Museums by the foot

Art institutions are expanding gallery space and providing better amenities, but are they also taxing visitors' endurance?

If you've been looking for a way to get a workout and enjoy fine art at the same time, lace up your sneakers and head to a museum.

Cultural buildings in the United States are being supersized, with newly enlarged museums opening this year in cities including Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Davenport, Iowa. Construction begins this summer on an addition to The Art Institute of Chicago, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has already raised $264 million toward the construction of a new wing and an endowment to support programming.

With growth on the minds of directors, visitors are in for a different experience as they shuffle into freshly painted galleries. They will find more space to maneuver a stroller, more places to eat, and better educational facilities. The trade off, in some cases, is less intimate quarters to view a favorite Van Gogh, and less likelihood of seeing the entire museum in one visit.

In a shift from previous eras, when fewer people visited museums, today the visitor experience is more important as museum officials focus on making the art look good and ensuring that everyone from families to retirees is comfortable.

"Most of us, when we think about expansions, are looking first and foremost at how to create spaces that are going to make our collections look the best they possibly can," says Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan, which recently increased its gallery space by 50 percent. "But once you get to that point, you then say, 'OK, now what are we going to do to make sure that anyone who visits here has a wonderful time?' "

Jazzing up older edifices is one way institutions can stay competitive at a time when millions of tourists are flocking to museums of every kind. Recent estimates of visits to US museums - including zoos and historical sites - range from 640 million to 865 million annually, according to the American Association of Museums. To stay up to date, art museums are offering amenities for families - like rooms to take kids for downtime - and more multimedia experiences.

Expansions have been in full swing since the late 1990s, and continue as a way to connect with communities and contribute to local economies. The growth is due in part to collections getting larger and to the broader role the institutions play, says James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago. "There's more being offered in museums now than was offered 25 years ago, in terms of permanent collections, temporary exhibitions, lecture spaces, concert rooms, bookstores, cafes."

In New York, expansion projects are almost as common as art collectors. The Whitney Museum of American Art is moving forward with one, as is the New Museum of Contemporary Art. And MoMA completed its latest construction last fall, complete with spacious public areas and floors with extra spring in them.

For now, the museum is welcoming double the number of visitors it had before. Almost 1.5 million have trod its six new floors in the time between its reopening last November and the end of May. "Although we didn't design it to this level of attendance, we're thrilled by the ease with which the building seems to absorb so many people," says Mr. Lowry.

If MoMA is any indication, people are adapting to larger museums. Visitors are spending about double the amount of time they used to inside - more than two and a half versus one to one-and-a-half hours, says Lowry. In many cases, they're stopping to get something to eat or drink at the cafes to divide up their visit.

"This was great," said Sonja Cobb, an interior designer from Chicago who spent nearly five hours inside with her husband on a recent Friday, leisurely looking at paintings and eating lunch. "This was more manageable than the Art Institute of Chicago."

Some museums are aiming to do more than just make visitors comfortable. They want to get people involved. That was the goal of the newly expanded Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which includes performance and audio and visual elements.

"Many museums think about traffic patterns; we thought about social patterns," says Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker. "Rather than moving people through space, we created places along the circulation route where people could stop, converse, and learn together."

At the Art Institute of Chicago, an expansion was needed to help put all the modern art collections in one place. Their current distribution over many buildings "taxed the patience" of visitors, according to director Cuno.

Still, not everyone thinks all this growth is a good idea. Some critics worry about museums all starting to look alike, with big white rooms and visitors rubbing elbows. "If you expand a museum, the first downside is you've got to find something to fill that expansion," says Victoria Newhouse, an architectural historian whose latest book is "Art and the Power of Placement." Take what she calls the "ideal sized" Whitney in New York. "All of the sudden the same staff, same curators, are going to have to do twice as much for something that's twice as big."

In addition to questions about quality, she's not convinced that visitors have a better experience - especially when the goal of the architecture seems to be funneling as many people as possible through the galleries. She suggests that museums should consider controlling crowds with tickets that have specific times for entry on them. Some visitors agree.

"I miss the intimacy of the old museum," says Lisa Dunn, a New Yorker who recalls MoMA in the early 1970s, a time when fewer people visited museums. She was in the museum recently on a crowded Friday night - when admission is free - only because she has relatives in town. "I would never seriously look at art tonight," she says.

Ironically, overcrowding was one of the reasons MoMA expanded in the first place. It now has spacious stairways and lobbies. And, Lowry suggests, it offers a benefit to visitors: "The opportunity to see more art in a better way."

US art museums indulge that expansive feeling

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Expansion: 163,000 square feet, with a renovation of 90,000 square feet

Architects: Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf

Building cost: $74 million

Completion: Special events pavilions, special exhibitions, and shops reopened in May. Remainder to be finished by spring 2006.

Art Institute of Chicago

Expansion: 264,000-square-foot addition

Architect: Renzo Piano

Building cost: $258 million

Completion: Spring 2009

Akron (Ohio) Art Museum

Expansion: 64,000 square feet, including a glass and steel lobby, a large exhibition space

Architect: Coop Himmelb(l)au

Building cost: $27 million

Completion: 2006

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Expansion: 135,000 square feet, including a new wing to house about 50 galleries for American art, with 75,000 square feet of existing space being renovated or refurbished.

Architects: Foster and Partners, London

Building cost: $180 million

Completion: 2009

Denver Art Museum

Expansion: a 14,000-square-foot addition to the Frederic C. Hamilton Building

Architect: Daniel Libeskind

Cost: $62.5 million

Completion: Fall 2006

Phoenix Art Museum

Expansion: 30,000 square feet; redesign of 47,000 square feet of exterior spaces

Architects: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien

Cost: $41.2 million

Completion: Spring 2006

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