Logistics/toledano/40"/mike1st/mark2nd

By SARA FISHER and

JESSICA TOLEDANO

Staff Reporters

It's the biggest art event to hit Los Angeles in at least a decade.

It will inject more than $87 million into the local economy.

Some 500,000 people will see it 500 to 700 an hour.

It is, of course, the Vincent van Gogh exhibit, coming to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in January and already wowing thousands each day at Washington's National Gallery of Art, the only other city where the exhibit is being shown.

The 70 Van Goghs will actually be housed in the old May Co. building, re-christened LACMA West, during the Jan. 17 through April 4 run. Final touches are being put on a major renovation of the circa-1939 Streamline-Moderne building on the northeast corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

"This event signals a great opportunity for the museum and for the city as a whole," said Andrea Rich, LACMA's president and CEO. "Van Gogh is an immensely popular artist, and we're anticipating a lot of interest. We're doing everything we can to accommodate it."

Landing blockbuster exhibits has become the museum industry's brass ring, not only for the prestige but also, not surprisingly, for the money. They may not bring immediate profits, as with LACMA, but they tend to bring in new museum members. Meanwhile, host cities enjoy a surge in tourism.

"Blockbuster exhibits build a wider audience for museums since it attracts a whole new group of people who may never have ventured in before," said Edward Able, president and chief executive of the American Association of Museums. "Then there is a cultural and fiscal trickle-down effect, benefiting the community at large."

Just as the opening of the Getty Center last year focused worldwide attention on L.A., this exhibit again puts the city on the lips of art aficionados.

"Los Angeles has truly committed itself to becoming a cultural capital," said Able. "L.A. has more museums in its city limits than anywhere else, and is undertaking significant endeavors. In terms of cultural and economic dividends, this kind of event is the best investment that can be made."

Local tourism officials expect Van Gogh's impact on L.A. to surpass that of the highly acclaimed 1996 exhibit of Paul C & #233;zanne paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the only U.S. stop on an international tour, which generated $86.5 million for that city over its 14-week run.

"We expect to beat Philadelphia," said Robert Barrett, associate vice president of cultural tourism at the L.A. Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Phones are already ringing at Ticketmaster, and tickets don't go on sale for almost another month."

In November, the visitors bureau will launch a $1.5 million ad campaign touting hotel and museum packages in such publications as the New Yorker, USA Today and Travel & Leisure.

LACMA has set aside 60,000 tickets solely for tourists who stay at local hotels. In fact, Barrett predicts that some Angelenos will be forced to book hotel rooms just to get exhibit tickets a phenomenon that occurred during the Cezanne exhibit in Philadelphia.

Tickets go on sale to the general public Nov. 15, and will cost up to $20. But despite the expected sell-out crowds, LACMA does not expect to profit from the exhibit itself.

"The financial side is mostly break even, but the point of the show really is to bring this experience to our constituents," said Rich. "Of course, we will also work to convert first-time visitors to full-time attendees."

Expenses will be considerable, including insurance, transportation, security and marketing. To promote the show, LACMA is launching a $400,000 regional marketing campaign, the largest ever undertaken by the museum. Radio and print ads will run in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and Denver. There will also be 500 pole banners scattered throughout the city.

Upon its arrival in Los Angeles, artwork will be housed in five temperature-controlled rooms encompassing about 9,000 square feet of the 290,000-square-foot May Co. building.

LACMA curator J. Patrice Marandel and Bernard Kester, dean of the school of architecture at UCLA, have created a 3-foot by 4-foot mock-up of the exhibit, complete with miniature images of each of the Van Gogh paintings glued to the walls of the dollhouse-sized model. Marandel plans to go to the National Gallery within the next few weeks to get a first-hand look at the paintings and frames, to make sure there aren't any surprises.

"It has to be very organized, like sheet music," said Marandel. "I am a little bit nervous about it."

What makes Marandel especially nervous is the fact that because of the tight time schedule, he only has one week to set up the exhibit compared with the usual three or four weeks for such a large showing.

Another concern is security. The museum would not reveal anything about its plans to step up security staff or how the paintings will be transported from Washington to Los Angeles. But Det. Donald Hrycyk of the L.A. Police Department's art theft detail acknowledged that "(theft) is a real threat. It does occur."

The Indemnity Program of the National Endowment for the Arts is partially insuring the exhibit, with the other insurer's identity not being revealed for security reasons, according to Keith McKeown, a LACMA spokesman.

LACMA officials are also carefully planning out how to best deal with the anticipated crush of visitors and they've learned a few lessons from Washington's National Gallery about what not to do.

The National Gallery decided to make its Van Gogh tickets free, and as a result the entire supply of tickets had been handed out after the first two hours. Scalpers are having a field day, selling the tickets for more than $75 apiece.

"We knew it would be popular, but we never imagined it would be this popular," said Debra Ziska, spokeswoman for the National Gallery. "It has been an organized frenzy."

To avoid that, LACMA is rolling out its Van Gogh tickets in phases. Beginning Nov. 1, each member of the museum will be eligible to get two free tickets. Then, beginning Nov. 15, tickets will become available to the general public through Ticketmaster, at $17.50 per ticket for weekday showings and $20 for weekends. Various discounts will be offered to seniors, children and groups.

After Jan. 10, tickets can be purchased at the LACMA box office, where Washington-style chaos may ensue. Scalpers, however, will not be tolerated.

"We have a lot of experience in this gallery. We will be more than prepared," said McKeown.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.