Minneapolis -- JAO, an artist dressed in paint-spattered cycling gear, bounced before an easel set up in the bed of a bright yellow pickup -- her "artmobile" -- decorated with cartoon men with rake-like hands.

While blasting a shrill police whistle, she did energetic warmup exercises to the high-adrenaline strains of Hungarian Gypsy music -- "the best music for speed painting," she said.

Speed painting is her specialty, and she was about to demonstrate it to a crowd in the parking lot of an old northeastern Minneapolis warehouse.

It's set in a gritty, industrial section sliced by highways and railroad tracks. But art blooms in this plant once used to process and package seeds. The brick, four-story Northrup King Building houses about 100 studios, where painters, jewelry artists, weavers and printmakers work.

Art blooms not only at the Northrup King Building but also throughout Minneapolis. The most recent development is this year's expansion of the Walker Art Center, which for decades has honed the cutting edge of "the art of our time."

The Walker's new galleries continue a trend that included the 1993 opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and the continuing growth of the venerable Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

I try to visit the Walker each year when I come home to Minnesota on family visits because it always gives me something to think -- and, often, smile -- about. In May, when a series of dismal, rainy days forced me indoors, I made an art week of it, taking in the city's best-known museums.

As someone who often rambles through Manhattan's museums and has Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art near my doorstep, I found much to excite and entertain me here.

"We seek to be a center for daring artistic experimentation, a place to experience something unexpected, an incubator for discussion and debate," Kathy Halbreich, the Walker's director, said of her museum. But her statement summed up the broader Minneapolis art scene as well. A lot is happening here, in the museums, the galleries, the studios. And that's even without considering neighboring St. Paul.

Walker Art Center

ONE of the most-photographed objects in the city is "Spoonbridge and Cherry," by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, set in the Walker's sculpture garden at the edge of downtown. This 5,800-pound metal sundae spoon holds a 1,200-pound, bright red cherry. On a hot summer day it looked luscious, kept that way by the spray of a built-in fountain.

Nearby, in the garden's humid palm-frond-filled and lilypad-perfumed conservatory, Frank Gehry's 22-foot-long "Standing Glass Fish" -- his personal ode to a carp -- filled the greenhouse.

At the Walker, artistic media are not restricted to bronze and oil on canvas. On an outside wall, a sign reading "Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole" is itself a text-art work in anodized aluminum that invites the viewer to give it meaning.

Inside, Mike Kelley's "Four Part Butter-Scene N'Ganga" employs galvanized steel washtubs. Jac Leirner's "Blue Phase" is an irregular round formed from thousands of devalued Brazilian bank notes pressed together so tightly that you can see only their edges. And even though Sherrie Levine's "Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: AP)" is bronze, it's still a urinal.

Irony is a common commodity at the Walker. Jasper Johns' "Light Bulb," embossed on a lead sheet, is barely visible, hanging extinguished in a dark room. There seem to be more video monitors than canvases here. In a showing of Chantal Akerman's "D'Est," I counted 25 of them, each playing street scenes shot in former Iron Curtain countries in the early 1990s. In Bruce Nauman's "Mapping the Studio II With Color Shift, Flip, Flop & Flip / Flop (Fat Chance John Cage) All Action Edit," seven projected, tinted videos show mice skittering and cats skulking around the edge of a room. You can join in the creative process, putting your own shadow into the pictures.

The recently completed improvements added 130,000 square feet, nearly doubling the museum's size, increasing the gallery space by a third to 45,000 square feet and expanding facilities for the performing arts. After exiting rooms displaying Warhol Jackies, a Chuck Close closeup and a Lichtenstein Donald Duck, I heard a young girl exclaim, "This seems like a game to me." I paused, then realized she was a fellow visitor, not an artwork.

The Weisman Art Museum

THE Weisman, like the Walker, stretches your mind, pulling it in unaccustomed directions. It has a smaller collection, so take it in before the Walker, as an appetizer, or afterward, as a dessert. From across the Mississippi the Weisman seemed an almost random placement of brushed stainless steel panels with unpredictable angles and curves. It called to mind the bows of boats cutting through the water or the castle of a deranged crusader.

Inside there was abundant space; each work had room to breathe and conduct its own dialogue with the visitor. There was a wall-sized Lichtenstein comic-strip woman with long, eel-like fingers; another of Gehry's fish, this one in the form of a lamp; and a Warhol portrait of the museum's major benefactor, the late Frederick R. Weisman, who attended the University of Minnesota in the 1930s but was forced to drop out for lack of money. He apparently did OK.