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Paul Bessire (L) and Jill Medvedow viewed construction of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s new home on Fan Pier.
Paul Bessire (L) and Jill Medvedow viewed construction of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s new home on Fan Pier. (Globe Staff Photos / David L. Ryan)
New Institute of Contemporary Art. Location: South Boston waterfront Opens: 2006.
New Institute of Contemporary Art. Location: South Boston waterfront Opens: 2006.

Under construction: an arts renaissance

First in an occasional series on Boston's cultural expansion.

With more than $1 billion being raised for new museums and other arts facilities, Boston is in the midst of an unprecedented cultural boom, one that museum directors hope will elevate the city as a cultural mecca without overbuilding or saturating the market.

The construction wave occurs a century after Boston's major institutions -- the Museum of Fine Arts, Symphony Hall, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum -- opened their current homes. This time, the projects are more varied, ranging from a contemporary art museum on the waterfront and downtown theaters to a pair of cultural centers slated for open space created by the Big Dig.

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Arts & Entertainment, N1.

''It's staggering," said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which funds a wide range of cultural and civic groups. ''Boston has always had a lively cultural scene, but I think we're seeing the kind of arts renaissance catching up with the tremendous revitalization Boston's undergone over the last 25 years."

The boom is occurring as New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Dallas are also expanding their arts offerings.

''What we're going through is very much like the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when the great fortunes were made," said Richard Florida, a professor at George Mason University and a specialist on cultural affairs. ''These people realize how much value there is in the arts."

In one case in Boston, a cultural institution is taking the lead in an area where commercial developers have failed. The Institute of Contemporary Art's $62 million replacement for its Boylston Street quarters, due to open in 2006, is the first major piece of construction on the 21-acre tract alongside the federal courthouse on Fan Pier. It will be the first new art museum since the Huntington Avenue home of the Museum of Fine Arts was completed in 1909.

The MFA, which announced a $425 million capital drive in 2001, has already raised $245 million for a building program that will include a new American wing. The Gardner, a block over in the Fenway, announced in December that it will build a 56,000-square-foot building alongside the museum's Venetian palace. Italian architect Renzo Piano has been hired to design the wing, and the Gardner is getting ready to launch a $100 million fund-raising campaign.

The Museum of Science and the Children's Museum on the waterfront have also announced expansions. And organizers for the New Center for Arts and Culture and the Boston Museum Project plan to build cultural centers, with galleries and theaters, on different sections of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. In addition, several colleges and universities are planning museum projects.

''In a sense, this boom shouldn't be surprising," said Florida, author of ''The Rise of the Creative Class." ''All the wealth that's been built up as a result of the creative economy is very much concentrated in a small number of regions. Boston, New York, and Seattle are putting so much distance between themselves and other cities."

Florida said that these projects give cities like Boston a distinct economic edge over comparably sized cities in drawing scientists, musicians, innovators, and others who flock to an urban area because of its cultural riches.

For decades, the land next to Anthony's Pier Four has been targeted by developers for high-rise condos, hotels, and restaurants. Yet the first project to rise from the dusty parking lots will be an art museum that over the last decade has averaged 24,000 visitors a year in a cramped, converted police station on Boylston Street. The new ICA, with its glass walls and dramatic, 75-foot overhang, will redefine a long-neglected stretch of waterfront.

When the Gardner and the MFA were built early in the last century, they, too, were on Boston's frontier, at that time the swampy Fens that were being reclaimed through a series of flood-control projects.

''I love the MFA and Gardner, but those places are deeply established with long-term strength," said ICA director Jill Medvedow. ''The ICA is an underdog's story, and it's a story about risk."

By risk, she means the selection of architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro instead of a more established figure such as Norman Foster, hired by the MFA, or Piano, signed on by the Gardner. Medvedow also sees risk in the ICA's moving first on the Fan Pier, before more seasoned commercial developers.

The ICA's leaders believe this new space -- which will have a 325-seat theater, waterfront café, and triple the gallery space of its current home -- will increase attendance dramatically. To break even in its first year of operation, the new ICA will need to attract 200,000 visitors, five times its highest annual total over the last decade. There is already some skepticism about that goal.

''It sounds ambitious, and I hope there's a large enough market," said Jay Finney, deputy director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. ''But do you really think there are five times the market for the ICA's program than there is right now and the only reason they're not getting them now is building size?"

Finney concedes that his own institution had trouble attracting big crowds before 2003, when the Peabody Essex Museum finished a $194 million expansion that more than doubled its space. In its first full year after reopening, the museum raised its attendance from 140,000 to 350,000. The challenge, he acknowledges, will be to sustain those kinds of numbers once the novelty has worn off.

