Museum’s ‘Mexico'--Color It Red : Art: Despite attendance of more than 350,000, ‘Splendors of Thirty Centuries’ leaves LACMA with a $250,000 debt.


The L.A. County Museum of Art’s blockbuster exhibition, “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries,” drew a total of 352,854 visitors during the show’s 12-week run, bringing it to a close third-place finish among attendance for all LACMA exhibitions, the museum reported Monday.

But the mammoth exhibition, which closed Sunday, will leave the museum about $250,000 in debt, museum officials said, despite ticket revenues expected to tally about $120,000 higher than originally predicted.

“We are still fund-raising for the show; we need to put together about a quarter of a million (dollars) to finish paying it off,” Ron Bratton, the museum’s chief deputy director, told The Times.

Bratton said that hosting the exhibition--which was mounted by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art--would cost LACMA about $1 million. He attributed the museum’s funding shortfall to fewer-than-expected corporate sponsorships prompted by the recession, as well as the lack of a national corporate sponsor and insurance costs that soared following the Persian Gulf War.


“We’re hoping to make it up through extra admission revenue as well as things like our percentages from the recorded (audiotape) tour, and sales in the museum shop and cafe,” Bratton said. “But if we don’t make up the difference, we will have to eat it by delaying hiring, freezing vacant positions and doing things like deferring repairs and renovations.”

He added that the museum faces additional costs--such as plumbing repairs, extensive cleaning and replacing of air filter systems--due to heavy usage by the large crowds that flocked to see “Splendors.”

“A show like this puts a lot of wear and tear on a museum,” Bratton said, noting that “Splendors,” which took up more than 250,000 square feet of exhibition space, was by far the largest ever mounted at LACMA.

But while the costs of the exhibition were high, Bratton said that, “unquestionably, it was worth it,” and that the large attendance figures are the proof.


Although the final attendance tally was less than the “400,000 or more” that museum director Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III had predicted in late November, it brought the exhibition to third place in terms of all-time LACMA attendance. The popular “A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape,” drew 460,000 during an 11 1/2-week run in 1984, and “Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R” drew 360,000 during an eight-week stint in 1986.

In all, the exhibition generated about $620,000 in ticket revenues--substantially more than the $500,000 that the museum had projected. In addition, nearly 21,000 area schoolchildren were admitted free.

“The place has just been absolutely mobbed,” Bratton said, noting that the show had been completely sold out during 75% to 80% of its run, including virtually all weekend viewing hours. On Friday afternoon, when tickets for the final weekend ran out, Bratton said would-be attendees lined up all the way to Wilshire Boulevard had to be turned away.

“Unfortunately, the number of people we could accommodate was not unlimited. We literally maxed out in terms of the capacity of the show,” Bratton said. He noted that the museum had hoped to squeeze in 900 people an hour, but after a too-packed opening day, dropped the tickets available to only 600 per hour. (About 1,000 visitors per hour were admitted to “A Day in the Country,” Bratton said.)


The museum was able to accommodate expanded crowds part way through the exhibition by extending its Friday evening and weekends hours, and by opening on the Monday before Christmas. Bratton said that Powell, however, who was on vacation and not available for comment, had hoped to increase attendance by extending the hours even further.

“But it turns out we just did not have the resources in terms of people to keep the museum open for those additional hours,” Bratton said. “People have been turned away every weekend since Thanksgiving.”

Bratton said “Splendors” was unlike any other major LACMA exhibition in that attendance did not dip and level off in the middle of the show, as is the norm with blockbuster exhibitions. “In fact (attendance at) the end has exceeded the opening,” he said.

The museum brought in 6,000 new memberships during the show, “a substantial amount” of which were from Latino families, Bratton said. However, he said that number was “somewhat disappointing . . . for a show of this popularity” and blamed the recession for not prompting more exhibition visitors to become museum members.