The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is making a case for expansion.
Even with the addition of the nearly 10-year-old Bloch galleries — equal to a seven-story building on its side — Kansas City’s cultural jewel is cramped.
It’s not just that the old and new buildings can exhibit only about 6 percent of the 39,000 pieces in the museum’s collection. That’s normal for museums that perpetually rotate works from storage. It’s that office and storage space required to run the institution fall short.
“We have offices in galleries that should be devoted to art,” said Mark Zimmerman, the museum’s director of administration.
Envelopes and other office supplies fill third-floor display cases that used to hold art. Workers in another department navigate a tiny spiral staircase to reach underground offices. Others work across the street in an old house.
So museum officials have begun a long civic process to engage museum members, donors, nearby neighbors and the city at large to explain the institution’s growth, its needs and its expansion options. They’re ready to address unfinished business from a 1999 strategic plan.
That plan added space for special exhibitions, collections, education, programs, art storage, library, retail and parking. Left unmet is the need for offices — for the museum’s nearly 300 employees — and for non-art storage.
“It’s not conducive for the way we need to interact every day,” said museum director and CEO Julián Zugazagoitia. “It’s not efficient.”
In the near term, museum offices are likely to expand further into large houses that the museum already owns directly across 45th Street to its north.
Museum staff already work in the westernmost house. The easternmost stands vacant, available for repurposing. The two middle houses now have residential tenants, who possibly could have a 12-month time frame to move.
But nothing is set in stone yet.
“Change takes time,” Zugazagoitia acknowledged, noting that it took 10 years of planning and five years of implementation to open the Bloch addition to the east of the original building. “We’re looking for conversation about our future.”
At a “community conversation” attended by about 250 people at the museum Wednesday night, Zugazagoitia and his colleagues said they are treading carefully to reuse properties the museum already owns. They intend to do nothing that runs afoul of a larger cultural arts district proposal extending east from the Country Club Plaza.
And they definitely don’t want to echo what happened in 2008-2009, when the museum wanted to convert the former Rockhill Tennis Club, which leased the site from the museum, for museum office use. Neighbors roared in opposition.
The Kansas City Council quickly passed an ordinance barring the Rockhill property from being used for anything other than single-family homes or public park space. The parking lot, too, is off limits for overflow museum parking.
The Rockhill site continues to be owned by the museum, unused since the tennis club’s lease ended Dec. 31, 2009. The museum now calls it the “Kirkwood property” in a nod to history; the former clubhouse was the home built for Laura Kirkwood, daughter of museum benefactor William Rockhill Nelson.
Many in the crowd at Wednesday’s meeting — apparently schooled in the site’s history — erupted in laughter when a woman asked why the vacant clubhouse couldn’t be torn down and the space reused.
Unless and until the ordinance is superseded, that won’t happen. For now, “a sculpture park is the best idea,” Zugazagoitia said of the Kirkwood block, where the tennis courts would be removed.
Museum leaders are focused on getting beyond past controversies. They say they’ve listened to the community. They believe they’ve made good choices, citing rave reviews and rising attendance.
The museum recorded 371,000 visitors in fiscal year 2011; this fiscal year, 534,000. (The museum began offering every-day free admission in 2002, so the recent increase can’t be attributed to a freebie effect.)
Greg Maday, a museum trustee and chairman of its campus and community committee, cautioned against seeing the planning process as a land grab. The goal, he said, is to “define the campus footprint” and “define best use for our properties.”
The campus footprint does have the possibility, though, of extending onto public land. The Nelson has a memorandum of understanding with the Kansas City parks board, first signed in 1993 and renewed in March this year.
“We’ve given them the opportunity to place sculpture in Theis Park and Southmoreland Park,” said city parks director Mark McHenry. “We’d welcome that. Of course, they’d provide it, pay for it, place it and maintain it. The logistics would have to be worked out, but I don’t see it being a problem for the parks board.”
There would be no encroachment on the Southmoreland space devoted each summer to the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, McHenry added.
Sculptures on the Kirkwood land or in the parks — provided agreement on exact placement — aren’t expected to generate opposition. But the museum likely will face concern from historic preservationists if and when attention is turned to the 45th Street houses.
While the short-term priority is to shift the houses to office use for museum staffers, the long-term goal could be a new building. Zimmerman and Zugazagoitia both noted the need for technology upgrades and work environments that allow museum staff contact with one another in closer proximity.
But the museum’s wish list extends beyond offices and technology. The prime example underway is the repurposing of the original building’s northeast quadrant to house new first-floor Impressionist galleries.
The redesigned galleries, planned to open after the first of the year, will house the museum’s collection plus a world-class collection donated by Henry and Marion Bloch.
The Nelson also wants a smaller lecture hall than the existing Atkins Auditorium. It wants more multipurpose space, conservation labs and a specialized art viewing room to allow researchers to see pieces not on display.
By 2020, the museum wants at least 4,000 more square feet of office space, 5,000 more square feet of gallery space and 8,000 more square feet of art storage space. Longer-term aims are much bigger.
To get on par with peer museums, it would need 4,000 more square feet of art conservation space, 14,000 more square feet of featured exhibition space and 4,000 more square feet of education space excluding its library. In all, the Nelson says it currently operates with about 130,000 square feet less space than its peers.
The need for more parking is being researched, as is the idea of a “standalone” restaurant. The popular Rozelle Court, located in the heart of the main building, is situated too near artwork to allow cooking, so food is brought up from the basement, and waits in line are long as patrons file past the buffet. Its open-for-business times also are limited.
Museum officials said there is no current plan as to where that proposed restaurant might be or when it might become reality.
The museum considers the 45th Street houses Phase 1 of its expansion goals. Doing something with the Kirkwood property is Phase 2. Phase 3 would be a more detailed plan for further expansion and launch of a design competition, much like the process for the Bloch addition. Phase 4 would be choosing the winner and embarking on design and fundraising.
Whatever path museum expansion takes, its trustees know that plans must appeal to its benefactors and members. While the Nelson’s endowment provides 52 percent of its nearly $30 million operating budget (compared to a 62 percent average for what it considers peer museums in U.S. cities), contributions from foundations, families and individuals account for 30 percent (versus 20 percent among peer museums).
Important, too: Unlike museums in St. Louis and Denver, for example, the Nelson has no taxpayer funding.
Zimmerman told the “conversation” crowd Wednesday that the Nelson’s funds are well-managed, noting that 17 percent of its operating funds come from earned income, about a percentage point higher than its peers. Also, he said, “we run a lean operation.”
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art officials will lead a second “community conversation” meeting, open to the public, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21 in the museum’s Atkins Auditorium. The session will provide an overview of the museum’s current physical and financial situations and introduce discussion of its campus master planning process. Reservations are requested to firstname.lastname@example.org.