One of the year's most significant art exhibitions opened this month at the Hirshhorn Museum.

It has as many minor works as masterpieces.

It doesn't focus on a single artist.

It doesn't have a unifying argument, or even much of a subject.

Not one art object had to travel to get there.

The show is called "Gyroscope." But that's really more of a nickname than a normal exhibition title. "Gyroscope" is the Hirshhorn's permanent collection -- the art which the museum already owns and, in theory, cares most about -- rethought, reorganized and reinstalled so that it looks unusually fine and fresh. A few choice sculptures have been pulled from their normal displays, given elegant special-exhibition lighting and paired with their artists' drawings, some of which have hardly ever seen the light of day; the museum's latest acquisitions have been gathered in one place, to show off the art taxpayer money helps support.

" 'Gyroscope' was invented as a device to draw attention back to the collection. And the way to do that was to call it something," says chief curator Kerry Brougher. In recent years, he says, the balance between special exhibitions and the permanent collection has gotten out of whack across the whole museum world. "Gyroscope" was meant to set things straight: For a few months every year or two, it would let a sexy new selection from the permanent collection take over the entire museum, without competition from other curated shows.

The permanent collection "is what we're really about, fundamentally," says Brougher -- the "spine" of any art gallery. But each of the 10 art historians, curators, gallery directors and museum-studies scholars interviewed for this article worried that today's glut of special exhibitions may be close to breaking some institutions' backs. Museums have taken great efforts to tend and build their permanent collections. Most own far more art than they could ever show at any given time. And yet these treasures hardly matter to a generation of art lovers reared on temporary exhibitions.

Museums are looking for remedies.

Not many have done what the Hirshhorn has done -- put the entire exhibition schedule on pause, focusing solely on the permanent collection. A good number, however, are returning our attention to the great art they own.

A few weeks ago, after years of work, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore reopened the suite of galleries devoted to its impressive Italian art collection. They're now lavishly redecorated to make the artworks sing, and to pull in visitors.

The Walters has gone even further with its Dutch and Flemish holdings. The Flemish pictures are mixed in with a mass of natural and man-made marvels, old and new -- a very early pocket watch, a stuffed alligator, facsimiles of ancient books as well as fancy bugs that you can see up close -- in a "cabinet of curiosities" meant to simulate a 17th-century collector's study. Next door, a smaller Dutch gallery evokes a sitting room from Rembrandt's day, complete with fireplace.

Some museum-goers won't be happy with this cheery approach: There's not much to encourage sober contemplation of important works of art. But curator Joaneath Spicer argues that the downside is outweighed by the pleasure and historical insight the installation gives the average visitor. On a recent weekday afternoon, the new Flemish gallery was mobbed with enthusiastic school-age kids. Their teachers and parents seemed to be having fun, too.

The Walters reinstallation -- titled "Palace of Wonders," to sound more like a temporary show -- is as grabby as the special exhibitions it now competes against.

Other permanent collections have joined that competition. This fall the Corcoran Gallery of Art launched a touring show of its best American holdings. But before sending the exhibition across the country, the museum installed it in its own galleries. Many of the pictures are the same ones you'd normally see there, but they've been gathered together under a catchy title -- "Encouraging American Genius" (from the wording of the Corcoran's 130-year-old mandate) -- and given the kind of elaborate display more often reserved for blockbusters.

The Phillips Collection has done the same thing, only in reverse. Curators there sent "Masterworks From the Phillips Collection" out on tour four years ago, during a renovation that's just coming to an end. In April, the pictures will come home again. But the museum is not simply hanging them back up on various walls, as it might once have done. This time it's keeping them together for a while as a show, now retitled "The Renoir Returns."

Lockheed Martin recently announced that it had chosen "The Renoir Returns" as the show that will launch its five-year, $1.5 million sponsorship of the Phillips's special exhibition program. It's rare to get that kind of corporate sponsorship for an open-ended display of works in a permanent collection.

