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'User friendly' art museum rises in Atlanta

''It doesn't look like a museum. It looks like some kind of science building, '' says Diane Jenkins, pausing in front of the nation's newest addition to a growing list of art museums.

She's right. From the more than 7,000 large porcelain exterior panels to the rounded front and the skylight-lit atrium lobby, Atlanta's new art museum is far from being a ''fortress'' for artworks.

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''I look at it as a genuine work of art - as important as anything we're going to put inside it,'' says Gudmund Vigtel, director of the Atlanta High Museum of Art. ''It's a nice place to go and look at art.''

And its open, bright design inside, with ramps instead of stairs, is designed to lessen the ''museum fatigue'' people often feel.

Atlanta isn't alone in offering the public attractive new facilities for viewing art. Other cities, including New York; Dallas; Portland, Ore.; Richmond, Va.; and Hanover, N.H., have built new museums.

There is a documented surge in participation in the arts and increasing attendance at arts events. Why? Mr. Vigetel leans back in his black, cushioned office chair and offers this explanation:

A ''readjustment of values'' is taking place in American society, he says. Many people are becoming less impressed with the idea of amassing material goods and wealth and more interested in such things as conservation, preservation, physical fitness - and art. ''We're moving away from the purely materialistic-conscious society,'' he says.

In an adjacent building, home of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Alliance Theater, the Atlanta College of Art, and the museum offices, Beauchamp Carr, vice-president of the Atlanta Arts Alliance, says the growing interest here in the arts reflects: (1) an increasing appreciation for the arts; (2) and an increasing awareness on the part of the business community that its financial support of the arts is good business. A community with quality arts programs and facilities more easily attracts conventions and new businesses, he says.

A recent analysis by the National Endowment for the Arts showed an 80 percent jump in the number of artists in the United States during the 1970s - an increase from about 600,000 to 1.08 million. And there has been a boom in the number of people viewing art exhibits and attending concerts and other performances, according to federal and state arts officials and private arts organizations.

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Here in Atlanta, support for the Arts Alliance has risen from $750,000 a year five years ago to $1.9 million this year, says Mr. Carr.

But the art museum has for years been recognized as too small. Major exhibits like King Tut were too big to be shown here, for example. The new building more than doubles exhibit space.

On a preview tour, a visitor walked up the narrow ramps that zigzag up from the open lobby area. Unlike the Guggenheim Museum in New York, however, which also features ramps, exhibits will not be on the ramp but in separate galleries. A 1/4-inch rubber padding under the oak floors is aimed at providing a gentle cushioning for visitor comfort.

The museum features what is considered to be one of the best collections of American 20th-century paintings in the US, one of the best regional collections of contemporary art, and solid photographic collections, director Vigtel says.

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