August 3, 2014

An intriguing new master plan for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The plan envisions the museum inside a cultural district, connecting neighborhoods and surrounding institutions. Now the hard part begins. Can it work? Take our poll below.

Big things often start as dreams. Imagine what could happen if only …

Because the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a veritable field of dreams, an assemblage of millennia of dream worlds and creative expressions, it comes as no surprise that the institution tends to dream big.

The latest example of that is a transformative master plan devised to reimagine the museum as the center of an enhanced cultural district extending in all directions.

The plan, first reported by The Star’s Alice Thorson over the weekend, involves an intriguing network of new connections — elevated pedestrian walkways, art-studded green spaces and the like — that knit together surrounding neighborhoods, prominent institutions and cultural landmarks.

Museum officials commissioned the master plan — a conceptual document that leaves details and pricetags to the future — from a New York architectural firm Weiss/Manfredi. The architects had previously created a sculpture park for the Seattle Art Museum, a public space spanning a roadway and transforming a formerly bleak patch of urban dross.

Concepts to expand the art museum’s green space and outdoor sculpture park, now named for patron Donald Hall, have been discussed for a half century or more. The Nelson’s energetic CEO and president, Julián Zugazagoitia, kick-started the latest discussion. He has spoken publicly of his desire to enhance the museum’s midtown presence with overt and thoughtful links to the Country Club Plaza and the various cultural institutions just beyond its borders.

Attendees of the recent Big Picnic event, co-sponsored by the Kansas City Parks Department and the Nelson-Atkins, may have a sense of the public-space potential of such a project as the Nelson’s expansive front lawn seemed to flow rather effortlessly into the city’s Theis Mall. The master plan envisions better pedestrian access across the traffic barrier of Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard. Enhancements like that could lead to seamless connections from the Nelson-Atkins to UMKC, the Stowers Institute, MRIGlobal, the Kauffman Foundation and other points east and west.

The city owns park and boulevard property on three sides of the Nelson, and parks director Mark McHenry agrees that many of the big-picture concepts in the plan are good from his perspective, though “some things are easier done than others because of time and money.”

Of course, dreaming is the easy part. Turning dreams into reality is the harder business. Some parts of the plan are more controversial than others. The notion of realigning Rockhill Road on the museum’s east side and demolishing the former Rockhill Tennis Club will rile some neighbors. Others won’t like the vision of replacing historic homes on 45th Street with new museum buildings and a boutique hotel.

As the Nelson-Atkins takes the master plan to the neighborhoods and other stakeholders — and those conversations already have begun — it may feel like a reprise of the vocal harangues that greeted the museum’s expansion project a decade or so ago.

But this is a city-image dream very much worth talking about, improving upon and shaping into doable phases and fundable priorities.

When Zugazagoitia came to Kansas City four years ago as the Nelson’s fifth director, he brought remarkable enthusiasm, a sense of why-not inventiveness and a clear passion for reaching beyond the old walls — real and metaphoric — that tended to cut the museum off from many segments of the city. Turning the museum into a symbol of connectedness would be a feat of historic proportions.

Take this survey on the Nelson-Atkins concept. Mobile users, please go here to take the poll:

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