A month before the Vincent van Gogh exhibit debuts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the show is proving to be quite a boon, both for the museum and for local hotels.

Some 151,000 tickets have already been sold, about 25 percent of the total available. In addition, LACMA has seen its membership jump by nearly 50 percent in recent months, partly as a result of offering new members two free tickets each to the upcoming Van Gogh show and the current Pablo Picasso exhibit. That offer has sent LACMA's membership, at 64,000 on July 1, soaring to 95,000 as of last week, said museum spokesman Adam Coyne.

Meanwhile, at least eight local hotels selling Van Gogh tour packages report a strong response. Some have booked more than 1,000 room nights, said Robert Barrett, a spokesman with the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Regent Beverly Wilshire has so far sold 505 packages each of which includes two tickets, an exhibit catalog and a hotel room. The packages go for $350 and up for the first night, and $285 and up for each additional night.

"It's been extremely popular," said Peter O'Colmain, vice president and general manager.

The eight hotels were allotted 60,000 tickets, or 10 percent of the total. To date, they have purchased 16,000 of those tickets, which are included in the 151,000 total tickets sold so far.

Even the museum gift shop is getting in on the action. In addition to the usual tote bags and posters, it's offering an absinthe carafe and goblets inspired by a Van Gogh painting.

Little surprise, considering that more than half a million people are expected to view the exhibit, which is slated to run from Jan. 17 through April 4 at the old May Co. building on Wilshire Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue. That Streamline Moderne-style former department store has been renovated and renamed LACMA West.

The strong response comes despite hefty ticket prices $17.50 for weekdays and $20 on weekends, apparently the highest prices ever charged for a museum showing in the United States. LACMA also has extended its hours and days of operation during the run to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

The exhibit is causing a stir largely because it is the largest collection of the revered Dutch artist's works to travel outside the Netherlands in more than 25 years, and includes canvases never before seen in the United States. In addition, Los Angeles is one of only two U.S. cities getting the exhibit. The other is Washington, D.C., where Van Gogh is currently on display to sold-out crowds at the National Gallery of Art.

Angelenos' strong response seems to have been boosted by LACMA's offer to give new members free tickets. At the beginning of the summer, the museum undertook a direct-mail campaign to 1.5 million potential members, touting the offer.

As of Dec. 1, the membership went up to $65 from $55. LACMA officials said the rate increase is not tied to the surge in membership.

Even if all the new members just paid the $55 rate, the museum would have made almost $1.6 million. Some of the new membership proceeds will also be used to cover expenses related to the exhibit, such as the increased insurance, staffing, security and maintenance, Coyne said.

The museum still maintains that it only expects to break even on the exhibit, because it is costly to mount. Citing security concerns, LACMA declined to release estimates on the cost of putting on the exhibit, saying only that it will run into several million dollars.

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