Paying for the King Tut Exhibit

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The Egyptian government is charging millions of dollars for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to house the King Tut exhibit. The result is a $30 per-person admission ticket. Despite the hefty price, exhibit organizers say the tickets are selling well.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As "Tutankhamun, the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" embarks on its two-year tour through museums in four American cities, some in the art world are criticizing the money involved, the high price of the tickets combined with the show's backing by a big entertainment company. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary with more.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

Blockbuster exhibitions are not a new phenomenon in the art world. In fact, says Arthur Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University who studies economic trends in the arts, they've been around for some 30 years.

Professor ARTHUR BROOKS (Syracuse University): The irony is that the first major blockbuster for museums around the United States was King Tut in the late '70s. Ever since then, practically every year--in some cases, every other year--the big museums and big cities have had to put on some sort of blockbuster exhibition. It's become an expectation from their patrons to do so and they, generally speaking, lose money.

NEARY: And that is why museums have often turned to corporate sponsors to help them pay for high visible exhibitions, but "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is even more expensive than most blockbusters. The Egyptian government is charging museums a flat fee of $5 million. That, coupled with the cost of insurance, made the exhibition too expensive for most museums. So AEG, an entertainment company best known for promoting rock shows, agreed to foot the bill in return for a cut of the proceeds. John Norman is with Arts & Exhibitions International, which organized the show along with National Geographic. He says tickets, costing up to $30 for adults, are selling well.

Mr. JOHN NORMAN (Arts & Exhibitions International): To date, we sold just a little bit under 300,000 tickets already for Los Angeles in advance, and which is pretty unprecedented compared to any other exhibition that I've been involved in.

NEARY: Critics say the Tutankhamun exhibition is part of a trend that is contributing to the commercialization of museums. The art critic for the Los Angeles Times, for example, called the exhibition a smarmy scheme. Maxwell Anderson of the arts management consulting firm AEA says there are concerns in the art world that museums are giving up their traditional role as curators by agreeing to accept such commercially backed and prepackaged exhibitions.

Mr. MAXWELL ANDERSON (AEA): It seems important as a matter of public trust that when you go to a public institution like an art museum you're seeing something which is not conditioned by commercial or for-profit instincts but is conditioned by the best possible experience of a time, a place, an artist or some other theme.

NEARY: John Norman dismisses such criticism, saying his company has worked closely with the curators of the museum's involved in the exhibition. And Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University argues the most important thing is to bring people into museums to discover what is there.

Mr. BROOKS: I'm a little less concerned with the smarminess of the scheme than I am with the availability of the content. That's what I really care about. I want people in there seeing this stuff for the first time who might come back and see exhibitions that they never would have been interested in because they went to LA County Museum for something that was a little bit more popular.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can take a peek at some of the treasures of King Tut at npr.org.

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