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How to translate L.A. Art & Culture into a waterfall of green dollars

Considering the unusually large number of responses I received to my last program about the decline of art criticism, maybe I should say more about the International Art Critics Association Conference which took place last week here in Los Angeles. Organizers had hoped for 200 participants but in the end nearly 500 people had registered. The days were filled with workshops and seminars, visits to museums, theaters and galleries. And, of course, equally important, it was a chance to get to know each other. The City of Angels put its best foot forward and can you blame our cultural leaders for trying to impress visiting critics?

Tourism these days constitutes a growing industry which brings money to city coffers. However, in older cities, such as Paris and New York, whose cultural treasures are better-known and better-publicized, the cultural tourism represents up to 50% or more of the whole number of visitors. Not so in L.A. where only about 14% of the tourists express their interest in art and culture. If our city does a better job in promoting its modernist and avant-garde architecture, its museums and theaters, and, of course, its hundreds of galleries and thousands of living artists--all that will translate into a rejuvenating waterfall of green dollars. I've heard on a number of occasions that since the opening of the Getty Center, $1 billion has been added to the city economy every year thanks to tourists who added a visit to the Getty Center to their list of things to do while in town. Just think about at least half a day if not the whole day one should set aside to see the Getty's collections, enjoy the grounds with it's gardens and vistas, and to have a leisurely lunch. And think about the extra day you rent a car and another night in a hotel and, as a result, more time to shop-all adding up to one billion dollars in revenue.

In the beginning of this year, the L.A. County Arts Commission announced the launching of a new cultural tourism marketing initiative, with an annual budget of $8 million for its promotional and advertising campaign. As one of the few art critics covering this city's art scene, I would expect to have received some information about the progress of this marketing initiative, but so far I've heard precious little about it.

On the day I attended the conference, the featured speaker was famous art collector and philanthropist Eli Broad. In his usual business-like manner, Mr. Broad presented the well-known facts and numbers with regard to the burgeoning Los Angeles cultural scene. When he finished there were a few minutes left for questions and answers. Yours truly jumped at the chance: "Mr. Broad, with all due respect to yours and your fellow philanthropists' generosity to this city, what are your thoughts about the possibility of making our public museums admission free to the public? When admission fees were recently abolished in some London museums, attendance jumped dramatically. Years ago, LACMA was open to the public for free, but since they started to charge admission 25 years ago, the attendance has plummeted." To which Mr. Broad graciously responded by reminding me that museums should be fiscally responsible. Difficult to argue with that. "But Mr, Broad," I continued, "Considering that proceeds from ticket sales represent a relatively small portion of the museum's budget, what will it take to inspire you and your wealthy friends to cover the cost of museum admission to really open its doors wide to everyone, all the time?" Honestly, I didn't expect an answer to this question. And, with the session conveniently coming to a close, I didn't get one.

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