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No Tut Curse for Local Economy

LACMA expects to net $2.5 million from the exhibit of Egyptian artifacts. Mayor says Los Angeles benefited too.

November 04, 2005|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Legend has it that a curse descends on those who tamper with King Tut's treasures, but displaying them has brought many blessings to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- starting with the $2.5 million that LACMA expects to net by the time "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" closes Nov. 20 and heads off for the rest of its 27-month U.S. tour.

During a midday news conference Thursday outside the exhibition, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the Tut display also has been a boon to the broader Los Angeles economy, boosting tourism and generating $200 million in direct spending and additional ripple effects, according to an estimate by the regional tourism trade association L.A. Inc. Attendance has reached 850,000 and is expected to pass 900,000 -- despite record prices for an American art museum show of $25 weekdays and $30 on weekends.

Villaraigosa also trumpeted the educational benefits, aesthetic pleasures and civic prestige brought by the show and pledged "a renewed commitment to arts and culture" under his administration. Municipal arts funding has dropped from $13.8 million to $9.6 million since 2001, placing L.A. near the bottom among big cities.

"When San Francisco, a city one-fifth the size, spends more than we do on arts and culture, you know something's wrong," Villaraigosa said.

Presenting 120 objects from the tombs of Tut and several of his royal Egyptian forebears appears to have worked for LACMA, which is playing host to the show; for AEG, the L.A.-based arts and entertainment company that paid the expenses; and for the Egyptian government, which provided the artifacts. AEG's president, Timothy J. Leiweke, said Tut's L.A. run should earn his company a profit -- he wouldn't say how much -- but not as much as Egypt, which expects to reap about $9 million.

Leiweke and LACMA President Melody Kanschat noted that they tried to maximize attendance yet avoid the overcrowding often considered a drawback of blockbuster museum shows. Kanschat said ticket sales were limited to 550 per hour, although building and fire codes permitted more than 800.

"I have been so surprised, so pleased, that complaints have been minimal," she said.

LACMA's earnings come from parking and food sales revenues, rental fees for special events connected to the exhibition and from a cut of the gate. Kanschat said two-thirds of Tut visitors are new to the museum or have not been there in at least two years. About 100,000 are children, half of whom came with school groups. After spending an average of about 1 1/2 hours in the Tut building, Kanschat said, about 15% of the crowd stays to take in other galleries, gaining exposure to a permanent collection that presumably could inspire lasting interest and return visits.

Some critics have accused the nonprofit museum of compromising its ideals by playing landlord to a profit-making enterprise.

"This hasn't made us impure in any way," Kanschat said. "The quality of art, the presentation -- we're proud of this exhibition. It's got the stamp of a fine-arts museum."

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