A soaring structure, resembling a bird taking flight, is rising on Lake Michigan's shores, where it is soon to be a wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum. The erstwhile Home for Needy Confederate Women in Richmond was just rechristened as the education center of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The Old Main Library in San Francisco and an abandoned Nabisco factory in Beacon, N.Y., are about to be converted, respectively, into the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and a branch of the Dia Center for the Arts.
Then there is a trio of gallery pavilions that will "float" above a reflecting pond as the new Museum of Modern Art of Fort Worth; a sculpture garden dug into the Washington Mall for the National Gallery of Art; an old May Company department store morphing into space for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; a disused multiplex discount cinema that is now the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, and the Museum of Modern Art's $650 million plan to transform its block of West 53d Street in New York.
There is even 130,000 square feet of new floor space at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, created by slicing two-story galleries into separate floors and by taking over air shafts and vacated offices.
Any which way they can, American art museums are expanding. Play the proverbial dart game with a map of the United States and, chances are, you'll land near a city whose museum has expanded, is expanding or plans to expand.
Though no one keeps a master list, a wide but by no means complete survey by The New York Times discovered nearly 60 museums that are enlarging their quarters, to the tune of several billion dollars. That does not include recent projects, like the stunning new branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the sprawling new Getty Center in Los Angeles and the fledgling Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., that made their entrances before 1998.
Where growth plans do not yet exist on paper, they often dance in the heads of museum directors and trustees. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, for example, are writing strategic plans bound to involve additional square footage.
"It's just dreams at this point, but we will have something to say soon," said Malcolm Rogers, the director of the Boston museum. "If you're not changing or expanding, you're standing still."
The broadest, grandest, most ambitious art museum boom in American history depends, of course, on one fact: If ever there was a good time for raising cash, it is now. Thanks to the second-longest economic expansion of this century and a 10,000-point Dow Jones Industrial Average, the United States is rich with, well, the wealthy. The monied classes enjoy being art patrons, with the recognition, gilt by association and confirmation of taste that giving confers.
And donors generally prefer to give money for buildings, rather than operations, a trend that dovetails with museums' primal need for more space -- their version of Manifest Destiny -- to show ever-growing collections. "A museum that considers itself finished is dead," said Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Some museums say they are at the breaking point: They own art that ought to be on display but isn't, and yet donors of new gifts want to see them out in the open. Gail Harrity, the chief operating officer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, voiced a common complaint: "We've already expanded into every possible inch that we can."
But there may be more going on here than the museum world's perpetual quest for marble and mortar. To some observers, the expansion blitz signals that museums occupy a more imposing position in the community than they have in the past, socially and economically as well as culturally.
"Art museums have shaped their outlook and their activities to be more in sync with society's needs and the aspirations of the community," said Robert P. Bergman, the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. "More people look to cultural institutions to serve a wider, rather than narrow, band of our citizenry, and museums have vastly diversified their activities and programs."
Mr. Bergman and others cite classrooms, media laboratories, interactive displays, libraries, "event" rooms, auditoriums, performing arts spaces and, of course, shops, coffee bars and restaurants. With so many activities available under one roof, the museum becomes a gathering place, especially if it has added evening hours and live music.
Andrea Rich, the president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, calls today's museum "the new town square" in some communities, the exceptions being, perhaps, major metropolitan areas.
Art museums have certainly insinuated themselves into local economies by attracting tourists. "Every city has to have an art museum," said Witold Rybczynski, the author of "City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World" (Simon & Schuster) and a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. "The feeling is, if you get one, along with a sports team and an aquarium, that will somehow fix you up."
In Philadelphia, for example, the museum has drawn huge numbers of tourists to its retrospectives of Cezanne and Delacroix. "The art museum, once considered the icing on the cake, is suddenly the cake," Mr. Rybczynski said. Indeed, a 1998 study commissioned by the Travel Industry Association of America found that a quarter of adult travelers in the United States had visited a museum the previous year.
J. Mark Schuster, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "Museums are part of urban development strategy. Communities are saying, 'We have to have one to compete.' "
The cultural position of art museums is changing, too, as they have transformed the nature of their collections. "The museum canon has broadened quite a lot," said Neil Harris, a history professor and expert on museums at the University of Chicago, "partly as a function of scholarship, partly in response to audiences."
Thus museums are adding art that reflects their region's ethnic makeup -- Latin American art in Texas, for example. But some go beyond that now, adding, say, Tibetan art as well as contemporary art in more forms, like photography, film, video, multimedia art and so on. (And 20th-century art casts what Mr. Harris called a long shadow, and "takes more space.")
For all these reasons, along with better marketing, increased frequency of blockbuster exhibitions and a more educated public, attendance is up at most museums. In Houston, for example, the Museum of Fine Arts is doubling its space partly to accommodate a visitor tally that jumped more than 50 percent in the last five years to 1.3 million in 1998. The Government reported last year that 68 million adult Americans visited art museums in 1997, resulting in 225 million visits. (Children's visits would increase the total sharply.)
BECAUSE of changes in methods, experts say, these figures cannot be compared with those from previous surveys. So it is hard to say whether a greater proportion of the population is visiting museums, or the population increased, and the same people are visiting museums more often. But Monnie Peters, a consultant in Washington who once headed the Government's arts participation survey, said: "You do have concrete evidence of the increased desire of the American public to go to art museums. They're saying they're going more, and I think you can believe it."
It helps, Mr. Harris said, that people have more money to spend on cultural activities and that the nation's population in cities, where the museums are, is growing. The proliferation of art images on the Internet is also whetting the appetites of many who now want to see the real thing, he said.
The more visitors museums have, the more space they need for amenities like bathrooms, parking areas and restaurants, which enlarge the expansions. Some experts, however, worry that museums are over-building, leaving themselves open to deficits if attendance drops.
Still, museum attendance has been rising for decades. "There is nothing inherently unsustainable" about high attendance, Mr. Harris said. "But it is expensive to sustain," he added. "A large number of people will go to certain exhibitions, but not others. Then there is pressure on museums to mount exhibitions that draw."
None of this seems to be particularly worrisome in the museum world, where the prevailing mood is boundless optimism. Consider the International Glass Museum in Tacoma, Wash., which exists only on paper. The group trying to build this showcase for studio glass has found firm commitments for just half of the $11 million needed.
In February, though, a letter from its headquarters announced that the yet unbuilt museum was expanding. To house "the extensive programs as well as preserve the overall beauty and attractiveness of the museum," trustees decided to boost the plan from 55,000 square feet to 59,300. Their new capital goal is $16.4 million.