SARA FISHER

Staff Reporter

As the prized Van Gogh exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum hits the mid-point of its 17-week run, reality is not quite living up to the hype that has surrounded the show since it came to Washington last fall.

That's not to say the exhibit hasn't been a significant success both for the museum and for L.A.'s tourist industry. But the enthusiasm of tourism- and hospitality-industry officials has been dampened by one simple fact: The show didn't sell out.

Once the exhibit's run was extended from the original 11 weeks to 17, the frenzy for tickets dissipated.

"There's nothing quite like a sold-out situation to sell room packages and more tickets. Then, both tourists and locals pay for hotel rooms simply to get their hands on tickets," said Robert Barrett, associate vice president of cultural tourism for the L.A. Convention and Visitors Bureau, which was allocated 60,000 tickets for use in promotions by local hotels. "We have used a lot of the tickets earmarked for the Van Gogh hotel package, but we're not going to use the full 60,000."

Local ticket brokers also reported a slump in business once the show was extended and it became clear that it would not sell out. Many brokers say the number of calls has been steadily declining, from as many as 700 calls a week to around 200.

As interest died down, Santa Monica Ticket Services had to sell about 10 percent of its Van Gogh ticket holdings at a loss, and another 10 percent couldn't be sold at all.

"We expected the show to be much bigger than it is and over-bought, which is a basic risk in this business," said company owner Brian Baumwoll. "We stopped buying additional tickets as soon as the museum extended the run."

Despite the disappointing results, museum officials say more than 600,000 tickets have been sold and every remaining weekend has completely sold out. LACMA's memberships have doubled since last summer, gift-shop sales have exceeded expectations, and the museum has hosted special receptions at the gallery virtually every night.

The Convention & Visitors Bureau, meanwhile, reports that tourists have filled more than 10,000 local hotel rooms through special exhibit packages. And thanks largely to the buzz generated by this event, LACMA has been named the sole U.S. stop for an upcoming international exhibit of Pompeii art.

LACMA records show that attendance has been fairly steady over the course of the run, ranging from 5,000 to over 7,000 visitors per day. The frenzy surrounding the exhibit is expected to be refueled once procrastinating art lovers realize that their window of opportunity is closing.

In April, both LACMA and the Visitors Bureau will run local and national ads that emphasize the exhibit's closing date. "We expect sales to surge at the end if the Van Gogh show follows the typical pattern," said LACMA spokesman Adam Coyne.

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