Jay Gates, director of the Phillips, explains that over the past 40 years museums have been "substantially reorganized" by the phenomenon of the special exhibition. "Where's the real front door of the National Gallery?" he asks. "It has in fact changed." For many visitors, Gates feels, that front door is now the East Building, which opened in 1978 primarily to house the splashy exhibitions the National Gallery had pioneered. The permanent-collection spaces in the West Building, where the gallery's world-famous Old Master holdings can be found, are now almost an afterthought for many visitors. A room of stunning Renaissance paintings by Titian, the Venetian genius who just about invented the use of visible brushstrokes, can sit almost empty.

"Will the National Gallery ever have an exhibition more important than its collection? Will we ever have an exhibition more important than our collection? No," Gates says. But with great institutions like the National Gallery leading the way, "museums have evolved from one form of species into another."

Gates, who recently turned 60, cut his teeth in the 1970s as a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, long known for its rare dedication to a substantial permanent collection. Like any sane art lover, however, he is a fan of special exhibitions. When they're any good, they give a fantastic opportunity for anyone, expert or novice, to enjoy and learn about the artworks on display.

In 2000, when the Phillips hosted an exhibition on Honore Daumier, the 19th-century French painter and caricaturist, it sparked new insights and admiration in anyone who caught the show. But that special-exhibition experience, where works of art come "packaged" around themes and art-historical ideas, needs to be balanced by the more intimate, exploratory thrill that comes from getting to know a museum's own holdings. Says Gates, "More attention needs to be focused on permanent collections, where people can develop long-term relationships with works of art, and get to know them intimately." (As Brougher pointed out, that's also crucial to training the young artists he may someday collect for the Hirshhorn.)

The problem is that museums have taught the public that going to an art institution is mostly about checking out whatever special exhibition it has up.

Art, that is, has become a high-energy, must-see "occasion," like a hot film or a big-time Broadway show. It's part of the entertainment rat race, rather than offering a contemplative experience in contrast to that rush. Museums have got their public hooked on special exhibitions, and now they're stuck having to cater to the speed freaks they've created.

The museums are hooked, too.

"Simply not doing exhibitions isn't possible for most museums today," says Gates. The Phillips needs the increased admission fees and other income that temporary shows bring in. "If you have to make the payroll every two weeks, you have to think about exhibitions, and what they do."

Of course many of Washington's great art museums are funded from old endowments and government appropriations, so "gate," in simple dollar terms, is not an issue. That doesn't seem to help their permanent collections much. Their directors still have masters they answer to -- in Congress, and on their boards -- and those bosses love to see impressive numbers.

"People through the front door" is the crucial metric for almost all museums, whether they demand an entry fee or not, according to Julian Raby. He is director of the Freer and Sackler galleries of Asian art -- which, as part of the government-funded Smithsonian Institution, never charge admission. He spoke at length about the problem from a gracious, tranquil office under his museum, proffering cups of Earl Grey tea.

"I've always reverenced the sense of calm, and just the quality of the objects, at the Freer," Raby says. That gallery's mandate allows it to show only its own holdings, which are housed in a lovely Renaissance-style building built for it in 1923. It is famous as a meditative oasis in the middle of the capital's hubbub -- but that doesn't seem to be enough these days. Raby says that even Asian art experts, now used to the "animation" and "urgency" of special exhibitions, complain that the Freer feels so much the same from visit to visit.

His institution, Raby argues, may have succeeded in addicting even its closest friends -- and also its Friends, as paying supporters are known -- to the well-respected temporary exhibitions held at the adjacent Sackler. "How they would feel if that drug is taken away, I don't know," Raby says. But he feels certain that attendance would plummet.

