Courting the cultural tourist

Times Staff Writer

Boosters of the Los Angeles arts scene have long nurtured a dream: that our city's familiar icons -- film reels, surfboards, palm trees -- will be replaced by classier ones. That the smooth travertine of the Getty Center, the sharp angles of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the swoop of Walt Disney Concert Hall will supplant the beaming rodents of Disneyland.

Now, in this campaign to get outsiders to think of L.A. as something beyond sea, sand and sun, the arts crowd has a new general. Or rather, a familiar figure with a new mission.

"I've been here since '74," says Laura Zucker, who despite lingering traces of a New York accent is the Los Angeles County Arts Commission's veteran executive director. "And the changes in our cultural landscape over these past two decades have been really dramatic.

"Along with the fact that there wasn't a good place to eat in L.A., and now we have our own cuisine, there's been a similar transformation of our cultural life," she says. "But there hasn't been a cohesive effort to really let the rest of the world know."

To help spread the word and lure what are known as cultural tourists, Zucker, 54, has been charged with developing and launching a new nonprofit called Arts + Culture LA. It's being funded by the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Foundation and was sparked by a report on arts funding and its economic impact done last fall by Mayor James Hahn's ad hoc Arts Council.

"The job of this new entity," Zucker says in her temporary quarters at the Broad Foundation's Westwood offices, "will be to market and enhance the perception of Los Angeles as a cultural destination and to create a comprehensive, creative way to market the arts of Los Angeles County, the region, both domestically and internationally."

Zucker goes back a long way with the local arts scene. From 1979 to 1989, she and her husband, actor and director Allan Miller, served as producing directors of the Back Alley Theatre in Van Nuys. In the years before her 1992 appointment to the Arts Commission, she worked with the culture agency in Ventura County and consulted for the National Endowment for the Arts.

As one of the city's longest-surviving arts administrators, she is entirely comfortable with concepts such as "revenue streams" and verbs such as "incentize." At this point, she says, her intention is to forge a plan and seek funding sources, with the goal of letting a staff of two or three -- and a fair bit of outsourcing -- take over at the end of July.

Arts + Culture LA will be lean and mean, she says, with an annual budget of just $8 million -- much of that dedicated to print and television ads, magazine inserts, research and the development of new technology. But its aims, she adds, are sweeping.

"The average trip to L.A. these days is three days: one day at the beach, one day at an amusement park and one day on Rodeo Drive. Those people should be doing something at night. And imagine the economic impact if they stayed a fourth day" -- and went to a concert, a museum or a dance performance.

Last year, according to a recent study, there were 24.3 million visitors to Los Angeles County, about half from outside the state. "Generally speaking," Zucker says, "we know that a little less than 12% are what are called cultural tourists." That compares with 42% in New York, which drew about 36 million visitors in 2004.

"Why is that important? Cultural tourists spend more and stay longer. It's important to the economic engine of the region. According to a study the Smithsonian did, they spend an average of $160 more per trip." Besides the direct income taken in by arts venues from ticket sales, the related spending -- restaurants, hotels, shopping -- can be enormous.

Zucker would like to double L.A.'s 12% of cultural tourists to 24%, which would take the city a few steps closer to New York's numbers. "We would be adding a billion dollars to this economy," she says. "That would be huge. It would have a huge, huge impact."

Indeed, the push for cultural tourism has long obsessed philanthropist Eli Broad and has become an increasing concern among Southland arts organizations. But that doesn't mean it's universally loved.

Last March, for instance, Hahn considered doing away with the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department for budget reasons but was talked into saving a slimmed-down version as a cultural tourism agency.

Even then, smaller arts organizations complained. For example, Tim Dang, producing director of East West Players, said the new initiative was bad timing when Cultural Affairs was already cutting back. "The tourist promotions will focus on large, mainstream organizations that have the wherewithal to lobby for funding," he said in April.

"I have no problem with L.A. being a cultural tourist capital," Gary Kornblau, publisher of Art Issues Press and an adjunct professor at Arts Center College of Design, said this month. "The concern I have is that this puts the cart before the horse. Cultural tourism is important, but you should be supporting institutions so people will go on their own. I could do a lot of great stuff with $8 million as far as creating culture here."

Moreover, Kornblau contended, the city's art scene is already world famous. "There's a generation in Los Angeles that still thinks we have to present ourselves as a cultural capital. This new nonprofit's belief that we need to promote the city indicates a lack of confidence by the people starting it -- and a lack of understanding that things have changed over the last 100 years."

Zucker is undeterred. In addition to her enthusiasm, she has vast amounts of raw data. For instance: The No. 1 foreign source of L.A. visitors last year? Mexico, with almost 1.5 million, followed by Canada (415,000), Japan (384,000) and Britain (362,000).

Still, she says, she hasn't yet determined whether most cultural tourists are coming from the Eastern U.S. or Europe or Mexico, nor what's needed to bring more. "I don't think we really know what other people's perceptions of Los Angeles really are."

One thing she says is clear is that technology should have a major role in her new endeavor. She points to the effectiveness of websites such as www.experiencela.com, which not only advises visitors on cultural events but offers tips on public transportation.

Promoting arts tourism in Los Angeles, she says, takes a different kind of effort than it would in cities such as London or Rome. "Their cultural assets have been selling themselves for generations. We have a lot of catching up to do in terms of telling our story."

Zucker says she's not aware of another place like Los Angeles -- a relatively new city with an image not firmly tied to the fine arts -- that's trying to orient itself as a cultural destination.

"There are no role models," she says. "This is absolutely breaking new ground. But if not us, who?"

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