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Attendance at L.A. museums lags behind

Only the Getty and LACMA make the Art Newspaper's top 100 survey of museum attendance worldwide.

March 30, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Although attendance has grown in recent years, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art still trails the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which recorded 1.1 million in attendance.
Although attendance has grown in recent years, the Los Angeles County Museum… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Although Los Angeles is home to one of the most dynamic art scenes in the world, its leading art museums continue to lag behind those of smaller cities in annual attendance, according to a new survey out Tuesday.

Only two Southern California institutions, the Getty Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, made the top-100 list in the Art Newspaper's international survey of museum attendance. With 1,205,685 visitors last year, the Getty came in 33rd, behind not just the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with more than 5 million but also San Francisco's De Young Museum with 2 million and the Art Institute of Chicago at 1.6 million.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art ranked No. 53 on the list, with 914,356 visitors. Although attendance has grown in recent years, it still trails the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which recorded 1.1 million in attendance.

Other Southern California museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Hammer Museum, did not make the list at all.

This might come as a surprise given the increasingly loud buzz about Los Angeles as an arts center, with its ongoing influx of artists and galleries. But interviews with museum officials, along with analysis by the Los Angeles Times of visitor information supplied by the museums, point to several possible reasons, including urban sprawl, the absence of blockbuster exhibitions here last year and difficulties attracting out-of-town visitors.

"I think the Getty has put the spotlight on L.A. as a destination for art," says Ron Hartwig, vice president of communications for the J. Paul Getty Trust. "But I don't think the effect has rubbed off on other museums here as much as we would like."

Hartwig says that museum surveys show that visitors think of the Getty "in the same vocabulary" as Disneyland and Universal Studios as a leading tourism destination in the area. Since opening its Richard Meier-designed campus with sweeping views, the Getty has drawn about half its attendance from outside Southern California.

But the Getty is an exception in that regard. At LACMA, for instance, nearly four-fifths of its visitors are local.

"It's exactly the opposite what you would expect from a normal museum like the Met, Boston [Museum of Fine Arts], Philadelphia [Museum of Art] or [Art Institute of] Chicago, where more than half of their visitors will be tourists," says LACMA Director Michael Govan.

"If you measure attendance by the size of our city, we're way behind," he adds. "If you measure attendance by the size of our collections and buildings, we're OK, and we're still building."

LACMA's 2010 attendance was up over 2009 figures, which Govan largely credits to museum expansion, such as the recent opening of the Resnick Pavilion.

"Museum renovation is the strongest component of base-level attendance," he says. "The Getty saw that when they invested in their facilities. MoMA saw that in New York. Everyone sees that."

Govan expects LACMA attendance to break the 1 million mark this year. (The upcoming show of artwork by Tim Burton, which was mobbed at MoMA with an average of 5,200 visitors daily, could help.) "My original goal was to triple the base of 600,000 to 650,000 to reach 1.8 million, with time and investment in new facilities. And I still think that's possible."

At the Hammer Museum in Westwood, which did not supply any geographic breakdown of visitors, 2010 attendance was an estimated 175,000, up from 150,000 last year. (The museum did not provide exact figures as it does not have a computerized ticketing system.) Judging from the first months of 2011, this year's numbers are on track to reach 200,000, officials there said. Museum Director Ann Philbin was traveling in Australia this week but responded to several questions by email, including one about how much the museum values annual attendance.

"We care about it certainly, but it is not at the top of our list of measures of success. When attendance figures are overvalued in museums, it can lead to mediocrity in programming. The focus becomes the tried-and-true blockbusters. We always say we'll do a show that 12 people want to see if we think it's important to do. If it also happens to garner a buzz and big audience … then it's all the more gratifying."

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, which draws roughly 60% of its visitors from the L.A. area, attendance last year totaled 236,104, up by nearly 90,000 over the previous year. "We would like to bring our attendance to the 500,000 level, and we'd like to do it quickly," says Director Jeffrey Deitch.

"I think what we need to do is to open up the museum to a broader audience. We need to have programming that is of interest and accessible to a larger community," he says, mentioning the upcoming "Art in the Streets" show and also the recent Arshile Gorky retrospective, which reached new visitors in the local Armenian community.

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