He very much doubts that audiences are going to "go back to a more measured, less demanding personality." Since Raby arrived in Washington in 2002 -- he had been an Oxford academic -- his response to this new reality has been to initiate an unusually aggressive exhibition program. He hopes that increasing the number of ambitious, well-researched shows will boost his museum's profile and reputation in Washington and internationally, and make it a "destination" for both laypeople and scholars. It will also help him grow his numbers, and thus guarantee adequate support. Today, he says, the very measurable quantity of visitors, rather than the ineffable quality of their experience, is what counts most.

Down the street at the Hirshhorn, Brougher feels that the current model for almost all museums, everywhere, is essentially a corporate one: Museums are treated, he says, "like a company that somehow needs to always be growing in order to appease its stockholders." It's a model that makes perfect sense to the professional managers and wealthy businesspeople who sit at the very top of the museum pyramid. But it leaves permanent collections, with their more purely artistic values, out of the picture.

Philip Conisbee, the senior curator in charge of European paintings at the National Gallery, felt "a twinge of envy" when a German colleague said she could rely on her museum's collection to draw visitors, doing without a big roster of special exhibitions -- such as the six shows launched at the National Gallery in September alone. Such extensive rosters, Conisbee says, are now the norm at major American museums (they're starting to hit Europe, too) and they put a strain on every aspect of the institution, "from the press office right down to the curatorial staff, to the art handlers, to the cleaners." As staff and budgets swell to cope with that strain -- to feed "this voracious animal of an exhibition department," as Raby puts it -- more temporary shows are needed to provide the audience to justify those budgets.

To make matters worse, soaring shipping and insurance costs are making special exhibitions more expensive. Some museums may be turning back to their permanent collections because it's all they can afford. Others hunt for guaranteed blockbusters that have a hope of paying their own way, though there are signs the public may now have Monet fatigue.

Philippe de Montebello, longtime director of the great Metropolitan Museum in New York, has written that "museums have become so hyperactive that banners furled and unfurled on museum facades do not indicate, I'm afraid, the glow of health but rather the flush of fever." To fight the influence of special exhibitions on the bottom line, as well as the public's sense that an exhibition is just one more of its entertainment options, in 1989 de Montebello stopped charging separately for them. The move has cost millions of dollars in ticket sales, but he felt the museum's mandate demanded it. The Met still mounts more special exhibitions than just about anyone: 16 are up right now, including the frothy "Clouet to Seurat: French Drawings From the British Museum." But at least there's no longer a temptation to treat them as profit centers.

One major obstacle to scaling back on exhibitions is that it's not only the public that has fallen for them -- curators love hosting temporary shows, and love seeing them as much as anyone: "I have to say that many of the great aesthetic experiences of my life have been in art exhibitions," Conisbee says.

The National Gallery's fall shows are so serious and scholarly, at times even obscure, that they're clearly not about any kind of sellout to the bean counters. There's not a Monet or mummy show in sight. Instead we get the fascinating etchings of a little-known figure from belle epoque Paris called Felix Buhot, alongside a show of classic Dutch still lifes by Peter Claesz -- hardly a name to conjure with -- and a landmark survey of the first attempts at making prints in late-medieval Germany.

"What is the future of collecting, and the future of museums, and of the permanent collection?" Conisbee wonders. In an age of special exhibitions, will anyone stand up for museums as places that acquire, tend and study our greatest art, and then simply put some of it out on view for quiet contemplation? "This is an important issue that perhaps needs to be thought about more, and addressed more, by all museums," he says.

"We would much rather see more people in there looking at the Titians."

Robert Smithson's "Gyrostasis" is part of the Hirshhorn's "Gyroscope" show, a reinstallation -- and rethinking -- of the museum's often ignored collection.The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has taken some of its Dutch and Flemish holdings and regrouped them in one gallery to fashion a 17th-century collector's study.The National Gallery's West Building, with its Old Master paintings, can be a lonely place. At left is Titian's "Venus With a Mirror."Michelangelo Pistoletto's "Venus of the Rags" part of the Hirshhorn permanent collection now getting special attention.