They stand quietly. Headphones flush against their ears. Audio devices hanging from their necks. Some gaze intently at a bronze sculpture of a young Hercules strangling a snake. Others browse the glass display case housing an ornately decorated red-leather-bound book with bass scarabs containing prints of the ruins and artifacts of Pompeii.
They've come to experience "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples," one of this year's big shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened May 3 and explores the lifestyles of urban elite in ancient Pompeii. But some of the museum's attendees are finding that their quest to explore the lifestyles of the rich is leaving them a little less so.
Adult admission is $25 (which includes an audio tour); but if you're willing to catch a twilight viewing, that price falls to $20 after 5 p.m. Children 17 and younger get in free, provided they are accompanied by a paying adult. And those hoping to avoid box-office lines can expect to pay a $2 service fee for online purchases.
It's the highest price LACMA has charged for admission to a special exhibition, said museum spokeswoman Allison Agsten. But she pointed out that the museum has repeatedly boosted admission prices for special exhibitions over the last 25 years to accommodate inflation. Adult admission to "Pompeii: Life in the Roman Town" a decade ago was $15, with an optional audio tour priced for an additional $5. In the last couple of years, admission to the specially ticketed exhibits "Dali: Painting & Film" and "Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images," was $20 on weekends, $17 on weekdays.
"We stand by our decision to charge $25 for this exhibit," Agsten said. "It's a really spectacular show and it's deserving to be specially ticketed."
The blogosphere has been buzzing about the double-digit price tag. One blog suggested that LACMA ought to offer discounts to repeat visitors. Another lambasted the "non-imperative" $25 exhibition fee.
Despite the cyberspace hoopla, a random sampling of visitors to the exhibition didn't turn up any who seemed to mind forking over the dough.
"It's the first time I've been to LACMA," said Sharon Hennegen, 50, of Huntington Beach. Her husband purchased three tickets to the exhibit online. "I really enjoyed it. It was definitely worth the money."
Stephen Godwin, 62, of Los Angeles, agreed, adding that there has to be a source of revenue for the museum to recoup the cost of the exhibition.
"I think it's perfectly fair," said Godwin, who has been a LACMA member for five years. "It costs a lot of money to put together a show like this. It's a huge undertaking. And if art enthusiasts want LACMA to continue exhibiting shows like 'Pompeii,' they'll have to be willing to dig through their wallets."
The museum hopes the exhibition will draw about 7,000 visitors a week. Attendance through Sunday was 17,629; of that, 14,876 were LACMA members; 2,084 were paying adults; 669 were children.
Susan Reep, 62, of Bakersfield admitted that $25 would be the most she'd be willing to spend on admission to any exhibit. But she added that visitors are naive to expect to see the artifacts on display at no cost.
"You can see plenty for free," said Reep, who visited the real Pompeii last year and enjoyed seeing remnants of its past at the museum. "If you really want to see the show, you'll find a way to pay for it. You don't get something for nothing."
That is, unless you plan a visit to the museum on June 9, the first in a series of free days to the Pompeii exhibition. Visitors can reserve tickets online at lacma.org starting June 1.
If a free day isn't an option, perhaps the lure of a membership is. A couple willing to drop $50 on two tickets might find a $90 membership for the year attractive (members receive two free tickets). But raising admission prices to exhibits isn't simply a marketing tool to entice new memberships, Agsten said.
"We certainly hope that it will generate new members," she said. "But setting the ticket price is more complex than that."
Camille Marcione, 35, of North Hollywood, had no complaints about paying the fee, but given the option of a low-cost plane ticket to the actual city, she'd opt for the latter.
"It was great . . . but nothing beats going to Pompeii itself."