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Building on art for the future

As an institution, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will turn 75 next year. Looking back at 1933, you have to marvel over what Kansas City was able to produce in the midst of the Depression.

A symphony was launched that year, too, as was the University of Kansas City (now UMKC), and then, as now, downtown was in the midst of a civic building boom.

City Hall, the Jackson County Courthouse, Municipal Auditorium — all of those Art Deco souvenirs date from the period when a $40 million bond issue to support major construction projects helped keep the city working.

The Nelson was the product of private wealth and largesse, largely funded by the estate of the man who also founded this newspaper, William Rockhill Nelson. But a core of civic leaders joined the vision, too, and Kansas City’s classical temple for art on the great midtown lawn was their legacy.

More than three generations of schoolchildren (and their parents and teachers) have walked its halls and perhaps been sparked to appreciate just what it is that artists have done and still do in shaping our ideas and our many cultures.

Now, another generation of philanthropists has made its mark, expanding the Nelson with a huge and inventive wing.

The opening of the Bloch Building next weekend is only part of the story.

The project of the last eight years also meant remaking, updating and polishing almost every inch of the old building on the hill.

So the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is not only bigger and bolder with its ultra-modern, underground addition.

It’s a whole new experience. And one its benefactors and civic leaders hope will do what the original museum did, which was to captivate and inspire Kansas Citians for the next few generations.