Museums by the Foot ; Art Institutions Are Expanding Gallery Space and Providing Better Amenities, but Are They Also Taxing Visitors' Endurance?

Article excerpt

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. …