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'Warhol' Draws Well at MOCA

Museums* No long waits, no mob scenes or sell-out crowds, but the gamble on the Pop artist is, so far, paying off.

July 08, 2002|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Museum of Contemporary Art pulled out all the stops to present its current exhibition, "Andy Warhol Retrospective." Seizing an unexpected opportunity to bring the landmark survey of the celebrated Pop artist's work to Los Angeles--the only U.S. venue--the museum joined forces with the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, garnered financial support from the city, corporate sponsors and private patrons, and negotiated loans of the artworks in record time--about six months instead of the usual three or four years.

At the same time, the museum was struggling with the loss of a multimillion-dollar pledge, which forced it to trim $2 million from its $15-million operating budget.

Taking on the Warhol show would have been an expensive project for MOCA at the best of times. The cost of additional security and extended operating hours has pushed the exhibition budget from about $2 million to nearly $3 million. But the show is also an opportunity to fill the museum's coffers and build an audience and donor base that might help to sustain it in the future.

Midway into the 12-week exhibition, the gamble seems to be paying off. In fact, because financing was in place prior to opening of the show, MOCA stands to make a profit.

"Andy Warhol Retrospective" hasn't created a mob scene. The museum has yet to sell out a single time slot for the specially ticketed show. Although visitors are encouraged to purchase advance tickets through Ticketmaster, they can simply go to the museum in downtown Los Angeles, buy a ticket at the box office and--most of the time--walk right into the galleries. Lines form before the museum opens and occasionally at other times, but visitors rarely have to wait more than a few minutes.

Still, attendance is meeting projections, MOCA director Jeremy Strick said. During its first six weeks, Warhol has brought 80,000 visitors to the museum. If that flow continues, total attendance will fall within the predicted range of 150,000 to 200,000. Different versions of the exhibition attracted about 200,000 visitors to both a 13 1/2-week run at the New National Gallery in Berlin and a 7 1/2-week engagement the Tate Modern in London.

In Los Angeles, Warhol is expected to be MOCA's best-attended show to date. "At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture" brought 150,000 visitors in 2000, but it continued for 23 weeks, nearly twice as long as Warhol. "David Hockney Retrospective: Photoworks," an unusually popular show, attracted 88,400 visitors over 13 weeks in 2001.

Joining the Cause

Sales of memberships, which include two tickets to Warhol, are up as well. The museum has 15,000 members on its roll, about 3,600 more than at the same time last year. With Warhol tickets priced at $12 on weekdays and $17 on weekends for adults, $6 and $8 for children 12 and under, many people are opting for memberships, which start at $60.

MOCA's store--stocked with dozens of Warhol items, from beaded bags to light-switch plates--is also doing a brisk business. During the first five weeks of the show, the shop racked up $700,000 in sales, about four times the usual sum. The take includes $420,000 worth of Warhol goodies: 25,000 postcards, 12,000 magnets, 6,000 catalogs, 3,000 T-shirts and 2,500 posters.

Who's going to the show and buying all this stuff? A survey commissioned by the Convention & Visitors Bureau and conducted by Focus Inc. indicates that 47% of the visitors live outside Los Angeles County: 21.8% in other parts of California, 18.2% in other states and 7% in other countries. Half the visitors have never been to the museum before.

Nearly 80% of the out-of-towners are staying overnight in the Los Angeles area. In fact, they are spending an average of 5.9 nights, according to the survey. That's considerably more than the typical 3.7 nights, said David W. Sheatsley, director of research at the bureau.

Though it appears the bureau's advertising campaign has brought many visitors to Los Angeles, most of them are not buying hotel packages that include tickets to the exhibition, said Robert Barrett, the bureau's vice president of domestic marketing. "If the exhibition was sold out, our packages would be selling like crazy. But people discover that they can go any day, so they elect lower room rates, go to MOCA on their own and buy tickets the day they go to the show."

Figures from the survey will be used to produce an economic impact study when the exhibition closes. "We can't guess the result, but I think it will be very respectable," Barrett said. "A significant number of wallets that wouldn't otherwise be in Los Angeles are here, and some of that green stuff is being spread around."

Indeed, the MOCA exhibition has spawned a sort of Warhol fever, with other venues staging their own shows, films, lectures and related events.

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