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The art of attraction

Indianapolis is known for a number of things: being the biggest city in Indiana, being the hometown of David Letterman and hosting the Indy 500. But a mecca of art and architecture? No.

Under way at the Indianapolis Museum of Art is a $74-million expansion. When it is finished in 2006, the museum will boast thousands of square feet of new gallery space and two restaurants in a multistoried building. Architect's renderings show that its oval, glass-walled entrance hall resembles a hybrid of an air traffic control tower and something out of The Jetsons.

This project in turn is part of a wave of ambitious ones in other midsize American cities. Some of the most acclaimed new museums in the United States are not in New York or Chicago.

Instead, you'll need to get to Milwaukee, where the once-staid art museum has been energized by a stunning, $100-million pavilion with a sunscreen that opens and closes each day like a giant pair of wings.

And check out Cincinnati, where an avant-garde contemporary arts center is bringing artistic virtuosity to a business-oriented downtown.

Or try Fort Worth, Texas, where Tadao Ando's sublime Modern Art Museum in late 2002 earned another round of high praise for the city's thriving museum district.

Leaders in these cities, and others, have realized that culture is capable of drawing revenue, tourists, additional development and even employers.

A bold, exciting museum can reinvigorate a city's reputation faster than a shopping mall or a sports stadium, both ways cities tried to differentiate themselves in the 1980s, says David Gordon, who left London to become the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum in late 2002.

Gordon says the trend even has a name: the Bilbao Effect. In 1997, the otherwise undistinguished industrial city of Bilbao, Spain, opened a futuristic Guggenheim museum. The museum immediately won worldwide acclaim, drew millions of tourists and helped jump-start a citywide renaissance. Visitors now also enjoy a new opera house, a modern metro system, a marvel of a new airport designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and a riverside park across from the Guggenheim.

Stateside, recent projects in midsize cities such as Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Tacoma, Wash., will soon be joined by these institutions:

+ The Tampa Museum of Art is planning a new building, designed by Rafael Vinoly, expected to cost about $67-million. Seemingly made largely of glass, the museum will offer views of the city, the Hillsborough River and a new riverside park.

+ Michael Graves, better known for designing cool, modernist toasters and coat racks for Target, is designing a $50-million expansion project at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, scheduled for completion in 2006.

+ In Kansas City, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has raised more than $200-million for an expansion under construction. Set to open in 2007, the hall was designed by architect Steven Holl, whose resume includes projects in China, Finland and New York.

Larger cities also have finished notable projects in the past few years. Los Angeles' Getty center broke all kinds of attendance records when its new campus opened in December 1997. Even in such a metropolis, the Getty has been marketed as providing an alternative to what most people think of as the fluff and flash of Southern California.

"The city has been able to demonstrate that it's more than Hollywood and movie stars," says Edward Able, president of the American Association of Museums. "It has effectively changed its image."

In some form, that's what the following new museums have done for their cities: made them worth a visit for reasons different from what you might have guessed.

Cincinnati: Contemporary Arts Center

Mark Twain once said that if the world ever ended, he'd want to be in Cincinnati, because everything happens there 10 years later. That stick-in-the-mud reputation lingered for about a century, and it wasn't helped when local officials arrested the Art Center's director for producing a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1990, citing obscenity laws.

What they say about the new museum: Called "the most important American building since the end of the Cold War" by the New York Times when it opened June 2003, the museum has been showered with critical praise.

The museum: The Arts Center was an early exhibitor of Picasso, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Laurie Anderson. Now it finally has a home as forward-thinking as its vision.

Built on a busy block downtown, the center is all shiny angles and boxy protrusion, a frankly modern apparition of concrete, steel and glass set amidtraditional brick buildings.

A key design element is the so-called "Urban Carpet." London architect Zaha Hadid designed a sidewalk that flows into the building's entrance, becoming the lobby floor and continuing to curve upward until it becomes the back wall. It then flows into a mezzanine ramp that leads to the galleries. The idea is that the museum cannot be separated from the city, that street life and museum life are connected.

Though the programming may not seem as daring as that aborted Mapplethorpe exhibit a decade ago, it probably is plenty cutting-edge for most visitors.

On exhibit through November is "Crimes and Misdemeanors: Politics in U.S. Art of the '80s." This includes Helmsboro County, by Hans Haacke, which satirizes Jesse Helms' connection to the tobacco industry and the industry's connection to the art world, and Contra Diction by Robbie Conal, featuring a picture of Ronald Reagan with that telling caption. Works by Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel and, yes, Mapplethorpe are also on display.

