MILWAUKEE -- A majestic white winged addition designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava can do wonders for business.
The Milwaukee Art Museum has pulled itself out of $30 million in debt, increased attendance, and attracted acclaimed exhibits since the internationally known Calatrava finished the structure on Milwaukee's lakefront in 2001. It was his first project in the United States.
"This has been a transforming event in the museum's life," said museum director David Gordon, who leaves next year to become a consultant after more than five years at the museum's helm.
Milwaukee is not alone. 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.
They include Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which is in the middle of a $500 million fund-raising campaign for its expansion project, designed by the British firm Foster and Partners and slated for completion in 2010.
The boom is partly due to museum officials who recognize that using name architects for expansions helps attract tourists, according to association spokesman Jason Hall. Also, it is easier for museums to get donors for capital improvements than operating expenses because donors like having their names attached to the work.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York hired Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi to design an addition that opened last fall.
In San Francisco, the de Young Museum's addition opened in 2005, designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects in San Francisco. The Denver Art Museum commissioned American architect Daniel Libeskind for an addition that opened last fall.
Milwaukee's addition took four years to build and cost $130 million. Attendance grew 43 percent from the year before the expansion to 2006. The museum estimated the economic impact on the city increased over that time by 44 percent to $20.1 million.
Lance Jay Brown, a distinguished professor at The City College of New York's School of Architecture, Urban Design, and Landscape Architecture, said Milwaukee declared its commitment to culture with the structure.
"You don't have to go through the front door. All you have to do is come upon that building and see it and you know something exciting is happening in the city of Milwaukee," he said.
About 50 people gathered around noon recently for the daily opening and closing of the museum's moveable, winglike sunscreen, composed of 72 steel fins.
Mayor Tom Barrett said it has become the city's unofficial symbol -- used in marketing and in national television and print advertisements. It spurred nearby projects, including the Discovery World museum, a state park, and two new high-rises.
"In the short six years it's been in existence, it really has helped not only transform our image and update our image but it's also worked as a catalyst along the lakefront," he said.
Calatrava, who has mostly worked internationally, has other American projects, including the Chicago Spire, Atlanta Symphony Center, and a new commuter train station in New York City, where he also plans his first residential project in the United States. He is known for his playful experimentation with kinetic, folding architectural forms.
Gordon, a former business journalist who came to Milwaukee from London's Royal Academy of the Arts, started in 2002, when the museum was looking for a way out of debt and to raise its profile. He wanted to create a feeling of vitality at the museum, even with the "mountain of debt." So he appointed a new chief financial officer and put the museum's financial statements and annual reports online.
He also eliminated the fee for people to look around the museum's addition, put major exhibitions in one room, added more lectures in collaboration with local arts organizations, and allowed other nonprofits to hold fund-raisers, something banned previously.
Some of the more popular exhibitions the museum has attracted include "Degas Sculptures" and "Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland."
Gordon said he looks for riskier exhibitions, even if they don't pull in large numbers, to expose the public to different art. An example was "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," which he and his quilter wife loved when they saw it at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. At the time, no other museums were interested in showing the quilts created at a former Alabama plantation that remains largely populated by slave descendants. The quilters began a museum tour of their work in 2002 that closed last year at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
"It's made an impact on the African-American community," Gordon said. "Whenever I meet people from the community, they refer back to the exhibition and can't wait until we do something similar again."
He said the Francis Bacon exhibit, which ended earlier this year, was risky, too, because the Irish-born British expressionist painter was not well-known in Milwaukee. Fewer people turned out than expected, but that didn't bother Gordon.
"We've got to do things which are artistically valid and worthwhile," he said.
Globe staff writer Geoff Edgers contributed.