Again, the National Museum of American Art seemed about to be cursed with bad timing.

The last time was in 1968 when it moved into its first permanent home in the Old Patent Office Building at Eighth and G streets NW--just months before the neighborhood went up in smoke during the riots that followed the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

For the next 30 years, the museum (and the National Portrait Gallery, with which it shares the building) fought an uphill battle to lure visitors from the Mall into what had become an urban wasteland.

Then last year, just when MCI Center had finally sparked a downtown renaissance, bursting pipes made it clear that massive renovations could no longer be postponed. The museum would have to close its doors for three years starting Jan. 3, 2000.

But this time, museum officials were determined to turn bad timing to their advantage. "We decided that if you get a bushel of lemons dumped in your lap, you just make the best lemonade ever," says the museum's upbeat development officer, Katie Ziglar.

And that's what they've done. Rolling up her sleeves, Director Betsy Broun sent letters to museums around the country, saying that the NMAA's collection was about to go into storage--unless they were interested in renting exhibitions of its treasures.

The response was enthusiastic, recalls Broun. And her staff quickly went to work organizing eight major traveling shows (totaling more than 500 works) on subjects ranging from "Lore of the West" to "Modernism and Abstraction" and "Contemporary Folk Art."

Each exhibition was made available, at cost, to qualified museums across the country. Within weeks, nearly all of the 72 slots (nine stops for each show) were booked, and at bargain prices--$30,000 to $40,000, which covers packing, insurance and other basic costs.

Broun and Ziglar soon began to see the tour as an opportunity to spread the word about the Smithsonian's greatest trove of American art and raise their museum's chronically low profile. The Phillips Collection, the Barnes Foundation Collection and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had all accomplished this during their respective renovations.

They've got their work cut out for them. NMAA has always had serious identity problems, partly because of its location (and the fact that it shares a building with another museum), but also, officials are convinced, because of its cumbersome name: the National Museum of American Art.

To this day, there's a 50-50 chance that a cab driver, told to take you to the NMAA, will actually deliver you to the National Gallery of Art on the Mall. It's happened to Broun.

She's made countless attempts to fix this. Once she even invited all the taxi drivers in town to come by for a brown-bag lunch. "It helped, but it hasn't solved the problem," Broun says. "When people hear 'National' and 'Art,' they think of the National Gallery of Art."

To implement the profile-raising campaign, Ziglar found an enlightened corporate sponsor, the Principal Financial Group of Des Moines. The firm pledged more than $3.75 million to mount a three-year drive to coincide with the tour, which begins in Miami on Jan. 6. Principal will pay for public relations and advertising, which Ziglar says will include advertorials and programming in local markets. It will also produce three hour-long cable TV specials on American art and will provide a half-hour program in each market where the exhibitions travel. The museum has just hired a New York PR agency to help mount the advertising campaign.

"We're looking for a campaign that has a lot of fun to it; we're not interested in the snob factor," Ziglar says. "That's never been our thing. We want more Americans to want to see their artistic treasures. And we figure that one way to do that is to have a marketing campaign that grabs your attention."

For purposes of the tour, the museum will be test-driving a different name: "We're calling it the Smithsonian's American Art Museum, which is what we are," Ziglar says. "An official name change requires the approval of Congress, but the Smithsonian has agreed to road-test this and see if it works."

If the name does change, it won't be the first time. Launched in 1829 (20 years before the Smithsonian was founded), this first federal art collection was called the National Gallery of Art until 1937, when Andrew Mellon co-opted the name for his museum. Renamed the National Collection of Fine Arts, it was housed in galleries behind the world's biggest elephant in the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum until the 1968 move to the historic Greek revival Patent Office Building. It wasn't until 1980 that the name was again changed--for purposes of clarification--to the National Museum of American Art.

A quadrangle with an interior courtyard, the building was constructed between 1836 and 1867 and covers two city blocks from Seventh Street to Ninth between F and G streets NW. Hailed by Walt Whitman as "the noblest of Washington buildings," it is where inventors such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell obtained patents for their work. And where Clara Barton and Whitman tended wounded soldiers during the Civil War.

In the midst of its campaign for national recognition, NMAA will also be keeping its name alive in Washington. Several works too large to tour will go on extended loan to various institutions. Among them will be James Hampton's aluminum foil "The Throne of the Third Heaven," which will go to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum in Williamsburg.

But two huge Thomas Moran paintings of Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon, now on view at the Interior Department's 150th-anniversary show, will be hung at the NMAA's Renwick Gallery, a department of the NMAA that is located opposite the White House.

