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Expansion gives original building breathing room

While the opening of the Bloch Building next weekend seems like the main event, it’s really just one of the new things to see at the Nelson-Atkins.

Following the 2002 completion of a new underground parking garage and plaza and the northward extension of the sculpture park, the museum embarked on a major makeover of its original building, which opened in 1933.

Inside, the museum has greatly expanded its educational facilities on the ground floor. The new Ford Learning Center, made possible by a $4.5 million grant from the Ford Motor Co. Fund, opened in fall 2005.

Other improvements include cleaning the exterior of the building and spiffing up Kirkwood Hall, with new lighting and audio systems and conservation work.

On the second floor, museum director/CEO Marc Wilson, a Chinese art specialist, spearheaded reinstallations of galleries holding early Buddhist sculptures and Chinese paintings.

But for wholesale transformations, the real action occurred on the first floor, where a project with an intriguing moniker, “the spine design,” was a major catalyst to a just-completed expansion and reinstallation of the European galleries.

The spine design, conceived by Chris McVoy of Steven Holl Architects as a way of linking the existing building with the Bloch Building, involved opening three long-closed archways above the Atkins staircase landing and extending the staircase west and upward to a new sculpture hall.

Running down the center of the east wing of the original building, the Adelaide Cobb Ward Sculpture Hall was created in former special exhibition space. The area became available after the decision to move special exhibitions to the Bloch Building.

The decision also yielded room for four magnificent new galleries for European art, two on each side of the sculpture hall.

“Because we had whole new spaces to deal with, we wanted to rethink the interpretation and installation of the European collection,” said Catherine Futter, the museum’s curator of decorative arts.

Futter and Ian Kennedy, curator of European painting and sculpture, designed the new installation with two goals: to help visitors make connections between the artworks and to foster a sense of discovery.

For starters, they selected rich and vibrant hues for the gallery walls, a deep burgundy here, a brilliant coral there. Strategically placed doorways yield alluring diagonal sightlines that knit the galleries together.

From the sculpture hall, for instance, visitors can spot Caravaggio’s “St. John the Baptist” in the “Age of the Baroque” gallery, but it’s also possible to catch a glimpse of the French Baroque Classicism gallery across the hall.

A crucial part of the rethinking was the decision to integrate decorative arts and fine arts in the galleries. The inclusion of furniture, ceramics and other decorative arts objects with paintings and sculptures provides a fuller picture of each era.

A good example is the neoclassical gallery, where Kennedy and Futter paired the museum’s stellar Weisweiler cabinet with a portrait by Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun.

Both curators are pleased with the recently completed reinstallation of an intimate display area in the west wing known as the “treasury,” which now features small objects, like incense burners and hand washers and a Persian tent panel.

“It’s about the contact between the Middle East and Italy and Spain in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” Futter said.

Last year Futter completed a new thematic presentation of the museum’s Burnap Collection of English Pottery. It’s livelier now, with groupings that explore topics like “politics in ceramics” and “a history of beverages in Britain.”

More recently Futter oversaw the move of the popular Starr Collection of Miniatures from the west wing to a gallery in the northeast corner.

Prints and drawings play an important role in the European reinstallation. Look for them in the northeast corner gallery, where an exhibit called “Color and Line” highlights 19th- and 20th-century European masterworks. In the southeast corridor, “Durer to Tiepolo” explores realism and idealism in prints and drawings from the 15th through the 18th centuries.

Outdoors, the museum’s 22-acre sculpture park also has a fresh look. Its 31 sculptures occupy a setting enhanced by new plantings, new signs and labels for artworks, more pathways and five new entrances.

Four-legged visitors will enjoy the newest addition — a doggie drinking fountain.