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By SARA FISHER

Staff Reporter

The largest collection of Vincent van Gogh's work to travel outside of the Netherlands in more than 25 years comes to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in January bringing with it an economic and cultural boon most cities would covet.

Yet LACMA was not forced to vie, bid or beg for the show. Nor was the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the 70-painting exhibit, which includes works never before seen in the United States, currently is on display to sold-out crowds.

Instead, it all came together over drinks in Rome.

The story behind how Los Angeles landed this major event typifies how the museum world often works. Just as in other sectors of the business world, relationships can mean everything. It also reflects the importance attached to a major visiting exhibit.

LACMA's coup actually goes back two years when the director of the National Gallery of Art, Earl A. Powel III, visited the Netherlands after his museum hosted a popular exhibit on Dutch artist Johann Vermeer. While in Amsterdam, Powel made a courtesy call on Ronald de Leeuw, then director of the Van Gogh Museum.

During their chat, Powel learned that the Van Gogh Museum was preparing for major renovations, and likely would be forced to temporarily close. Powel said that if the museum did shut down, the National Gallery would be interested in showing some of its work.

Nothing happened for a year.

Then, at the International Museum Directors' conference, held in Rome in the spring of 1997, Powel learned that the Van Gogh Museum would, in fact, be closed for remodeling. Powel moved quickly, scheduling a meeting that same day with the Amsterdam museum's new director, John Leighton. Powel, who headed LACMA from 1980 to 1992, then located LACMA's new director, Graham W.J. Beal, and pulled him into the meeting.

Over drinks later that day, the three men agreed in principle to organize a tour.

No other cities were considered to host the show. The tour is short, ending in time for the Van Gogh Museum's May 1999 reopening.

"We liked the idea of the National Art Gallery, since it is considered the official museum for the United States and very prestigious," said Heidi Vandamme, a spokeswoman for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. "Los Angeles sounded good since it is the nation's second-largest city and it would give the exhibit a West Coast presence."

Andrea Rich, president and chief executive of LACMA, said L.A. was the obvious choice not only for those reasons, but also because it is the home of the West Coast's largest museum.

"Our close relationship with Rusty (Powel) didn't hurt either," she added.

After more than a year of exhaustive planning, the event, officially titled "Van Gogh's Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam," debuted in Washington on Oct. 4. About 378,000 people are expected to visit the gallery over the 12-week run. Determined art lovers have been lining up as early as 4 a.m. to receive the few same-day passes that have been held in reserve.

LACMA officials expect similar pandemonium. The museum has roughly 500,000 tickets for its 11-week show, 400,000 of which will be available to the general public through Ticketmaster. The remainder are earmarked for museum members, corporate sponsors, and the L.A. Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"This is a major event for the entire West Coast, a super blockbuster with the type of huge audience appeal we haven't seen since the King Tut exhibit," said Harry S. Parker, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "I know that I will be asked a thousand times why this venue went to L.A. rather than here.

"I'll just have to keep a stiff upper lip," he joked. "We try not to get mad, but to get even."

Neither Parker nor other museum leaders expressed resentment over not having the opportunity to vie for the Van Gogh exhibit. Instead, they characterized over-drink agreements as a relatively common occurrence.

The upper echelon of the international art world is a tightly knit community, with a small group of people moving in the same circles and sometimes moving through the same jobs. National and international conferences bring the geographically scattered players together on a regular basis, and acquaintances are cultivated.

"Museums are just like big business, where many deals come out of personal relationships and seemingly casual conversations," said Melissa Rosengard, executive director of the Oakland-based Western Museums Association. "It's actually very common for exhibits to come about this way. A major reason why directors attend these conventions is exactly for those reasons: the networking and the deal making."

Trust also plays a role in organizing an exhibit. Entrusting almost priceless collections of art to another's hands requires an immense level of confidence. Having personal ties, as is the case between the National Gallery and LACMA, eases the process along.

"It's your personal credibility that you put on the line with these exhibits," said Edward Able, president and chief executive of the American Association of Museums, an almost 100-year-old organization in Washington that hosts annual conferences. "The lenders have to have faith in the recipients' ability to handle the exhibits, be it the cost or the crowds," he said. "That level of trust may come more easily through personal contacts than through planning committees."

Most museum directors accept the networking dynamic as the reality of the industry.

"It is something of a good old boys network, since there are really no more than a dozen players at the top level of the international art scene," said San Francisco's Parker. "The tightness of the network isn't a bad thing. It's just how the industry works."

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