Painting The Town With Picasso

Cultural Tourism

When the Woodruff Arts Center approached the Atlanta Botanical Garden earlier this year about participating in a blockbuster Picasso exhibition, garden officials were stumped. What could their organization say about the artist?

But as they pondered the question, a flash of inspiration touched the tropical-plants curator. What about a living, breathing replica of Picasso's "House in a Garden"? His co-workers took to the idea, and voil!, they created the replica with a giant silver frame hanging from the ceiling, encasing a tangle of fern, moss, and tropical plants.

This fusion of botany and cubism is just one of the unorthodox creations on display throughout Atlanta to celebrate "Picasso: Master Works From the Museum of Modern Art," which opens tomorrow at the High Museum of Art.

It is also the latest piece of work in a new artistic movement - marketing. Going beyond the street banners and public-radio announcements typically used to advertise museum exhibitions, Atlanta has crafted an extensive, grass-roots publicity campaign including everything from hotels mailing exhibit information to frequent guests to restaurants serving Picasso-related dishes during the show's run.

Atlanta is not the only city to pair down-to-earth business techniques with the high-minded arts. Chicago targeted particular audiences in neighboring states before its 1995 Monet exhibit and received phenomenal results. And last year for Philadelphia's Czanne blowout, the Philadelphia Museum of Art created hotel package deals to attract out-of-state visitors and offered such unartistic souvenirs as baseballs in an attempt to net new museumgoers.

"Museums are doing a lot of things today that they wouldn't have thought of doing five years ago," says Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors in New York. "We're in a changing society right now and museums are changing along with it."

But, led by the Woodruff Arts Center, an umbrella arts organization that includes the High Museum, Atlanta's effort to promote Picasso has taken these tactics a brushstroke further than other cities. Atlanta's approach may paint a vision of what art exhibits of the future are likely to entail.

Breaking new ground

While Atlanta is replicating the hotel-packaging concept that Philadelphia pioneered - 12 hotels are offering parking, overnight stays, meal discounts, and museum tickets for one lump sum - the Georgia capital is also breaking new ground. All participating restaurants have been asked not to provide discounts, as in other cities, but to create new cuisine in a Picasso theme. Also the city's major cultural institutions have signed on to design a piece of Picasso in their own repertoire.

No other city has involved such a variety of players or challenged them to fit into an artistic scheme. The results have been both illuminating and outlandish.

The Alliance Theatre Company, for instance, is showing Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," a play that imagines a chance meeting in a Parisian bar of Picasso and Einstein. It's the kind of offering that can make the paintings more meaningful to those who see the play, says Laurie Kirshbaum, vice president for communications at the Woodruff Arts Center.

"There are different gateways into the exhibit or from the exhibit into other arts," she says. "The whole point is, how can we deepen this city's experience of the arts?"

Offerings of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Ballet can similarly augment an audience's knowledge of Picasso. The symphony will perform Igor Stravinsky's "Suite from Pulcinella," a ballet for which Picasso designed the sets and costumes. Atlanta Ballet will bring in one of its set designers who has painted Picasso replicas to lecture on the artist's style and his often-overlooked contribution to the performing arts.

Other displays - like the painting in plants at the Atlanta Botanical Garden - are more art for art's sake than educational. But they create a level of excitement and awareness that's important to the exhibit, participants say.

"What we want to do with this is really try to get Atlanta behind its arts," says Scotty Schwartz, executive chef at Carbo's Cafe, one of the 40 participating restaurants. Carbo's is serving a variety of Picasso desserts, one of which features a tiny canvas of white chocolate with a striking Picasso replica painted in food coloring.

But some of the planned events seem, as one Atlantan put it, "like a real stretch." Georgia's Science and Technology Museum will present an Einstein exhibit, connected to Picasso only through the Steve Martin play. The Michael C. Carlos Museum, with an extensive African art collection, uses Picasso's interest in African art as its tie-in. "Come see what Picasso saw" reads its brochure blurb.

However forced some of the connections may seem, the concept of linking restaurants, hotels, and arts institutions under a particular theme appears here to stay.

"Cultural tourism," as this kind of packaging is often called, "is hot," says Robert Barrett, vice president for cultural tourism at the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The idea was sparked two years ago at the White House Conference on Travel and Tourism as a way to reinvigorate a languishing tourism market. At the same time, museums and arts organizations were looking for ways to draw bigger crowds after enduring cutbacks in government funding, so they were eager to cooperate with tourism bureaus.

Model project

Next March, the state of California is launching the largest cultural tourism effort to date by introducing 13 themes - from dance and theater to nature and history to culture on the edge to Jewish heritage, around which participating cities within the state will craft tours. It's a model other cities and states have already begun to follow.

"Cultural tourism is Disneyland for people with master's degrees," says Mr. Barrett. "It's for people who want to touch the intellectual and imaginary life within them, for people who want to participate, not just be entertained on their vacations."

While cultural tourism is too young to have many concrete measures of its popularity, the early efforts by Chicago and Philadelphia art museums speak success loud and clear. The Chicago Art Institute's Monet retrospective drew nearly a million visitors - a volume no one was expecting. By some estimates, it also created a $393 million boost to the economy. In Philadelphia, the 14-week Czanne run attracted 550,000 museumgoers and pumped $87 million into the city's economy.

"What this proves is that there's a large audience out there, and you just have to work on attracting them to come," says Laura Coogan of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

She says cities across the country are tuning in to new marketing practices. "We've gotten a lot of very positive coverage for marketing our city as a cultural destination. I've been asked to speak all over the country about how the city promoted its exhibition."

Though most assessments of the new marketing tactics have been positive, the trend can be worrisome to smaller arts groups. If they are not a part of the pack that's being promoted, they may risk losing precious funding dollars. Creativity could be curbed if they feel as if they've got to be a part of a larger organization.

"Taking the long view, I would be optimistic and say ... that I'm certainly interested in this approach to art exhibits," says Clark Poling, an art-history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, who is teaching a graduate-student seminar in connection with the exhibit. "But a question you have to ask is, how does this affect other prospects for other cultural fund-raising?"

In the meantime, excitement in anticipation of the exhibition's opening is palpable here. In addition to the art itself, the campaign to bring together so many sectors of the city is under the glare of klieg lights.

"Atlanta in many ways is like Picasso," says the Woodruff's Kirshbaum. "Every medium that Picasso touched, he took to the next level. And everything we do, we take to the next level. So with Picasso, we decided to take cultural tourism to the next level."

* 'Picasso: Master Works From the Museum of Modern Art' remains in Atlanta through Feb. 15, 1998. Its second and only other stop scheduled is the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, April 3-July 12. For more information, visit the Woodruff Arts Center Web site: www.woodruff-arts.org or the High Museum of Art Web site: www.high.org. For a catalog of the show, call the High Museum of Art gift shop: (404) 733-4505.

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