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Nine months before launching an unprecedented 70 painting exhibition last October by the artist Vincent Van Gogh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington invited media to a press conference-telling them only to expect a "major announcement" about an upcoming exhibition.

More than 10,000 press kits devoted to "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam," were distributed and articles on the Van Gogh exhibit, which was on view Oct. 4 through Jan. 3, appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post the day the exhibit premiered. Anderson Consulting, Chicago, paid close to $1 million to act as sole corporate sponsor.

"We did a very solid job of [promoting] the exhibition," says Deborah Ziska, the museum's press and public information officer. "After that the story was like a snowball going down a hillside."

More than 480,000 visitors attended the free exhibition-an average of 5,339 per day-according to Ms. Ziska, including such celebrities as Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman and Robin Williams. It was not uncommon to see people lined up for passes as early as 4 a.m.

In an era when big museums often use blockbuster exhibits to attract record numbers of visitors, the Van Gogh exhibit proved that marketing helps, but so do big names.

"Van Gogh is a cultural icon, he creates a visceral experience," says Ms. Ziska. "If you looked at people who came to the exhibit, you saw people from all walks

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