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Art museums in a building boom

Institutions across the country are expanding and updating. Planned years ago, the projects are unaffected by the economic downturn.

June 24, 2008|Thomas J. Sheeran | Associated Press

CLEVELAND -- Art museums throughout the country have gone on a construction binge as older institutions freshen up and expand and fast-growing cities, especially in the Sun Belt, tap into new wealth to show they have arrived in the art world.

Old or new, art museums also are striving to compete better with shopping malls and other leisure-time activities.

"Museums are in a transition moment," said Anne Helmreich, associate professor at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is nearing the halfway point of one of the biggest projects, a seven-year, $350-million expansion and renovation of a renowned institution that opened in 1916 with money from industrial magnates.

The museum, located in the city's tree-lined University Circle arts and education district, on Sunday will reopen 19 galleries that have been closed for three years.

Elsewhere, the $158-million renovation of the Detroit Institute of Arts debuted last fall, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened the $56-million Broad Contemporary Art Museum in February, the Art Museum of Western Virginia will move to a new $66-million home on Nov. 8, and Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum is working on an $85-million expansion.

There's more. In a survey last year involving 167 museums, the Assn. of Art Museum Directors said 66% were moving ahead with expansions, the highest share in three years. Most museums reported increased attendance, overall revenue and endowment income.

The construction surge amid a sour economy reflects the long-range planning involved. Museums often develop projects years in advance and have much of the needed money in hand from deep-pocketed donors before work begins.

Peter Yesawich, chairman of the Ypartnership travel industry marketing agency in Orlando, Fla., says museums can expect an attendance bounce with a new project, but it won't necessarily last. He said a museum face-lift's effect on attendance in a tight economy could depend on pricing, the public response and how long it takes to see the collections.

Still, the pattern of museum construction has spread across the nation, said Marc Wilson, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., which opened a $196-million expansion last year. Planning began in 1993.

Wilson said the 75-year-old Nelson-Atkins needed updating and more space. In other, newer cities, art museums have sprung up as wealth migrates to fast-growing areas, especially the Sun Belt, he said.

The Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, Va., saw that happen, according to executive director Georganne C. Bingham. "What we're seeing is people who are moving into the region are excited about the arts," she said, including expanded museum memberships and donor rolls.

An art museum can reflect a community's sense of having arrived, said Case's Helmreich. "A city reaches a certain critical size, then you've got both the financial resources and also the intellectual resources, the community goodwill, to want to have a museum and support it."

A makeover also can reinvigorate old-line museums. The reopened museum at Detroit drew 400,000 visitors -- normally a year's worth -- in six months.

"Many people have this extraordinary desire to connect with works of art," said DIA director Graham W.J. Beal, who said people "do not want a mall-like experience" when they go to a museum.

In Cleveland, more than $204 million has been raised for a project lasting into 2012, one year more than first planned.

The work will unravel a labyrinth of galleries and corridors to create a more visitor-friendly feel for the museum with a collection of 43,000 items, including works by Rodin, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, Renoir and Van Gogh.

World-class art must compete with shopping malls and "every other sort of entertainment for folks these days," said Jeffrey W. Strean, the Cleveland Museum of Art's director of design and architecture. "We have to kind of make it as unobstructed and comfortable a thing as it can be."

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