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Art museums deal with attendance issues after new expansions

By Carrie Antlfinger
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (AP) 6-08

In the Milwaukee Art Museum world, 2008 is seven years A.C. – or After Calatrava.

That is, seven years after the grand white addition with its glass ceiling and moveable sunscreen designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava opened on Milwaukee’s lakefront – his first completed project in the United States. It has helped pull the museum out of $30 million in debt, increased attendance and attracted acclaimed exhibits.

Now, with the novelty wearing off, the museum must determine a new path. And it’s doing it with new director Dan Keegan, who spent the past seven years at the San Jose Museum of Art in California’s Silicon Valley.

Many museums are in a similar situation. A 2006 survey by the American Association of Museums found that 50 percent of responding museums had begun or completed construction, renovation or expansion in the previous three years.

“I think in my personal opinion this notion of new that museums have latched onto could be a trap in a way,” said Kathleen McLean, president of the Visitors Study Association. “It’s not necessarily that people need something new, it’s more about looking for nourishment however you define nourishment and satisfaction.”

It’s hard to know exactly how expanded museums are doing because 35 percent of museums are free and some museums count visitors differently, AAM spokesman Dewey Blanton said. Some may not be able to sustain the initial spike, but have increased attendance compared to before the expansion or renovation. Such is the case with the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Attendance was up in 2007 nearly 80 percent from 2000 – the year before the addition opened – but down about 45 percent from the year after the addition opened. Officials there consider themselves successful. They increased attendance overall and are fulfilling the promise of the addition: Expect the unexpected.

“It’s maybe more of a sculpture than it is a building. It’s kinetic and moveable and dynamic,” Keegan said. “Those things say again to expect the unexpected and I think that’s the opportunity for us as we think through the programming, the exhibits, the educational experience, the visitor experience.”

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta opened three new buildings in November 2005, designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Susan Clark, director of marketing and communications for the High, said more space means increased overhead costs, such as heating and air conditioning. But they also consider the addition successful so far: 2007 attendance was up nearly 61 percent compared to 2004 – the year before it opened.

She said the museum has tried to bring in shows that suit its Southern audience. Starting in June it’s featuring “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968” and “After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy.”

“It’s a challenge certainly but what we’ve tried to do and are trying to do is make sure that we use the buildings to their fullest advantage in terms of programming, both representing more of our collection and broader exhibitions,” she said.

The Denver Art Museum’s expansion opened in fall 2006 and last year it had a spike in attendance. The expansion allows for more art of interest to locals, such as Native American and Western Art.

Keegan doesn’t consider himself at a disadvantage in taking over at the museum after the initial attendance spike. He welcomes the challenge and said the goal now is to make the museum’s art and exhibits relevant to everyone, by exploring new technologies.

He continues to make audio tours available, but is also looking at providing interaction with the museum’s art collection through cell phones, the Web and iPods. But he doesn’t want technology to substitute experiencing art in the traditional way. Instead it’s a way to enhance the experience for a younger generation that is accustomed to technology.

“In terms of visitor experience, we have to find ways to make it broader and deeper,” Keegan said.

American Association of Museums President Ford Bell said he’s not too worried about how museums with expansions will do with the faltering economy. The average museum admission fee is only $6, he said.

“I think museums will be affected but for 200 years museums have gotten through difficult economic times and I think they do well because they are an affordable form of entertainment,” he said.