From the people who brought live Metropolitan Opera performances to a movie theater near you comes the next big-screen cultural attraction: museum art exhibits from around the world.
It begins Thursday with a retrospective devoted to the portraits by Edouard Manet from the Royal Academy of Arts in London, screened to 450 theaters across the U.S. and about 600 around the globe, with many locations scheduling encore broadcasts.
Two more exhibits are already lined up: a June retrospective on the art of Edvard Munch from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, and an October showing of works by Johannes Vermeer from the National Gallery in London.
Unlike the live opera broadcasts, the art presentations are slickly produced documentaries giving viewers a VIP guided tour of current or recently ended exhibitions from noted art historian Tim Marlow, who lingers on each of the displayed works and explains why they are special. Curator interviews, artist profiles and backstage tours fill out the 90-minute, high-definition shows broadcast to U.S. theaters by NCM Fathom Events — for an average price of $12.50.
"This is a way for an armchair traveler to come to the arts world, have it brought to them," said Julie Borchard-Young, co-owner of BY Experience, the company distributing the broadcasts. "Because it's not live, we wanted to make sure that the programs are very immersive and contemplative, that the viewer has a chance to slow down his or her busy life and really take this in."
For BY Experience, fine art is a natural next step in spreading culture to the masses, building on the niche success of its live series from the Met Opera and London's National Theatre.
The Met Opera series, for example, has grown every year since it was first beamed in 2006 to 98 theaters in four countries. Today it's seen in more than 1,900 theaters in 64 countries, with nearly 13 million tickets sold since 2006, according to figures provided by the opera house.
It had gross ticket sales of more than $57 million around the world for 11 performances during the 2011-12 season. Its Feb. 16 screening of "Rigoletto" took in $2.6 million in North America, ranking it No. 12 in the weekend box office, beating "Argo" and "Lincoln."
Like the Met, which realized $11 million from the opera broadcasts last season, the participating art museums will get a cut of the profits.
But will art exhibits work at the movies? Unlike new opera and theater performances, just about every piece of art from current exhibitions can already be viewed over the Internet. And the exhibits will be a documentary film, not a live event.
Borchard-Young said By Experience was encouraged by the response to what served as the pilot for its art exhibit series: "Leonardo Live," a 90-minute film by Phil Grabsky on the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at London's National Gallery that was viewed by 125,000 people in 21 countries.
"We were convinced there was an audience for fine arts" after that, she said.
Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research at the National Association of Theatre Owners, believes the program has a good chance, noting that many in the industry were surprised by how popular the opera series has been.
"They're aiming at a similar kind of audience ... for events that are limited to one location. That has a market," he said. "People do love art exhibitions, and not all of them travel. This is a real opportunity to bring something to those customers."
At The Englert Theatre in Iowa City, Iowa, people "are responding very strongly to having something like this," Executive Director Andre Perry said. His theater has been offering live and encore broadcasts of National Theatre productions for more than a year.
The nearby Marcus Sycamore Cinema presents the Met broadcasts, and two weeks ago featured an Encore performance of Riccardo Zandonai's "Francesca da Rimini," an opera inspired by an episode from Dante's "Inferno."
"It's a smaller culture but a super vibrant one," Perry said of the arts crowd. "They're super enthusiastic and very positive about having the series."
The initiative appears to come at an opportune time for the city of 60,000 residents. The flood of 2008 shuttered the main building of the University of Iowa Museum of Art and a small number of its collection now is scattered among several venues while it rebuilds.
Museum director Sean O'Harrow said that while he supported the art exhibition broadcasts, he didn't want people to think it was a substitute for the real thing.
"A museum offers a three-dimensional experience. Seeing things on a screen for the most part is not," he said. "Seeing real objects in person is the most powerful experience you could possibly have."
The Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol, Calif., has been showing the Met HD series since its inception. Because of demand, it has expanded showings to two screens. Owner Ky Boyd said he expects the same kind of feedback from the art exhibit series.
"This is another great opportunity for people to experience blockbuster exhibitions," he said. "Typically, you wouldn't have a chance to see these unless you live in a radius within the museum or are traveling in that part of the world."
A handful of art and movie lovers interviewed in New York City weren't quite as enthusiastic.
Megan Orr, 17, of Davis, Calif., who was visiting the Museum of Modern Art, said she would check out an art exhibit via the movies only if there was no possible way she could visit for herself.
"Honestly, I think the appeal of going to an art museum is that you can get up close ... and it feels a lot more emotional. And I'm a huge fan of Manet. I don't think it would have the same exact draw for me," she said.
Justin Liebergen, 31, an actor from Manhattan, who had just stepped out of a multiplex cinema in mid-Manhattan, said he saw the idea as only for the art aficionado.
"I haven't thought, 'Oh, I wish I could go to this exhibit at this place on the planet somewhere' without physically wanting to go there," he said. "If I wanted to see a photo I would go online. Computers today have every image of every museum on the planet."