Attendance at L.A. museums lags behind

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.

The numbers back him up: MOCA drew 51,952 visitors to its Gorky show, not that far off from 69,468 for the same show at the Tate Modern in London (a museum with annual attendance of more than 5 million) earlier last year.

But Deitch acknowledges that strong exhibitions are not always enough to overcome longstanding challenges, such as limited public transit. For instance, he says that "Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective" drew an estimated 65,000 visitors to L.A.'s MOCA when it originated there in 2008. When it traveled to MoMA in New York the following year, it drew more than 305,000 visitors.

One factor that could boost local attendance this year is "Pacific Standard Time," the Getty-funded initiative that begins in October. It involves dozens of Southern California museums staging shows on the origins of the region's art scene, from 1945 to 1980. It's also a concerted marketing effort on their part to raise their profiles and attendance.

Javier Pes, the museum section editor of the Art Newspaper, which is based in London, says he is already well aware of the initiative. "'Pacific Standard Time' really could create a sense of critical mass," he says. "I think it could change the attendance numbers we see next year."

Still, he believes that some tourism challenges particular to L.A. will not go away. "In New York you can visit three museums in a day, maybe more. In L.A., you would never try to do LACMA, the Getty and MOCA in the same day."

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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