KANSAS CITY — On a recent Friday, surrounded by immense white walls and bathed in soft, natural light, Catherine Futter, the curator of decorative arts for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, contemplated the arrangement of a half-dozen contemporary ceramic pieces, the final collection installed in the new Bloch Building before its grand opening later this week.
“That looks like it might be a good tension,” Futter said, narrowing her eyes and motioning at the space between a plate made by artist Shoji Hamada and a bottle by Warren MacKenzie.
Elizabeth Williams, the curatorial assistant of decorative arts, leaned back and cast a critical eye at the display case. “If it comes over just a bit, it would cover the seam at the bottom,” Williams said as she reached out to adjust a shiny Beatrice Wood bottle.
“Oop. Can’t touch this,” she said, turning toward the mount-maker, Chris Holle, who wore white cotton gloves to handle the fragile art pieces.
It’s been nearly eight years since New York architect Steven Holl won the international competition to design an expansion of the Nelson-Atkins, to be named after longtime art patrons Marion and Henry Bloch. The construction was completed a year ago, but it has taken nearly another 12 months to fill the 165,000-square-foot addition with artwork from the museum’s African and contemporary art collections and two new featured exhibits that will greet the first visitors.
In many ways, the stylistically experimental Bloch Building is the visual and conceptual opposite of the neoclassical original Nelson-Atkins building, which was built in 1933. Diffuse sunlight filters down into each of the five pavilions, sections of the building which Holl calls “lenses.” The high, curved “Breathing T” walls exaggerate the modern cathedral effect. At night, the glass-and-steel structures glow brightly. Mostly nestled underground, the top quarter of the lenses rise and fall to complement the adjacent sculpture garden.
The Bloch Building also represents a shift in how art is displayed and absorbed by the viewer. The goal is to emphasize the visitor’s experience over the more conventional encyclopedic presentations of art. Museum staff departed from the typical chronological displays of paintings, sculptures, photographs and decorative arts. Instead, the staff focused on the relationships between works of art and diversifying the galleries, to stimulate museum visitors. The focus has been on telling visual stories and making art museums more exciting.
Futter explained that her goal is to “integrate the decorative arts with paintings, sculpture and other works on paper.” However, she said, that approach wouldn’t be ideal for the ceramics display. The large paintings in the next room, though from the same time period, usually require museum-goers to step back and take in the view.
“To give a proper experience, you don’t want loads of small cases together,” Futter said. “The ceramics are intimate works of art.”
The contemporary ceramics, part of the Nelson-Atkins permanent collection, have not been on display as a group in a long time, Williams said. The exhibit gives an overview of “the story of studio pottery in the United States” and includes cross-cultural influences on American ceramicists, she said.
Manager of Fabrication Bruce Smith said that the casework itself took years to design, construct and install. Made in Italy, the case features a flip-up design that relies on pistons.
Williams seemed as proud of the case as she was of the precious artwork that will go inside.
“This,” she said, “is our Lamborghini case.”