Staff Reporter

While many benefited from the Van Gogh exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ranging from local hotels to the museum itself the show might have given its biggest boost to an unlikely player: Washington Mutual Inc.

The Seattle-based savings and loan used its sponsorship of the exhibit to enhance its visibility in the L.A. market where it was launching a major expansion drive during the first half of this year.

A study of the economic impact of the exhibit showed that 58 percent of LACMA visitors surveyed by the firm were aware of the corporate sponsorship. Of those, 98 percent were aware that the sponsor was Washington Mutual. The study was prepared for the museum by Jackson, Wyo.-based Morey and Associates Inc.

"From our experience, this is an unusually high level of awareness of a sponsor," the firm wrote in its report, released last week.

That awareness was especially useful for Washington Mutual, which is a new entrant to the L.A. banking business. Over the past few years, Washington Mutual has bought up L.A.'s biggest thrifts, including American Savings, Great Western Bank and H.F. Ahmanson, the parent of Home Savings, which itself had bought Coast Federal Bank shortly before its own acquisition by Washington Mutual.

"We were brand new to the California market, and Los Angeles being our largest market, it was a fabulous time, just as we put our name on a bunch of branches, to get some visibility," said Christine Schrader, the bank's assistant vice president for community marketing.

Neither Schrader nor LACMA officials would disclose how much Washington Mutual contributed to the show, citing a confidentiality agreement. The contribution helped pay for transporting 6,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students and 1,600 teachers to the museum, as well as providing lesson plans to the teachers.

Washington Mutual had its name on Van Gogh street banners, in newspaper and magazine advertisements, and on a kiosk at the museum.

John Stafford, vice president of the San Francisco-based California Bankers Association, said it is not unusual for a company to use a philanthropic contribution to establish itself in a new market.

"It's referred to as 'strategic philanthropy,' " Stafford said. "When any mass-market institution is in the midst of a rollout into a new market, it's incumbent upon them to not only gain name recognition, but make a positive impact in the community and be recognized for that."

Washington Mutual was just one of many institutions to benefit from the Van Gogh exhibit. The show injected $121.9 million into the county's economy, according to the study, including $39 million in personal income to residents of L.A. County and $2.9 million in sales and hotel occupancy taxes.

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