CHICAGO — CHICAGO, the most American of big American cities, pronounces the word ''money'' these days with a distinctly continental accent: ''Monet.''
A hugely popular four-month exhibit of Monet paintings, the largest such exhibit ever, generated $393 million in the six-county Chicago area. By some estimates, the return from the exhibit exceeded that of any other major Chicago event - from sports to food festivals - in recent decades.
''We were so wonderfully surprised by the attendance'' of 965,000 at the show, which ended Nov. 26, says Larry Ter Molen, executive vice president at the Art Institute of Chicago. The figure exceeded expectations by more than 35 percent, he says.
Chicago's ''Monet Mania'' suggests the extent of the potential payoff from luring tourists who would rather visit a museum than a shopping mall or theme park. And officials around the country are tuning a receptive ear to the trend. From New Orleans to Los Angeles to Wilmington, Del., cities and states are stepping up efforts to market folk and fine art to tourists.
Until recently, ''I don't think there was general understanding that it is the cultural community that generates travel and tourism,'' says Edward Able Jr., executive director of the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C. ''The revenues have been there; people just have not understood what was producing it.''
The economic impact of tourism is enormous. The $512 billion industry accounts for $58 billion in state and local taxes. And foreigners are playing a growing role in generating that income. The United States enjoys a trade surplus in tourism, with foreigners spending $22 billion more here than US tourists spend abroad, according to the US Department of Commerce.
In the Chicago area, foreign tourism has been one of the fastest growing areas of business in recent years. Some 13 percent of the visitors to the Monet exhibit came from abroad.
Despite the clear economic benefits, however, city and state efforts to capitalize on local arts attractions have often been weak, if they existed at all. Indeed, the annual White House Conference on Travel and Tourism in October for the first time included a seminar on cultural tourism, urging the tourism industry and arts representatives to extend their shallow contacts into a closer, more lucrative collaboration.
Promoters of cultural tourism have powerful forces on their side. As America's baby-boom generation ages, its appreciation of art seems to be growing. And the rising cacophony of popular culture has, according , driven many people to more ''serene'' arts, says Mr. Ter Molen.
''As we look at the population, the cultural type of experience - going to the theater or museum - is more attractive than before,'' says Geoffrey Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory here, which conducted a study of the economic activity prompted by the exhibit. ''People are going more to cities than to beaches,'' he adds.
The Art Institute had a number of factors in its favor in organizing the Monet exhibit. It was able to exploit the broad worldwide exposure of Chicago during the 1994 World Cup. But it also carefully targeted its subject matter, capitalizing on a key facet of Monet's work: ''It is accessible as well as radical,'' says Ter Molen.
''Monet overcomes what many fear: that art is not for us, it's for the elite. But of course great art is not for the elite but for everybody,'' institute director James Wood said.
The exhibit generated considerable revenue in large part because of its duration. The four-month event lasted far longer than the World Cup, which generated $240 million. Its windfall is also expected to exceed that of next summer's Democratic Convention.
The exhibit directly prompted $140 million in revenues for hotels, shops, restaurants, transportation firms, and businesses. It also had an indirect impact of $253 million on business activity, according to the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory.