County Museum of Art is undergoing a serious facelift.

The $13.5 million renovation will feature an expanded museum shop, a new welcome and information center, a redesigned central plaza, and upgraded food services, including a cafe and terrace opening onto nearby Hancock Park.

Hancock Park also is being refurbished, with new lighting, walkways and a 120-seat amphitheater that will be used to stage concerts and other events.

The idea is to transform the museum, located near the La Brea Tarpits on Wilshire Boulevard, from a collection of art into a full-fledged destination, where visitors will be able to dine, shop, relax in the park and listen to music, in addition to touring the galleries, said museum spokeswoman Melody Kanschat.

"We want people to stay awhile," she said. "LACMA will be a destination, a varied experience that all sorts of people can enjoy."

The timing of the renovation is not exactly an accident. The museum is gearing up to host two high-profile exhibitions: an exhibit of 90 works by Pablo Picasso, which opens Sept. 6, and the highly anticipated exhibit of 70 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibit opens Jan. 17, after a stop at the National Gallery in Washington, the show's only other U.S. site.

The Van Gogh exhibition is expected to draw between 600,000 and 1 million visitors to the museum, which will remain open 12 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the show's three-month run.

The bulk of the renovations will be complete by the time the Picasso show opens in September, Kanschat said.

Once the redesign is complete, perhaps the most striking change will be in the museum's food service, which has not been revamped for the past 12 years. Museum officials are weighing bids from several caterers, including Patina Group LLC, owned by chef/entrepreneur Joachim Splichal, which operates the Patinette cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A.; and New York-based Restaurant Associates, which operates the food services at the Music Center. The current operators, Somerset Catering Inc., did not submit a bid.

A decision on the caterer will be made within the next two weeks, Kanschat said. The revamped food service likely will include a full-service, sit-down restaurant, an outdoor cafe and several food and coffee carts scattered throughout the museum's grounds, she added.

The renovations will make the museum a much more user-friendly facility, said Robert Barrett, associate vice president of cultural tourism with the L.A. Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Museums can be gathering places for people, almost like town squares, where you can have a whole range of experiences," he said. "They're taking into account that a museum is a destination in addition to being a depository of art."

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