Bolstered by the latest in museum technology, the new Bloch Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art present a collection transformed.

Most museums have learned in recent decades that to survive and prosper they have to respond to the times. Change, grow or die. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art certainly has been on that path since the late 1990s, when its leaders chose to build a major expansion. The selection in 1999 of architect Steven Holl’s provocative plan for the mostly underground Bloch Building, at an investment of upwards of $200 million, sent a message that the Nelson would no longer be your grandfather’s dusty museum stuck in a distant past.

But that was then. After receiving no small amount of local consternation as the curious thing came out of the ground, the Bloch Building opened in 2007 to much acclaim. The expansion brought with it important upgrades and alterations to the original, 1933 museum building. Those included the Adelaide Cobb Ward Sculpture Hall and the grand stairway that leads to and from the Bloch lobby through the now underground doorways of the original museum’s east entrance.

The subsequent building of the stunning Native American galleries and renovations in the American and Asian galleries and elsewhere continue to transform the museum’s collections and reach.

Now, a $12 million renovation project in the original building, opening in March, will dramatically further that up-to-date image of the Nelson.

Prompting the project was Henry Bloch’s gift to the Nelson of the art collection he and his wife, Marion, had amassed. That includes 29 quietly stunning works by Matisse, Pissarro, Monet, Cezanne and other luminaries of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. And rather than sticking the Bloch paintings in a specially devoted space of their own, the works are being merged unselfishly into the permanent European art collection in the new galleries, which, funded by the Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation, will bear the family name. The consolidated collection will allow museum visitors to comprehend a more coherent story about art in general and 200 years or more of European art history.

[block pos=”right”] The (Bloch) works are being merged unselfishly into the permanent European art collection in the new galleries, which … will allow museum visitors to comprehend a more coherent story about art in general and 200 years or more of European art history. [/block]

“That is one of the great wonders of the Henry Bloch gifts,” Steve Waterman, the museum’s design experience director, says during a recent construction-site walk-through of the new galleries. “We’re so excited that he allowed us to merge the collections, taking the true long view.”

For his part, Bloch is thrilled with the makeover. “Each room in the new galleries,” he says, “is completely different and very beautiful.”

The collection received another boost last fall when the museum announced the acquisition of an early landscape painting by Piet Mondrian in honor of Henry Bloch, who is chair emeritus of the Nelson-Atkins board of trustees.

As for the stories the expanded collections can now tell, CEO Julián Zugazagoitia is especially excited by the emergence of modernism. As van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin and the like wrestled with the rise of urban uncertainties and the loss of rural paradise, their works continue to speak directly to the present day.

“The angst of today’s times could be reflected in those artworks,” Zugazagoitia told me. “The display will bring a new perspective on contemporary society and our lives.”

Reconstructing the northeast quadrant of the museum’s plaza level (formerly known as the first floor) has been an enormous undertaking involving a delicate balance between tradition, modernity and new technologies.

A Transformative Experience

“It’s like we built a new building inside the old building,” says Steve McDowell, principal of BNIM, the Kansas City architectural firm spearheading the renovation. “It’s all focused on the transformative experience.”

Gone is the narrow north corridor, which was too inadequately lighted to show artwork. About a dozen gallery rooms have been reconfigured into seven mostly larger spaces, and the redesign has added more than 220 linear feet of walls on which to display art.

“It’s quite a bit more open,” Waterman says.

Removing a wall from a dingy corner staircase, for example, helped open the sightlines in the first gallery, on the east end of the building, which will house late 18th- and early 19th-century British art. That small-sounding gesture helped create an obvious, orienting connection to the rest of the museum’s main level.

The project pays respect to many details of the original designs by the architectural firm of Wight and Wight, which were advanced for their day. Start by looking down.

“Every floor in the place was different,” Waterman says. “They wanted to invigorate visitors and forestall museum fatigue.”

That impulse has been modernized as the original Masonite and linoleum flooring is now refreshed with varying and striking patterns of wood. Says BNIM’s project architect Erik Heitman, “There are very subtle changes in pattern that enliven the spaces.”

Just as the Bloch Building’s identity had so much to do with light — the changing daylight indoors, the lit-up exterior at night — the new Bloch Galleries also provide a study in light, in much more subtle ways. New lighting technology will help animate the galleries, in sometimes dramatic fashion, and further enhance the experience of people taking in a Monet for the first time or those revisiting old favorites.

The original lighting system behind transparent ceiling panels, or lay lights, was among those original, advanced features, Waterman says. But nothing like the technology-driven system that has replaced them. It’s not just that fluorescent lights have been replaced by LED fixtures. There’s a web of electronics that are giving curators and exhibit designers unprecedented flexibility for sharing the art at hand.

