Hollywood, Disneyland and beaches may top the to-do list of many tourists, but hoards of them will end up seeing everything from African dancers to Dutch tulips to wooly mammoths.

Local museums hope to appeal to wider audiences by offering an eclectic mix of exhibits, activities and performances for children and adults. Their efforts will help draw thousands of visitors to the area in the coming months and will likely bring millions of dollars into the local economy.

"There has been an acute increase in awareness that Los Angeles is a museum city," said Robert Barrett, vice president of domestic marketing at the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We've gotten significant attention in that regard from every major publication in the world."

Barrett attributes the jump in popularity to several factors, including the opening of the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1997 and promotional campaigns for various exhibitions.

While exhibits, not seasons, ultimately drive the number of visitors that a museum can expect, local facilities are optimistic about the fast-approaching summer months.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has been selling tickets for "Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s," an exhibit focusing on the 19th century American painter that isn't set to open until June 10.

"We're doing a brisk business," said Kirsten Schmidt, a LACMA spokeswoman. "We will have a little jump (in attendance) this summer because of the Homer exhibition."

The Getty expects to attract even more than the 380,000 people who came through its galleries and gardens in June, July and August of last year, in part because visitors won't be required to make parking reservations as they have in past summers, said Andrea Leonard, head of visitor services at the museum. The Getty cancelled its reservation policy in September and also began offering free off-site parking and shuttle services.

Pursuing younger crowds

Like other museums in the area, the Getty is focusing on attracting kids and adults this summer by offering family-oriented activities, including the "Getty Family Festival," with storytelling, puppet shows and arts and crafts. "Artful Sundays" in June will give parents and their children a chance to work together on art projects.

"Museums are a little bit concerned that, in the past, they haven't catered to families," Leonard said. "Appealing to families and children is important. They're the audience for the future."

The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles is also hoping to appeal to a younger crowd.

"Our core audience tends to be a bit older," said Stacy Lieberman, the museum's marketing director. "We are sort of taking a keen interest in bringing families to the Skirball."

In addition to offering summer camps for kids, the museum will feature a child on the cover of its July/August program guide.

"We're hoping to identify with parents looking for activities," Lieberman said.

The museum also plans to soon kick off "Skirball Summer," a print and radio advertising campaign.

Museums are shedding their once-stuffy images and shifting their focus from collecting artworks to educating the public, said Teri Knoll, executive director of the California Association of Museums, based in Santa Ana.

"Museums are much more interactive today," Knoll said. "It increases the interest. People aren't just walking into a mausoleum and looking at dead objects."

Among those places that really get visitors involved in the exhibits are the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the La Brea Tar Pits.

Recently opened at the museum, "Tiniest Giants: Discovering Dinosaur Eggs" gives kids a chance to view and touch fossils discovered in Argentina. At the tar pits, visitors can observe archeological digs in the summertime.

Gauging economic impact

Specific financial information about the economic impact that the county's many museums have on the region is not tracked, but studies show that the museums generate billions of dollars.

An economic impact analysis commissioned by LACMA found that 1.3 million people visited the facility during the 1998-99 fiscal year, bringing $195.4 million into the local economy. Those figures were up from 821,000 visitors and $80.1 million the previous year.

Like Barrett, Knoll credited the opening of the Getty with attracting visitors to museums throughout the county.

"(People) will come to see the Getty Museum and then maybe decide to see other museums in the area," she said.

While museums on the East Coast have long gotten much of the art world's attention, their competitors out west appear to be gaining in recognition.

"The center of gravity has shifted from New York," said Cynthia Wornham, a marketing executive who oversees promotions for the Norton Simon Museum and others. "L.A. is increasingly seen, by people across the country and around the world, as the hub of new art activity."

Outside interest in the area's art scene led the Norton Simon and UCLA Hammer museums to promote themselves in national and international tourism publications, Wornham said.

She expects "Snapshot: New Art from Los Angeles," a showcase of 25 local artists coming to the Hammer in June, to attract many younger European tourists.

Exhibits of local interest are also meant to draw area residents.

"A big base of our visitors is the community," said Schmidt of LACMA, which recently ended the controversial "Made in California" exhibit focusing on artists from the state.

Concerts, dance performances and festivals, many of them free, are also attracting locals to area museums.

Showcasing local art and talent can, in turn, help attract tourists, Knoll said.

"In the last few years, there's been a growing focus on what we call 'authentic travel experiences,'" she said. "People want to come to city and feel they're involved in the real persona of the city."

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