When noted architects from Amsterdam and New York unveil their expansion plans for the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art at a press conference Friday, the public will get its first glimpse of the dramatic, innovative improvements soon in store for the 160-year-old institution on Hartford's Main Street.

This multimillion-dollar project (the cost has not been divulged) will yank the nation's oldest public art museum's woefully cramped, antiquated facilities into the new millennium. But the Atheneum will have to close during the reconstruction from 2004 to 2006.

Even so, the downtown museum plans to continue being a prime cultural force in the region and on the national scene, director Kate M. Sellers says.

The project calls for razing the Goodwin Building on the north side of the five-building campus. A grand entrance will be constructed there, connecting to an elegant concourse to the south end of the campus, opening onto Burr Mall. The museum cafe will move to that area and will be open to the public without museum admission. The outdoor Gengras Court will be covered, expanding the museum's indoor space.

Although groundbreaking is about two years away, Sellers is already enacting a "museum without walls" master plan to preserve the museum's presence.

Sellers' strategy calls for marshaling the museum's resources, including curators, docents and a number of its masterworks, and sending them on the road. Distant from falling plaster, steel, mortar and dust, these mobilized units will come face-to-face with the public as the physical embodiment of the museum.

"We plan to work with our sister arts organizations, including the Old State House and Real Art Ways. At the Old State House, our famous, historic Trumbull paintings could be shown for schoolchildren in the city.

"With Real Art Ways' cooperation, we could present Matrix shows. (RAW and Matrix have long been the region's preeminent presenters of cutting-edge art.) We've also talked with the University of Hartford and Trinity College about them presenting works there.

"And Nicholas Baume, our contemporary-art curator, is talking about taking one of his Matrix shows out onto the street and into Bushnell Park," Sellers says.

Sharing agreements with local venues like this could be beneficial to both the Atheneum and to participating groups, she suggests.

Many of the museum's great collections, such as its priceless porcelains, its surrealist and modern works, Old Master paintings and its world-famous Hudson River Collection, will also be on the road during construction, Sellers says.

"I'm very happy to say my colleagues across the country are clamoring for these collections. They'll be completely booked. And I think it will raise the profile of the Wadsworth nationally because more people will have seen our great collections across the nation," she says.

Shoe leather will be a key element in keeping the museum's imprint alive and well, she stresses. "Our docents will be going out into the schools. And our curators, instead of lecturing in the museum, will be going out into the public," she says.

What makes this down period so radically different, say, from that of the Hartford Civic Center after its roof collapsed in 1978 is that the museum, even without physical facilities, has intellectual assets that can be marketed. These include its fine art, scholarship and teaching and educational capabilities.

All these elements can be moved around strategically and efficiently, keeping the Atheneum's banner high while the museum is modernized with its first major building project in more than three decades.

Like D-Day

Sellers will also preside over two enormous physical tasks linked with the project.

One is the protection and preservation of the museum's 50,000 art objects. The other is the relocation of about 100 full-time and 85 part-time employees.

The means to achieve both purposes is an off-site storage and office facility, climate-controlled and with high security. For security reasons, the Atheneum declines to reveal the location.