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L.A. to Draw on Van Gogh as Tourist Lure

Museum, Tourism Industry Make Big Push to Market Region as a Cultural Destination


One year after the unveiling of the celebrated Getty Center, Los Angeles will again capture the attention of the art world, this time with a major Van Gogh exhibition that will also highlight efforts to market Southern California as a significant cultural destination--and hopefully pump more tourism-generated revenue into the region's economy.

To whet appetites among out-of-town art lovers for a city better known for "Baywatch" than ballet, local hotels and museums have joined forces with corporate sponsors and others in a $1.5-million national marketing blitz to draw visitors to Los Angeles for both the Van Gogh show and a spin-off tour showcasing other fine-arts venues in the area.

The marketing push is considered one of the biggest ever for a single art exhibition. And why not? The 70-piece "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam," which opens Jan. 17 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is considered something of a cultural coup. Los Angeles is one of just two cities to host the collection, the largest assemblage of Van Gogh's work to travel outside the Netherlands in 25 years. Some of the works have never before been seen in the United States.

Among the canvases to be shown are the artist's seminal "Potato Eaters" and his last work, "Wheatfield With Crows."

The marketing of Van Gogh is just the latest move in a strategy to use Southern California's cultural attractions to help boost the average tourist's stay in the region from three nights to four. The extra day could bring in as much as $1.2 billion in additional revenue for the local economy, said Robert Barrett, director of cultural tourism for the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We are hoping we can use culture to make Los Angeles alluring enough that we can get people to stay one more day with us," Barrett said.

Even before its opening, the Van Gogh exhibition is drawing attention from arts and tourism experts. Jerry Kappel, director of development for the American Assn. of Museums, called the campaign to promote the exhibition a "benchmark for cultural tourism."

"It's probably the largest marketing effort for a single exhibition," he said.

Encouraging so-called cultural tourism has become popular nationwide as civic boosters look for ways to maximize the leisure-time draw of their cities and regions. These days, cultural travelers are an especially hot commodity. According to a recent study by the Travel Industry Assn. of America, vacationers who include cultural activities in their trips tend to stay longer at their destinations and spend more money than tourists who do not.

"What cultural tourism does is provide more product for the travel industry," said Kappel, whose group represents roughly 3,000 museums nationwide.

Packaging Southern California as a cultural mecca received a major lift last year with the opening of the $1-billion Getty Center.

Widespread media coverage surrounding the center's architecture and its highly touted art collections helped plant the idea of Los Angeles as a cultural hot spot in many minds, said John Morey of Wyoming-based Morey & Associates, a marketing research firm specializing in cultural attractions.

"The opening of the Getty Center caused a lot of excitement for people," Morey said. "When you have a world-class museum open like that, it can't do anything but help raise L.A's stature as a cultural center."

Since its December 1997 debut, the Getty has attracted nearly 2 million visitors, officials said, with about 60% of them coming from outside Los Angeles County.

The Van Gogh exhibition, which will run 11 weeks at LACMA West, the museum's annex in the landmark former May Co. department store at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, has for the moment taken the Getty's place as the area's cultural star of the hour. Museum officials are expecting 600,000 to attend the show.

In advance of the exhibition, the visitors bureau, the city's Cultural Affairs Department and American Express have launched a print media campaign that is expected to reach roughly 11 million people nationwide through ads in seven national magazines and newspapers. Another 50,000 ads have been earmarked for direct mail to American Express cardholders.

Ads, running now through January, range from black-and-white newspaper displays to full-color, eight-page inserts, all offering free admission to anyone booking a night at one of eight hotels participating in the campaign. In addition, LACMA has mailed 1.3 million circulars offering two exhibition tickets in exchange for every new membership to the museum.

Tourism officials hope the campaign will touch a chord among art lovers, given the exhibition's resounding popularity at its first stopover at the National Gallery in Washington. The display, which opened Oct. 4 and is free, has drawn nearly 5,000 visitors a day. Roughly 450,000 people are expected to see the show there before it closes Jan. 4.

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