Other new institutions have been searching out new audiences. The Opera House, closed for more than a decade until Clear Channel spent $40 million on a renovation, drew sellout crowds to upper Washington Street for weeks when it reopened last spring with ''The Lion King." In the South End, the Boston Center for the Arts opened two new theaters in 2004, the first built in the city in 75 years.

The roots of the boom, fund-raisers and cultural leaders say, can be traced to the strong base of wealthy individuals in the region -- exemplified by Fidelity Investments chief executive Edward C. ''Ned" Johnson III, who has quietly contributed to the Peabody Essex and MFA over the years -- and to the newer wealth, the ''creative class" of techies and entrepreneurs eager to become part of the city's cultural community.

''It's really given me a sense of place philanthropically," said Andrew Spindler, 41, an antiques dealer who was drawn to donate to the MFA through the Museum Council, a support group of young professionals.

Individual donors are particularly important because of the region's startlingly poor record of public support for the arts. Legislators feel the same way about museums and theaters as they do about sports stadiums: They want them to be part of the tourism economy, but they don't want to provide money for them. The ICA is getting just $130,000 from the state for its new building. The MFA has received $2 million from public sources for its expansion.

''We have great private resources and because of that, there's been a sense of complacency," said Dan Hunter, executive director of Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities.

In a 2003 report, the Boston Foundation highlighted the gap in public giving between Boston and other cities. In the most recent year charted, 2001-2002, Boston's Office of Cultural Affairs contributed $870,000 to arts groups. That was easily surpassed by public agencies in Dallas ($5 million a year); Charlotte, N.C. ($14 million); Pittsburgh ($28.5 million); and San Francisco ($37 million).

Those figures don't even take into account collaboration between institutions and private, nonprofit agencies.

In Minneapolis, for example, the Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association will host a party in New York City in May to highlight $500 million worth of new arts building projects set to open in Minneapolis over the next two years.

One of Boston's closest competitors as a cultural center, Philadelphia, has spent millions of public dollars on cultural projects in recent years, including significant contributions to the $265 million Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, home of the Philadelphia Symphony; the $139 million National Constitution Center; and the $14 million Liberty Bell Center. In January, Mayor John F. Street of Philadelphia proposed selling the naming rights to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and using the proceeds to fund arts and culture.

In addition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Salvador Dali show has been publicized across the country, thanks to a $2.6 million marketing campaign, a third of it paid for by the nonprofit Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. Boston drivers couldn't miss a Dali billboard visible from the Southeast Expressway.

Officials of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, also a nonprofit organization, say they couldn't afford to mount a similar campaign because, unlike their counterparts in Philadelphia and other cities, they don't get hotel tax money to devote to the arts. The Philadelphia marketing operation receives 35 percent of its $12 million annual budget from a portion of the city's hotel tax.

''Philadelphia is eating our lunch," said Lou Casagrande, president of the Children's Museum, which plans a $25 million expansion. ''They have a strong marketing association for the cultural industry, and I think they are looking to make the cultural institutions more of a driver for the city and the regional community. We need to watch that."

By 2009, when the expanded MFA opens its doors, Boston's arts community will face a critical test. There will be more than a half-dozen other new or expanded facilities competing for patrons in the Boston area by that time, not to mention the museums and concert halls operated by Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and other local institutions.

Despite the competition, MFA director Malcolm Rogers says he is not concerned about the MFA being able to create enough new revenue to support the larger staff and increased programming that the new wing will necessitate. The MFA's $425 million fund-raising campaign includes money, on top of construction costs, to operate the expanded museum.

''What I think would be a great mistake would be to pin all your hopes on a vast increase in attendance," Rogers said.

Finney, the Peabody Essex deputy director, doesn't doubt that a new museum can draw a larger attendance when it opens a new facility. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, his former employer, enjoyed an increase in its gate from 250,000 to 800,000 after opening a new building in 1995. But attendance leveled off at around 600,000. At the Peabody Essex, Finney says, attendance declined the second year after the new museum opened.

''The first year doesn't matter," Finney said. ''It's everybody looking at it because it's there. The 'lookyloos,' I like to call them."

Boston's arts leaders have already faced one consequence of increased competition: There were more holiday shows in town than ever before, with the Opera House in operation and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts bringing in ''The Radio City Christmas Spectacular." As a result, many longtime institutions, even the Boston Pops, have suffered at the box office. Boston Ballet has had to lay off staff members and cut performances to save money in the face of declining attendance.

''It's sustainability that really matters," Finney said. ''You have the advantage of having a lot of people see you quickly, and they'll make the decision whether they want to come back."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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