Museums across the Country Freshening Up, Expanding

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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 June 29 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 $156 million first phase of an expansion in February, the Art Museum of Western Virginia moves to a new $66 million home on Nov. 8 and Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum is working on an $85 million expansion.

Detroit's renovation arranged European masterpieces to tell the story of an 18th-century grand tour of Italy. The Los Angeles project, part of a multiyear redesign of its 20-acre campus, highlights the museum's contemporary collection.

There's more. In a survey last year involving 167 museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors said 66 percent 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., said museums can expect an attendance bounce with a new project, but it won't necessarily last. He said a museum face lift's impact on attendance in a tight economy may 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, like Cleveland's museum, 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. …