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Sculpture Park is grounds for celebration

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Sun, Sep. 24, 2006 edition of The Kansas City Star

Bird song and sparkling water.

Curving pathways with a surprise at every turn.

The metal glint of sculptural works from every sight line.

You can have it all at the new and improved Kansas City Sculpture Park on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

On Saturday the museum will hold a free public celebration of the spruced up 22-acre park. (See box on G11 for details.)

Of course its 31 outdoor sculptures are the main attraction, but visitors will notice new signs, new labels for artwork, more pathways and a lot of new plantings — and five new entrances designed to say, “Come in, come in.”

The reopening festivities end six years of disruption from construction of the new Bloch Building, which stretches like a row of irregular blocks just east of the main building.

Architect Steven Holl’s design for five translucent glass lenses atop an underground substructure involved digging and moving enormous amounts of earth.

Now, that part is done. Covering its traces are expanses of fresh green turf, sprightly little trees and spreading plants.

The new park seems to fold the Bloch Building in an embrace, at some points literally wrapping over the top of it.

The steeply sloping Rockhill Road side, a prime worry of some neighbors, wears a cloak of creeping euonymus and pink Autumn Joy sedum. The vista from the road includes a parade of new little tulip trees and a great view of Alexander Calder’s sculpture “Tom’s Cubicle,” ensconced on a small platform near the building.

For its part, the segmented building contributes exciting new spaces and vantage points to the park.

New gray stone pathways between and around the lenses offer a journey of discovery. A highlight is the inaugural appearance of two organic bronze sculptures by British artist Tony Cragg.

Installed on the elevated plot of lawn between lenses four and five, the whirling top-like “Turbo” and perforated pneumatic “Ferryman” wriggle above the grass like newborn life forms.

A switchback path leads the visitor on a zigzaggy route through the sloping beds of Gro-Low sumac between lenses two and three. Heading north, one can look down on sculptures by Gaston Lachaise, Jacques Lipchitz, Auguste Renoir and Joel Shapiro in the replanted and refurbished East Sculpture Terrace (formerly the E.F. Pierson Sculpture Garden).

“We recognized that that area had gone from being a little secret garden to a front and center space,” said Jan Schall, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. To open up the views onto — and from — the terrace, workers replaced old trees grown 70 feet tall with Shantung maples and other small trees that can reach 25 feet.

Almost half of the museum’s 31 outdoor sculptures have new locations.

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s “Three Bowls,” formerly situated on the lawn at the foot of the south stairs, towers over the East Hill from its new perch against the south-facing wall of the southernmost lens. Judith Shea’s “Storage” has turned a corner, moving from the east to the south side of the wall below the East Sculpture Terrace.

One of the most inspired relocations is the siting of George Segal’s “Rush Hour.” In its new spot between the Nelson-Atkins and the Bloch, the work’s weary commuters appear to be rushing from the old building to the new one.

Visitors will find most of the Henry Moores in their old haunts, primarily in the East Hill and West Dale, locations they have occupied for the better part of two decades.

The large-scale Moores, acquired 20 years ago by the Hall Family Foundation as part of a cache of nearly 60 works by the renowned British sculptor, are the core of the outdoor sculpture collection.

It was a seminal purchase, setting in motion a process that the foundation and the museum had not envisioned.

“The acquisition was predicated on the idea that we would put them outdoors,” said Marc Wilson, the museum’s director/CEO. “Beyond that, none of us at that time foresaw the undertaking. As we began to see the potential we realized this could be a transformative thing for Kansas City and for the Nelson.

“I was concerned about how to give the institution a more casual face,” Wilson said, “to send a signal (that) coming together with great works of art does not require you to psych yourself up for a world class Olympic event.

“Enjoy the place! That’s really been the whole theme.”

Community celebration

Eat, drink, walk or play soccer.

Almost anything goes Saturday at the community day celebration of the Kansas City Sculpture Park. The events from 1 to 4 p.m. are geared to families and include education activity tents, a family tour of the sculptures, a 1 p.m. soccer clinic with Rockhurst University teams and a 3 p.m. performance by City in Motion. Vendors will have food and drink for sale.

From 5 to 8 p.m., visitors 21 and older can have a cocktail and snacks and listen to DJ Jon NuSkool in a special tent designed by Spaces magazine. Admission is free. To reserve space, call (816) 751-1278 or go to www.nelson Food and drink tickets will be for sale at the tent entry.

At 8 p.m. the museum presents a free showing of “The Incredibles” on an inflatable screen on the museum lawn.