“You’re trying to have a room feel great and at the same time you’re trying to have artwork hit you hard,” Waterman says.

Renfro Design Group of New York, which was intimately involved in the making of the Bloch Building, is back on the case. On this December day, a Renfro crew was working to “tune” the system, an enormously complicated process, but one made much easier in the digital age.

The lighted ceiling panels in the largest of the new galleries, for example, hide thousands of LED bulbs, which can be adjusted in infinite ways to create special effects and lighting-on-demand throughout the room. Say a curator is taking visitors on a tour highlighting only four paintings. Those can be lighted individually in sequence, while other pieces hang nearby in relative darkness, to minimize distractions and maximize focus on the story at hand.

Or, Heitman says, the lighting system can replicate natural light in its daily rhythms, if that were so desired for a certain exhibit or program.

Consider, too, that many of the oldest artworks were painted in the age of candlelight. Lighting designers and curators can now experiment with how each artwork is most effectively illuminated and can create “event moments” throughout the new galleries.

The tunable lighting will be especially critical in the new “Pastel Cabinet,” the smallest of the new galleries. This room will house the dry-pigment works on paper by Degas, Renoir and others. The gallery would exist in darkness when no one’s in it, and lighting will softly fade in and out as visitors come and go. This speaks not only to the viewing experience but also to preservation of more fragile works.

“That room will be like a jewel box,” Heitman says.

The lighting experience, along with programmable audio channels, will offer Nelson-Atkins visitors new art experiences, some of which haven’t been thought of yet.

“Some projects bring you great things,” Waterman says. “We literally are just learning the potential of this.”

Leading edge museum technology
Waterman and a planning team visited more than 20 museums around the country. They found a new level of forward thinking and digitally driven design here and there but especially at the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There they learned about a technological collaboration among the museum, Apple and the makers of the Detour walking-tour app, which introduced them to the possibility of long-form, story-oriented audio experiences.

The new audio system will allow for programmable audio tours, wirelessly connected as a visitor moves from painting to painting by way of “geo-fencing,” which can isolate individual smartphones. The Nelson-Atkins will be the second museum in the country to adopt the software system, Waterman says. This will open the door for educators and curators to create the equivalent of podcasts that reveal compelling and creative stories of art, artists and history. Say one podcast made a connection between Impressionism and hip-hop — you could dial it up on your phone, let it rip, and perhaps even share it with friends via social media.

The podcasts the Nelson group experienced at the San Francisco museum had a feeling of community and conversation, Waterman says. “There was a decided lack of institutional voice,” he says, “and we said, ‘that’s it.’”

Once they get the hang of it in the Bloch Galleries, the museum could expand the audio guide system throughout the complex.

The invisible infrastructure of conduits and cables that run the lights, audio systems and wi-fi are taking the Nelson to the leading edge of museum technology. Beacons that control the geo-fencing sit behind innocuous grills in the walls. One piece of equipment can provide audio assistance to the hearing-impaired. “Some of the most beautiful work is hidden behind the walls,” says Heitman.

Sightlines and subtleties

There are three ways to enter the galleries in the northeast corner of the building’s plaza level (what used to be called the museum’s first floor). The easternmost entrance begins a chronological progression through the galleries, beginning with British art of the late 1700s. Another entrance opens from the Adelaide Cobb Ward Sculpture Hall into the largest gallery, the one holding works from the first half of the 20th century. A third portal exists at the northeast corner of Kirkwood Hall, which leads through a foyer into the post-Impressionism gallery. As Waterman says, there’s no wrong way to navigate through the rooms.

If a visitor starts at the beginning, though, there are subtle shifts in color and sightlines that help orient and pull one through from one room to the next. Fabric-covered walls soften the environment, again in a subtle way, a nod to European aesthetics. Light, for example, doesn’t bounce off the fabric as it would off plaster or other hard surfaces.

Those variable sightlines are keys to porosity and interaction, which are subthemes of the design, McDowell says. Those speak to various “levels of consciousness in how to experience a museum,” he says. “There are different ways of doing it.”

The designers proudly pointed to one large room lined with Carthage stone that had been long stored after a previous Nelson renovation. “We’ve been salvaging material for the last 15 years to reuse for projects like this,” Heitman says.

The museum announced the gift of the Bloch family’s artworks in 2010 and officially accessioned the pieces in 2015. At some point Henry Bloch, now in his 90s, decided he wanted to be around for the reinstallation and speeded up the renovation plan.

Museum-goers are about to discover what his family’s generosity, vision and leadership in the arts can mean over the long run.

“Henry’s aspiration,” says McDowell, “is to see that all of the gifts would elevate Kansas City and get them out in the world.”

The Bloch Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., open to the public March 11. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. For more information, 816.751.1278 or

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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