"The Renwick will go on with its programs devoted to American design and crafts, but will be our home away from home," Ziglar says. Next spring the Renwick Grand Salon, which will soon be getting new lighting, drapes and wall treatments, will be newly installed with landscape paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Moran and others from the NMAA collection. The nearby Octagon Room will give safe harbor to several paintings by Winslow Homer.

Exhibitions won't cease. In September 2001, a major George Catlin retrospective, including scenes and portraits of the Plains Indians, will take over the entire Renwick. It will be a timely salute to the National Museum of the American Indian, which breaks ground on the Mall in September.

Making Art Accessible

With matters of art and public relations well in hand, the next big challenge was the increasingly urgent question of where to move the professional staff so the installation of new climate control and electrical systems could get underway on schedule in January.

The Patent Office Building has never been big enough for the staff or the burgeoning collections of the NMAA and the Portrait Gallery--not to mention providing space for storage, restoration labs, etc. At the heart of the renovation plan, being designed by the Washington architectural firm Hartman-Cox, is the permanent removal of all offices, the library, the Archives of American Art and some storage areas that were added during the 1968 renovation. Together the two museums will pick up 35,000 square feet of new exhibit space, plus 25,000 square feet for public amenities, such as lobbies and restaurants. It also requires that these offices and other facilities be relocated to a new space.

But where? The question was a cliffhanger until late last month, when the Smithsonian, after several failed attempts to buy other buildings, finally succeeded in purchasing the 11-story, 330,000-square-foot Victor Building at Ninth and H streets NW for $86 million. Still unfinished, it is on schedule and due for completion next spring, delaying the move only slightly. And since the building was acquired so recently, no firm plans have yet been drawn for the various NMAA and Portrait Gallery offices and other facilities that will go into it. "It's not good that there are so many question marks," allows Ziglar. "But now that we have the Victor Building, we will come to grips."

One thing the Victor Building will definitely contain, says Broun, is a new Center for American Art, a centralized resource that will consolidate several NMAA functions now tucked in corners here and there and largely inaccessible to the public. "People will be able to come into the center, find what they're looking for on a computer and then, ideally, be able to visit nearby open storage areas to view original works by artists they're interested in," Broun says. Prints, drawings and photographs will be far more accessible to visitors than before, both online and in state-of-the-art storage areas. So will the library and Archives of American Art, an independent entity that holds priceless documentation on hundreds of American artists.

The center will also provide easier public access to several databases assembled by the NMAA over the past 30 years, including the exhaustive Inventories of American Paintings and Sculpture. Soon to be added are the photographic archives from the now-defunct National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowship Program (1967-1995), which document works by thousands of contemporary artists who applied for and received grants. This database is expected to be available online by 2002.

"We've been building these resources for years," Broun says. "Finally, the public as well as scholars will be able to use them."

Broun and Ziglar are now faced with raising $20 million to help pay for the NMAA's share of the new Victor Building space. They are pondering what fund-raisers call "naming opportunities": Donors could put their names on the Center for American Art, or a curatorship, or the directorship, Ziglar says. "If someone wanted to make a huge-enough gift, they could name this building."

The spaces in the renovated Patent Office remain in flux, as both NMAA and the Portrait Gallery continue to tussle for larger allocations. Now, the only thing certain is that both museums will continue to share the Patent Office building but probably in a different configuration from the present one. Both will share a main entrance and orientation space on the F Street side, facing the Mall (where the Portrait Gallery's entrance is now).

The elegant three-tiered 1870s library has been designated for social functions, with the library's contents moved into the Victor Building. In the current plan, two museum shops and a cafeteria are also clustered on the north side of the Patent Office quadrangle. But that--along with everything else--appears to be subject to change.

Meanwhile, shows continue in both museums until the building closes Jan. 3. And a new one, "Edward Hopper: The Watercolors," will open at NMAA on Oct 22. But some parts of the building have already closed, notably the historic Lincoln Gallery, site of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball. In that space, four round skylights--of the many throughout the building that have been closed for years--have already been reopened, with spectacular results. The $5 million replacement of the two-acre copper roof has been underway for months.

If you haven't seen this booming Gallery Place neighborhood lately, check it out. You can sense excitement surging through it. There are 26 construction projects in progress. Pepco is building a new headquarters across the street from the NMAA. And a Marriott Courtyard hotel has opened in the old Riggs Bank building nearby.

It's not the forest of cranes you see in Berlin. But there are enough of them, along with bulldozers and crowds and restaurants and shops, to make you realize that downtown Washington at last has gone from being nowhere to being somewhere a museum would like to be.