With an eclectic mix of classy art and populist events, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts set an all-time attendance record of more than 750,000 visitors in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

For its centennial year, the institute staged shows of high-end Italian fashion and Austrian royal treasures as well as quirky community surprises. It hung priceless paintings by Vermeer and Raphael — free-of-charge — in the entrance lobby and put reproduction masterpieces in gas stations, parks and on water towers around the Twin Cities.

People who spied the reproduction Rembrandt painting at Bobby and Steve's Auto World in downtown Minneapolis, however, were not included in the official attendance tally.

"That's a brilliant idea," laughed Kaywin Feldman, the museum's director. "But no. People had to come to the museum to be counted."

Under Feldman's guidance, the Minneapolis museum has been a national leader in recent years when museums across the country have struggled with falling attendance, aging audiences and financial problems.

The museum's centennial success has drawn how-to-do-it inquiries from museums nationwide and even Europe. Planning involved everyone from curators negotiating art loans to development staff members who raised $6.6 million for special birthday-year events and exhibits. The lobby was modernized, social media ramped up and parties planned.

"We've had our finger on the change button for several years now; it's a constant effort to adapt and grow," said Feldman.

Aiming for younger visitors, the museum collaborates with 89.3 the Current on an annual "Rock the Cradle" kid-music event that drew 11,000 preteens and their families this year. Its popular "Bike Night" saw a record-setting 4,500 hipsters roll their bikes through the double-glass entryway into the grassy courtyard.

The annual "Art in Bloom" weekend, which fills the galleries with art-themed floral displays, pulled in 40,000 visitors, another record-setter. And last month, the annual garden party attracted 1,700 people and raised $1.5 million for museum programs.

Economic recovery

Like cultural organizations around the country, the MIA struggled financially in the Great Recession but has now rebounded. In 2009, it was forced to dismiss 19 people as part of a $1.7 million retrenchment that included salary reductions, program trims and a canceled exhibition. Two years later, it eliminated another 10 staff positions and shaved $1.4 million from expenses in order to balance an annual budget of $25 million.

During that troubled time, attendance tumbled, too, hitting 457,575 in 2008, one of its lowest points in the past decade. This year's record-setting number officially came in at 752,444. That's an increase of 107,517 people, or more than 16 percent, over the 2014 tally of 644,927 visitors. The 2014 figure actually was a drop from attendance in 2013, which had the previous all-time high at 679,753.

By comparison, the country's largest art museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, received 6.2 million visitors in 2014. Closer to home, the Art Institute of Chicago has averaged about 1.5 million visitors for the past several years. Both those institutions are in much larger cities where they benefit from tourist traffic, something that isn't much of a factor in the Minneapolis museum's count.

Art, beer and bands

In the MIA's continued attempt to grab a younger demographic, its Third Thursday events have shown strong drawing power.

The museum's halls are regularly filled on these nights with attendees toasting craft beer and cheering for local buzz bands. For its Summer Party last month, electro-funk group Chromeo — typically a national headliner — played a DJ set.

This year, the MIA balanced its $30 million annual budget and successfully solicited an additional $30 million in endowment pledges. As of May 31, the museum had $236 million in endowment funds, whose income supports art purchases and operating expenses.

The Walker Art Center, whose fiscal year also ended June 30, won't be releasing any of its attendance or financial figures until November, said spokeswoman Meredith Kessler. For its 2013-2014 fiscal year, the most recent for which numbers are available, 259,740 people visited the center's galleries and events. An additional 400,752 went to the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431