The Contemporary Arts Center is open daily except Tueday at 44 E Sixth St. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors and $3.50 for ages 3 to 13. Call (513) 721-0390;

What else to do: In May, the city's Taft Museum of Art reopened after more than two years, unveiling a $23-million expansion and renovation. The museum, in what was originally an 1800s-era mansion, has a fine collection of Limoges enamels, European watches, Chinese porcelains, and American and European paintings and sculptures _ think Rembrandt, Whistler, Jim Dine, Thomas Gainsborough. Call (513) 241-0343;

On Aug. 23, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in a building on the north bank of the Ohio River. The location is fitting: The river was considered a dividing line between North and South, and many escaped slaves found freedom in Cincinnati. The center includes theaters, interactive exhibits, historical galleries and a research center. Call toll-free 1-877-648-4838;

Another Cincinnati institution, the Cincinnati Art Museum, opened a $10-million expansion in May 2003. The new Cincinnati Wing tells the story of the city's visual arts, with works by artists with local ties and pottery from the city's Rookwood Pottery Co. Call (513) 721-2787;

Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum's Quadracci Pavilion

It's easy to pick on Milwaukee by saying its cultural life revolves around the three B's: beer, brats and bowling. One of its most enduring portrayals on TV has been as the home of Laverne and Shirley, bowling fans and brewery workers.

What they say about the museum: Opened a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the $100-million-plus pavilion was named the best-designed building of 2001 by Time, and other critics have called it elegant, graceful, romantic and inventive.

Museum highlights: Set against Lake Michigan, the white pavilion was designed by Calatrava, the Spanish architect, to evoke ships and water; it is vaguely reminiscent of a streamlined version of the sail-shaped Sydney Opera House in Australia.

The pavilion's glass-enclosed entry hall is connected to downtown Milwaukee by a 250-foot suspended walkway, giving visitors the feeling of walking up a gangplank. Atop the hall is the Burke Brise Soleil, the sunscreen that opens and closes daily, like sails rising and falling; a small crowd often gathers for the show.

Since the pavilion's opening, museum attendance has tripled, despite this occasional criticism: So-so exhibitions haven't matched the stunning exterior.

The museum was founded in 1888 and has more than 20,000 works in its collection, including pieces by Renoir, Rodin, Degas, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, O'Keeffe, Rothko and Warhol.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is open daily at 700 N Art Museum Drive. Admission is $8 adults, $6 seniors, $4 students, free 12 and younger. Call (414) 224-3220;

What else to do: The William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design is the only museum in the nation that concentrates on the influence advertising has exerted on our culture and history. Opened in late 2000, it has presented exhibits based on the ads of Harley-Davidson and Burma Shave, and another on shopping bags, all of them far more illuminating than you'd expect. Call (414) 847-3290;

Beacon, N.Y.: Dia:Beacon

Unless you've lived nearby, you've probably never heard of this sleepy Hudson Valley burg of about 15,000, about 60 miles north of New York City.

What they say about the museum: Dia:Beacon has been praised in publications from London to Minneapolis for its minimalist use of space and the vast amount of fine contemporary art it exhibits. It was called a "marvelous place of luxuriant light, open space and serene galleries" in a glowing review in New York magazine.

Museum highlights: This warehouse of a museum opened in May 2003 in a rehabilitated former Nabisco printing plant sometimes called the Biscuit by locals. It is a project of the Dia Art Foundation of New York City. The foundation had a huge collection of works by artists such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly and Richard Serra, including some installations that could not fit in its small gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

Searching for a suitable showcase, director Michael Govan stumbled across the abandoned factory while flying a private plane over the Hudson Valley. International Paper, the owner, agreed to donate the building.

Working with artist Robert Irwin, Govan oversaw a $30-million renovation that made use of the factory's skylights and gargantuan halls. Many galleries were designed with specific installations in mind, and the artists of specific pieces were involved with the design, meaning the art is displayed as the artist intended.

With nearly 300,000 square feet, the Beacon museum can show huge pieces (a 72-canvas painting by Andy Warhol stretching hundreds of feet) and a vast amount of art (works by 24 of the most prominent artists from the past 50 years, including Bruce Naumann, Louise Bourgeois and Gerhard Richter, form the permanent exhibition). A 50,000-square-foot basement gallery features temporary shows.

Dia:Beacon is at 3 Beekman St. Days and hours change with the season. Admission is $10 adults, $7 seniors and students, free for under 12. Call (845) 440-0100;

What else to do: Many of the 1800s-era buildings on Beacon's once-shuttered Main Street have been restored and now house galleries, coffeehouses, restaurants and boutiques. The district is worth an afternoon of browsing, especially if you're looking for a break from the urban bustle of Manhattan.

_ Patricia Rodriguez is a freelance writer living in Mexico.