By LARRY KANTER

Senior Reporter

You've seen the paintings. Now, buy the lunchbox.

The much-publicized Vincent van Gogh exhibition, which opened last week at the L.A. County Museum of Art, may be a cultural coup for L.A.'s arts community, but the exhibit's extensive gift shop represents a triumph of an entirely different nature the triumph of merchandising.

In addition to such standard fare as prints, postcards and catalogs, there are playing cards ($15.95 for a two-deck set), mousepad ($15.95), paperweight ($19.50) and T-shirt ($14.95). A silk scarf, displaying the troubled impressionist's golden wheat fields or lavender irises, retails for $98. A "Letters to Theo" stationery set fetches $9.95.

Then there's the Van Gogh lunchbox, decorated with the artist's famous sunflowers or an image from his 1888 painting "The Bedroom." It sells for $12.95. Beach towels and commuter mugs are on the way. So is a cotton baseball cap, with the artist's self-portrait on the front, his signature stitched on the back.

All told, the shop features more than 100 different items and could well represent a new apex of museum merchandising. LACMA's recent Pablo Picasso exhibition, itself heavily merchandised, had just 50 or so items for sale.

The array of merchandise was developed over the past year by officials at LACMA and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which sent 70 paintings on the road while renovating its facilities, including its own popular gift shop. The exhibition closed a successful three-month run at the National Gallery of Art in Washington before heading to Los Angeles, where it remains until May 16. Some 900,000 people are expected to attend the show in Los Angeles.

The goal of all the Van Gogh products, according to Cim Castellon, LACMA's general merchandising manager, is "to emulate the collection and bring it into a three-dimensional format so that it can become a token or souvenir for visitors to the museum."

It's a trend that rankles many art lovers.

"It vulgarizes a museum," said Robert Hughes, art critic for Time magazine. "I don't see any reason why a museum should treat its visitors like a bunch of morons going to a theme park, hunting for souvenirs. There's nothing wrong with selling books or tapes or reproductions. But beach towels? Come on."

Castellon's reaction? "It's fun," she said. "Besides, our customers expect us to come up with novel items."

The critics and the marketers can argue all they want, but in many ways the battle already has been won and not by the aesthetes.

Faced with declining government and corporate support, museums have little choice but to hunt for funding wherever possible, said New York-based museum consultant David Resnicow. For many major institutions, gift-shop sales represent as much as 10 percent of annual operating revenues, he said.

Still, Resnicow added, "You have to be careful not to demean the cultural source of the exhibit."

So were there any items that LACMA opted to avoid? Baseballs were briefly considered, Castellon said, but the Dutch contingent decided such items would not sell well back home, where America's favorite pastime is a mere curiosity.

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