Looking Back on the Bloch: A Q&A with Marc Wilson

Marc Wilson, former director and CEO, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (photo by Mark McDonald)

On the occasion of the Bloch Building’s 10th anniversary, Marc Wilson, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s former director and CEO, agreed to share his thoughts and reminiscences about the project that defined his legacy.

How did this mammoth project get started?

It had been apparent to me for years that it was time to re-examine the founders’ directions and assumptions that had been guiding the institution. While keeping and strengthening the salient characteristics that had made the institution a success against all odds, it was necessary to embrace changes and strategies that would keep and build momentum into a foreseeable future that would surely be ever more complex and difficult to navigate. We knew, of course, that we were out of space, even though we re-did the entire ground floor of the Nelson Building, too, for education and offices. (I fear that I will be forever remembered for decommissioning men’s rooms to find badly needed office space.)

And when did discussions begin in earnest?

It really began in 1994 with a long-range planning effort to refocus the definition of the Nelson going forward, concentrating on questions of purpose and on why, not on what, when and how, or on the short term, but on fundamental issues that would bridge trends of all sorts over a long time.

What did you come up with?

The plan that resulted was called Plan 2010, the year in which goals were to have been achieved, and the plan then succeeded by a renewed institutional vision. 2010 is, of course, the year I retired and I can say that most of the plan was accomplished, including reorganizing governance, staff, organization, etc. and, seeing to the financial well-being of the institution after my departure.

The Bloch Building is what has captured attention and critical acclaim, but it was the whole “Plan 2010” that led, after the opening of the Bloch Building, to significant improvements in the museum’s collections, in its expertise and capabilities and in its programs to engage the community.

What are some of the improvements you are most proud of?

The opening of the American Indian Galleries showed the entire world, against the grain of politics of the time, that American Indian Art should not be subjected to misguided cultural politics but collected and shown on the same basis as the arts of all other art-producing cultures collected by the Nelson. Thereafter, you also saw the immediate addition of annual cultural festivals focusing on American Indian and (East) Indian cultural expression to the program of already very popular annual Chinese New Year Festivals.

And education was a big focus. We established endowments to pay for busing schoolchildren, and for schools to hire substitute teachers to replace teachers who accompanied classes, and to develop and conduct interdisciplinary programs incorporating the latest digital tools that would afford classes from predominantly minority schools an unheard of 25 hours of classroom and gallery programming at the Nelson. That’s why we built all those education spaces in the Nelson. For adults: How about our art research library open to the public during museum hours which does not have an equal within five hundred miles! These add to the critical sum of a community’s capabilities and resources.

The important point to be made is that “Plan 2010” went way beyond the Bloch Building and left nothing untouched.

What was the vision for the building in all this?

There was no presumption that we would end up building something on the scale of the Bloch Building or go on to renovate half of the second floor for American and American Indian art, along the way reinstalling European art twice, adding a new Egyptian installation and new classical antiquities galleries, or adding photography as a major brief of the museum’s collecting mandates.

But of course, that’s what you did. Tell me about the process.

From the perspective of 10 years after the opening of the Bloch Building to unimaginable critical acclaim worldwide, it might seem that fate conspired to align all the stars favorable to the outcome as we know it. Maybe so. I do believe in luck and fortune, but not that much.

Anyone who has led an organization through a comprehensive transformation and comes out the other side with an institution inspired to reinvent itself, knows that in the end success depends upon people, on those charged with visualizing the future and getting the job done. It was really the staff of the museum who shaped what transformation meant and then made that real. The challenge was daunting, indeed, because we all had to invent new ways of doing things that left the comfort of convention behind. I do not believe that a single person failed to rise to that challenge. Every department, every unit responded doggedly and with an almost clairvoyant intuition about how to create and put in place new paradigms. Along the way there were pivotal points that could make or break the outcome.

What was the board’s role in all this?

Don Hall’s management of the process of selecting the architect was just brilliant. He assured that the selection would be based on architectural merit and fulfillment of the museum’s requirements. Henry Bloch, as head of the building committee, asked the tough questions, mostly about engineering feasibility, as we got deep into design and construction.

Once he had a sound answer, he supported it all the way, even when that meant going against the accepted way of doing things. One who had to battle on a daily basis was Dana Knapp. She managed the museum’s side of design and construction, serving not only as my indispensable and ever so capable right hand, but also, I suspect, as my bodyguard from time to time.

None of this was easy. Conflict and competition, some good, some ugly, pop up everywhere, all the time, in a project of this complexity and scale. And, you collect a few scars along the way. But in the end, none of that matters. The visitors’ experience of the Bloch Building proved almost magical.

My greatest satisfaction came in watching the public, people of all stripes, backgrounds and experience, interact with the building and the works of art on display in it. The sense of surprise and of wonder that was so apparent on the faces of all told me that we had achieved something that would make a difference to the Kansas City community for a long time to come. That is what Mr. Nelson wanted. So, too, the trustees who opened the museum originally in December 1933. I still believe that we were able to refresh that commitment to the public here and beyond.

You’ve left quite a legacy.

Although the current focus is on the Bloch Building anniversary, there was so much more, including my own main goal throughout my long career, which was not to accomplish any one particular thing in isolation, but in everything undertaken, to demonstrate to Kansas City that the people of Kansas City could, with vision, imagination and persistence, do far more than they had ever imagined themselves capable of doing. An art museum led a community too often satisfied with “it’s good enough for Kansas City” to reinvent its sense of its capabilities and dream again with the daring of earlier generations. Look at some of the developments that have followed. Bravo, I say, to the Symphony, to the magnificent Kauffman Center, and to the sparks of ambitious invention I see across the city.

About The Author: Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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