By Porter Anderson
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- From Glenn Lowry's vantage point at the Museum of Modern Art, the momentum American museums enjoy today requires only more ... momentum.
U.S. art museums point to several factors spurring attendance, donations and gift shop sales: Construction projects, civic pride and programs that fit their communities' lifestyles.
"You have to go full-tilt," MoMA's director said, instantly leaning into a favorite topic. "In this highly charged environment, if you're not out there with extraordinarily good programs presented full-force, other attractions -- opera, theater, dance, other museums -- are going to impact your audience."
"With the opening of our new building in November 2004, we went from about 1.5 million people per year to 2.5 million," he said. "We often have 13,000 people at the museum in a day."
Retailer Target underwrites "Free Friday Nights" at the museum, when up to 7,000 people might show up between 4 and 8 p.m. without having to pay the normal entry charge.
"If you can make a museum a hip place to be on a Friday afternoon, that is going to sustain itself over a long period of time," he said.
From Lowry's office to the nation's ear -- in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in Atlanta, Georgia, in Denver, Colorado, in Dallas, Texas -- museums are noisy with success. (View a gallery about art in four U.S. cities)
"This is a very good moment for art museums in the United States. They have emerged as the pre-eminent cultural institution, a means of shaping the identity of a city," Lowry said.
"So across the country, we see smaller institutions arriving and older institutions adding to their buildings in order to satisfy a growing public and a growing hunger for knowledge about the arts."
Framing the good news
The American Association of Museums' "2006 Museum Financial Information" survey of 809 institutions tracks data for the fiscal years 2003 through 2005.
Among the results released November 13 by the Washington, D.C.-based organization:
• U.S. museums log more than 600 million visits annually.
• The median attendance at American museums has remained steady at 34,000 annually since 2000.
• Half of museums surveyed have begun or completed construction, renovation or expansion in the last three years. Simply put, building is big.
Bricks and mortar
The expansion at MoMA is the 630,000-square-foot structure designed by architect Yoshio Taniguchi with a price tag of some $890 million. Its last major component, the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, opened this month.
Joe Bankoff, president and chief executive officer of Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center, has architecture in mind, too. He oversees a complex that includes the High Museum of Art with its newly opened expansion designed by famed architect Renzo Piano. (Watch a slideshow about the Louvre Atlanta collaboration)
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is next in Woodruff's construction plans, with a design ready from Santiago Calatrava, whose 2001 expansion of the Milwaukee Art Museum and 2004 Katehaki Bridge in Athens are iconic calling cards of the Valencia-born architect.
"Great architectural buildings for the arts indicate 'great art lives here,' " Bankoff said.
He uses the Sydney Opera House as his example: "It has an artistic value, a marquee value that reflects a desire to be -- and be seen as -- an artistic community."
But Bankoff makes a distinction between what Atlanta is trying to do and what the Denver Art Museum did with its Daniel Libeskind-designed Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in October. It comes down to public and private funding.
Atlanta has some $108 million pledged so far, a third of the total needed. And none of it is public money. It's all private donations.
"But here in Denver," said Andrea Fulton, director of communications of the Denver Art Museum, "we started with $62 million in the bank, thanks to a public bond initiative."
Denver's museum shares a connection with Atlanta. In October 2007, Denver will open its own show of artwork from the Louvre, the great summit in Paris -- a follow-up to High Museum Director Michael Shapiro's groundbreaking three-year arrangement with Louvre president and director Henri Loyrette called "Louvre Atlanta."
Fulton, meanwhile, also echoes Lowry's interest in making her museum that "hip place" to be on a Friday. "We're open every Friday night until 10 p.m. ... for younger people to have a place to go," she said.
The art of life
Even at institutions without building projects, the key to Lowry's "very good moment" for art museums in the United States appears to follow what he, Bankoff and Fulton are saying: Museums need to get into their communities' needs as much as they need their communities to get into those galleries.
"We're opening something called Fast Forward this month," said Charles Wylie, the Lupe Murchison Curator of Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art.
In 2005, Dallas' Hoffman, Rose and Rachofsky families pledged their own collections and future acquisitions to the museum, an unprecedented gesture in American art, comprising more than 800 works.
Among the pieces in Fast Forward certain to become talking points is the 1997 "Angel," petulant and perched on a high barstool, by Australian artist Ron Meuck, the subject of a major exhibition running through February 4, 2007, at New York's Brooklyn Museum.
"We're seeing a tremendous uptick in audience in the types of activities we're conducting," Wylie said, "just by being open during hours when people would otherwise be going to movies." Late Nights, a Starbucks-sponsored program, keeps the museum open to midnight on certain Fridays.
And Wylie is a champion of the museum's Junior Associates Circle, a membership group of some 450 under-40 professionals who each year buy the museum a new work.
"It's the new leadership," he said. "They're the future guardians of the Fast Forward collections."
MoMA's Lowry said the key "is relatively straightforward. One: Museums are inherently interesting -- they stimulate your imagination and your mind. Two: It's a safe environment. Three: You're likely to meet like-minded people.
"I remember Herbert Muschamp, who used to be the architecture critic at The New York Times, saying the sculpture garden downstairs is the best place in New York City to pick up a date."
Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry has seen annual visits boom from 1.5 to 2.5 million during the last two years.