Southern California had never seen such a cultural phenomenon. Last May, in the closing days of its exhibition Van Gogh's Van Goghs, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art became the first American museum ever to stay open around the clock. During a continuous 63-hour marathon, almost 50,000 people filed past the touring masterpieces from Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, contributing to a grand total of 821,004 visitors during the show's four-month run. "What was a really pleasant surprise was that there was very little difference between the crowds at 3 p.m. and those at 3 a.m.," says LACMA spokesman Adam Coyne. The latenight crowd lacked only the hordes of school field-trippers common during daylight hours.
The Van Gogh exhibit was nothing short of a blockbuster. It provided a fittingly grand finale to a marketing campaign that had previously included Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera exhibitions and that contributed to the doubling of LACMA's membership, from 65,000 to almost 130,000.
Fueled by crowd-pleasing exhibitions of brand-name artists like Jackson Pollock, Jan Vermeer, and John Singer Sargent-not to mention Monet, Degas, and anyone else labeled "Impressionist"-museum attendance is booming nationwide. A survey widely cited in newspapers last year showed that among those who attended an arts activity in 1997 (the most recent data available), 35 percent visited an art museum, with the average person visiting an impressive 3.3 times annually. That represents a fourfold increase in just six years. And it makes museum visits the most popular of all cultural activities, outranking plays, orchestral concerts, dance performances, jazz concerts, ballet, and opera.
Numerous reports of other recent museum successes provide further proof of skyrocketing attendance. Take, for example, the Denver Art Museum, where Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums closed on December 12. At press time, four weeks into the show's 10-week run, it was on target to meet or exceed a goal of 170,000 visitors. That would make it the institution's best-attended exhibit ever, according to Janet Meredith, the museum's marketing director, who saw membership rise from just over 20,000 a year ago to 33,000 as of October.
But skyrocketing attendance owes credit to more than just blockbuster exhibitions. …