A few shovelfuls of dirt that were turned Wednesday, just north of Brigham Young University's Harris Fine Arts Center, are destined to become the largest art museum between Denver and the West Coast.

In an informal groundbreaking, officials and dignitaries, including BYU president Rex E. Lee and his wife Janet, noted the start of construction of BYU's new Museum of Fine Arts, which will house more than 15,000 art objects.James A. Mason, dean of BYU's College of Fine Arts and Communications, said a more formal groundbreaking ceremony will take place at the end of March.

"The construction had to start because the contractors were ready," Mason said.

Mason said the second ceremony, March 26, will honor those who have given donations to the new museum, which is scheduled for completion around December 1992.

The new 100,000-square-foot building will have four levels. It was designed by James Langenheim, who also designed the Transamerica Tower in San Francisco.

"A university art museum represents a significant commitment by those institutions to a broad cultural education," Mason said.

The museum will be more than a showplace for art. It will also do artistic research, conservation and interpretation of the university's art collection.

"Such a museum, dedicated to the full realization of human potential, would assume an increasingly important role in the cultural life of the university and the community," Mason said.

Among some of the items that will be featured in the museum are a print collection containing works by Rembrandt, Durer, Altdorfer, Daumier, Millet, Manet, Homer, Cassatt and Whistler.

There is also a sculpture by Rodin, jade from the Ming Dynasty and a collection of tapestries by Alexander Calder.

Mason said the museum will also serve educational purposes.

"If an art collection is to serve its educational function for students and scholars, its works must be well documented and accessible," Mason said.

The museum will be available for use by university students, faculty and public school students in the Intermountain area.