Critics and connoisseurs will get their say on the new Bloch Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in due time. The only opinion that matters right now is that of Henry Bloch.
The 94-year-old Kansas City philanthropist and founder of H&R Block was on hand Friday as Nelson officials gave an early look of the refurbished suite of galleries. The spaces, which open to the public March 11, are the new home for 29 works Bloch and his late wife, Marion, donated after two decades of collecting.
“They look fabulous,” Bloch said. “Better here than in our house.”
A $12 million gift from the Marion and Henry Bloch Foundation financed the renovation of the gallery spaces, which are west of the Bloch Building and one floor up. The gift brings the technology, security and climate control to the highest of standards.
“We could have used just a few more nails and repainted the walls and made some room for the paintings,” said Julian Zugazagoitia, museum CEO and director. “But we had this one shot to get it right.”
The new galleries feature Bloch’s donated pieces — which include paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne — next to the Nelson’s own European works from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The galleries also feature cutting-edge display methods.
“Mr. Bloch loves technology but doesn’t like to see it,” said Erik Heitman, who oversaw the project for BNIM architects. “So we worked very closely with our consultant team to create a modern high-performance gallery environment where the art is on show and you’re not distracted by technology.”
The hidden sound system can guide visitors through the exhibits. The state-of-the-art lighting system can change the look of a painting as dramatically as adjusting the picture on your television.
The Nelson is the second museum (after the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) to use an app called Detour for immersive audio tours. Visitors who download the GPS-guided app can be led through the museum via their cellphones, which automatically provide information about the work before them.
The museum also has gone all-in on LED lighting, which not only makes the works more vibrant but also saves a lot of ladder time.
Whereas it once took workers hours to climb up and adjust light levels in a gallery, it now takes a couple of keyboard strokes and a mouse click. Even the subtlest of changes in white light can make colors pop out more or give a better idea of what artists saw as they worked by daylight or candlelight.
As the project began three years ago, workers gutted the space down to the studs. Rather than dragging debris through the museum, workers removed it through windows. Dust was kept to an extreme minimum to avoid damage to galleries in other parts of the building.
Jim Coulter, senior project manager for J.E. Dunn Construction, said that from the beginning, they treated the museum like a hospital.
“That’s the mindset we needed to have down here,” he said. “The artwork is similar to a patient — we can’t contaminate the artwork.”
Because the existing structure was built in the 1930s, workers found plenty of challenges in adapting it to current standards. Today’s construction requires more fire suppression, ductwork and electrical wiring hidden in the walls and ceilings.
Cramming it all in wasn’t easy.
“The space up there is really tight,” said Darcy Ahrens, project superintendent. “We fought that — the ductwork — all the way almost to the very last room.”
The result is a seamless fusion of the modern and classic.
“Even though they’re fresh and new,” said Catherine Futter, director of curatorial affairs, “they’re still within the vocabulary of the 1930s building.”
Zugazagoitia said all involved considered the project a labor of love, mostly because of Bloch. The work came in a little under budget and ahead of schedule.
“I attribute that to everyone involved knowing that we’re doing it for Henry,” Zugazagoitia said. “So for us it was mandate No. 1 to be as fast as possible — never compromising the excellence — but we wanted to be at this moment together, and we’re lucky.”
As for Bloch, he’s more than satisfied with his paintings’ new home.
“They (the Nelson) had the same artists I had, and I thought it’d be nice getting them together,” Bloch said. “I always thought they’d be happier here.”