Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
A Museum for the Masses
Staring deeply into Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Orchard leaves you in awe. Tiny rivers of blues and greens look like waves in the ocean. As you slowly move away, the waves of color blend into a cohesive masterpiece. Each gallery in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art at Kansas City imparts the same experience. Whether it be the Buddhist temple that features the compassionate eyes of Seated Guanyin Bodhisattva, a wooden sculpture from the Liao Dynasty, or the modern and contemporary gallery where Turin, by Franz Kline, spurs contemplation, the Nelson-Atkins has been supplying goose bumps for seventy-nine years.
The museum was founded by two benefactors: William Rockhill Nelson and Mary Atkins. Nelson moved to Kansas City around 1880 and founded The Kansas City Star. When he died in 1915, Nelson left a request to establish an arts gallery, as well as the ground the museum sits on today. Mary Atkins was a retired schoolteacher who was married to a successful stockbroker. She died in 1911 and also left a request for an arts gallery. In 1927, the trustees decided to combine the three million dollars in funds from Nelson and Atkins into one art museum. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art officially opened to the public on December 11, 1933.
The newest feature of the Nelson-Atkins Museum is the Bloch Building. The Kansas City community raised $200 million for the expansion and renovation of the museum, as well as money to grow the endowment fund. In 1999, six architects from around the world submitted designs for the new addition to the museum. Five of the six architects wanted to place the building on the north side of the old building. However, Stephen Holl, who was named “America’s Best Architect” by Time magazine in 2001, had a very different idea. He presented a creative design that ran along the east side of the old museum. Holl’s inspiration to create his one-of-a-kind design came from the art in the galleries. In particular, a painting by Zhou Chen, The North Sea, caught his eye. This silk hand scroll shows a building on a hillside that is partially hidden by shrubbery. With his creative design, Holl was chosen as the architect for the project.
A work of art in its own right, the Bloch Building defines unique, twenty-first century architecture. Futuristic glass panels give the building a shimmering glow that is mirrored in a reflecting pool that also shows the image of the original Nelson-Atkins building. Every inch of the Bloch Building was designed for an artistic reason. The building is essentially a 67-story building laid on its side; it extends 840 feet from north to south. Sixty-five percent of the building is underground, but from the inside, you feel as though you are both above and below ground at the same time. The building consists of five lenses that follow the slope of the Kansas City Sculpture Park while letting light into the gallery. These lenses are made of specially formulated sixteen-inch-wide glass planks that vary in height. At night, fluorescent lights in the planks make the building glow. Holl says the building “plays light like an instrument.”
At dusk, the walls inside the Bloch Building change to grey-green and grey-blue, rather than clear white. “It feels as though you’re looking inside a kaleidoscope,” says volunteer docent Jaymie Bonavia. The original building is like stone, and the new is like a feather, Holl says. Both buildings represent the height of style and technology for their time. The reflecting pool outside helps unite the buildings. However, this is not just a reflecting pool, it too is a work of art: One Sun/34 Moons by De Maria. At night, both buildings are united by their reflection in the water. Thirty-four circular windows inside the pool, which represent moons, provide shimmering light to the parking garage below. Fluorescent strips in the circular windows make them glow in the same manner as the Bloch Building’s glass panels.
The older Nelson-Atkins building has also undergone changes. A gallery that links the Bloch Building with Kirkwood Hall was added. This gallery features wall murals and is also the only way the two buildings unite from the inside. The museum is also in the process of reconfiguring some of the galleries, so visitors can follow the art in chronological order. With 36,000 pieces of art in its collection, the museum keeps 7 percent on display at any given time. The museum houses art from many genres including African, European, modern and contemporary, American, Chinese, and photography. As you walk through Kirkwood Hall, the original entry into the museum, you travel through the ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece, early Christian art, and the impressionist movement.
The museum is world-renowned for its Chinese collection, which includes ancient bronzes, Chinese tomb art, a Buddhist temple, Chinese paintings, furniture, porcelains, and exquisite Buddhist sculpture, as well as its photography collection, which has 75 hundred photographs from 1839 to some taken as recently as a few months past.
The museum’s mission, since it opened in 1933, has been to acquire the best of the best. The quality and scope of the pieces are tremendous. One of the most treasured works of art the museum holds is Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Caravaggio. Deep red shadows and bright light define the body of Saint John the Baptist in this commanding piece. Another treasure of the museum is Commemorative Head of an Oba, which dates to the sixteenth century and is from the Benin kingdom. Andy Warhol’s Baseball is another; it marks one of the first times Warhol used the silk-screening process.
Volunteer docents guide visitors through the vast collections housed at the Nelson-Atkins. For the past twelve years, Jaymie has been a docent for Nelson-Atkins, and she will tell you that every day for the past twelve years, she has learned something new. She is a walking encyclopedia with names of pieces, dimensions of glass panels, and dates. She doesn’t see it as a volunteer opportunity but rather an honor.
“It’s my volunteer job to communicate the collection in a way that makes it meaningful to people’s lives,” Jaymie says. “I have the opportunity to educate, entertain, and make connections. I think it’s one of the best kept secrets in the United States,” she says.