Tut-Tutting The Boy King

King Tutankhamun’s last arrival on American shores was an event that turned the staid old museum into a pop culture palace, spawning a frenzy of ticket buying and all but anointing Steve Martin as the top comedian of the time with a skit based on the Egyptian Boy King.

King Tut’s on his way back, launching a 27-month U.S. tour with a June 16th through November 15th run at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And with his return comes the argument over art, commerce and the proper role of museums: Do blockbuster touring exhibitions really further the missions of these elite halls?

Unlike the $2 average ticket price paid by some 8 million Tut-heads during the 1976-79 tour, museum-goers will fork over $25 to $30 (plus handling for advance sales) for the privilege. And, unlike the last trek, this tour is being mounted by a definite for-profit entity, AEG.

The entertainment conglom came on board when Arts and Exhibitions International’s John Norman, a former concert promoter who’d organized touring exhibits for Clear Channel, approached AEG’s John Meglen about bringing the company in as a financial partner on the Tut tour.

“If we do our job well, we’ll have redefined how to do these big tours going forward,” AEG President Tim Leiweke told the Los Angeles Times. “The [for-profit] sector comes in and takes the risk.”

Meaning the museums aren’t booking these exhibitions for the money – AEG will get the lion’s share of that, thanks to the deal it struck with the Egyptian government to get permission to tour the artifacts.

Egypt set a non-negotiable, upfront price tag of $5 million per city, according to the Times. By acquiring the entire tour, that means a $20 million investment right out of the gate for AEG.

In addition, AEG is kicking in an additional $2 million for renovating a children’s museum in Cairo. To top that off, the company arranged for Lionel Richie to perform at a Geneva peace conference hosted by Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak last year.

And that’s just for starters.

The deal also calls for the Egyptian government to share retail revenues and make an additional $1 million for every 100,000 in attendance over the 700,000 mark, according to the paper. It’s estimated that Tut can rake in as much as $9 million per city before heading overseas.

But it’s AEG taking the risk, and reaping the profits – not the museums. What curators and members hope to get from the deal is higher visibility and more foot traffic for their other exhibitions of the less-than-blockbuster variety.

It comes with its share of criticism. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts recently took its public relations lumps for renting Impressionist masterpieces to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, a commercial space at the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the Brooklyn Museum have caught it from critics for staging “lightweight” but popular exhibits and being too chummy with self-promoting commercial art lenders.

On the other hand, even the worst art snob has to admit it’s not a bad thing for the unwashed masses to have an opportunity to experience artifacts that used to require air fare to Egypt and connections with its Supreme Council of Antiquities.

And the other upshot – exposing the offerings of art museums to new audiences – can’t entirely be a bad thing, either.

When the LACMA mounted a major Van Gogh exhibition in 1999, the 821,000 visitors it drew helped boost annual attendance to 1.3 million, according to the Times. Membership rolls jumped from 64,000 to 104,000.

The museum netted $7.8 million, but it also took the risk by paying the upfront fees to the Dutch museum that loaned the collection.