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Long lines of people clamoring to see a spectacular glass art exhibit are making this a particularly cheerful holiday season for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

With Sunday's closing date fast approaching, "Dale Chihuly: Installations 1964-1997," has attracted nearly 70,000 visitors, making it one of the most successful shows in the history of the 135-year-old Elmwood Avenue museum.

"Almost 12,000 came over the three days after Christmas," noted Cherly Orlick, public information director. "There were 5,000 on Saturday alone. We had to stop admitting people at 4 p.m. because there was such a backup that anybody who came in would not have been able to see the exhibit.

"We expected it would be well received, but not this well."

Although total attendance may not reach the record 85,000 set two years ago by the traveling William S. Paley collection, the Chihuly show, comprising 12 room-size displays of dazzling blown-glass structures that Buffalo News art critic Richard Huntington labeled "a kind of fantastic decorative theater," deserves special recognition for magnetism.

While the Paley show was advertised as far away as Cleveland and had separate ticketing, Chihuly has not been nearly as widely marketed and is free with gallery admission.

"There has been tremendous word-of-mouth interest in this show. It's extraordinary, really," Ms. Orlick said.

For the sake of comparison, last year's exhibition of mobiles and other works by the late popular artist Alexander Calder drew 27,000.

The Chihuly audience has been unusually diverse, including "many people you don't generally see in the museum," she added.

The reasons for this will be the subject of post-exhibit analyses, but Ms. Orlick has an idea.

People can relate to the work in a way they sometimes cannot to other kinds of contemporary art," she said.

Chihuly's elaborately rendered shapes "are something you can easily understand," she said. "There are lots of references to the environment and other aspects of society."

Their appeal also has been strong enough to pull many visitors back for another look.

"We're hearing people say they've come back two, three, four times. We see that with art aficionados, but not so much with the general public," Ms. Orlick said.

The attendance boom has not only boosted admission revenues, but gift shop sales, which support gallery operations. Business doubled during Chihuly, which opened Oct. 17.

It will be the last major exhibit for the Albright-Knox for a while.

The newer half of the Elmwood Avenue complex, built in 1962, will close Friday for the first phase of a $6.5 million, 15-month interior renovation.

The installation of sophisticated heating, air-conditioning and humidity-control systems throughout the complex, including the 1908 building where Chihuly has reigned, will reduce programming to smaller-scale shows until March 1999.

The gallery also will present shows in the Anderson Art Gallery and other venues during the project.

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