Kansas City, Mo. - Nighttime is the best time to see the new addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; that's when it runs down the side of the Kansas City Sculpture Park like a string of paper lanterns following the contours of a suburban lawn. That's when it shows why, according to Time magazine, it's the "Most Anticipated Building" of 2007.
Designed by Steven Holl, the Bloch Building, as it's called, stretches below ground for 840 feet -- equivalent to a 67-story skyscraper -- and provides 165,000 square feet of space, two-thirds for galleries. The building emerges above ground in five translucent glass pavilions that, aside from glowing in the dark, are said to gleam gold as the sun sets.
I wouldn't know; the day I was there was overcast and, from the lawn, the Bloch building resembled an industrial shed.
But no matter. Many new museum wings dazzle from the outside only to deliver a disappointing environment for the art. The Bloch building, which opens officially on Saturday, dazzles from the inside. It is neither a big, sterile, white cube, divided into smaller cubes, nor a sharp-angled, slant-walled space that competes for attention with the works on view.
Rather, Mr. Holl has designed a series of elegant, asymmetric galleries that descend with the landscape, gracefully leading visitors through the art and subtly luring them to wonder what's beyond the next bend. The galleries have several entry points to one another, to an internal promenade, and to the park outside, so that no one feels trapped, forced to retrace steps to get out.
The Bloch building enchants in another way, too: Standing inside, especially in the three-story atrium lobby, feels like being inside a luminaria. Natural light pours in through the vaulted ceilings and the twin-layered glass walls. The effect is ethereal. (Light can be regulated on too-sunny days; at night, the process reverses, with artificial lights inside illuminating the sky.)
All of this is a fine thing because, as museum director Marc F. Wilson tells it, the expansion was far more about the art than about adding space to the original Nelson-Atkins, an imposing neoclassical structure completed in 1933. Building the Bloch -- which will hold contemporary art, photography and special exhibitions -- created an opportunity for a reinstallation of the museum's 34,500-item permanent collection, the better to engage more visitors.
It's no secret that the high arts everywhere are worried about audiences. Only about a quarter of Americans visit a museum or gallery even once each year, government statistics show. In Mr. Wilson's view, "every person has the potential to be touched by art," but "museums have failed to make those visual experiences gratifying, rewarding and -- beyond that -- enjoyable."
He blames the convention of using art history as the spine of exhibits, arranging them chronologically and according to what he calls natural-history taxonomy that separates paintings from sculpture from decorative arts. "I am not here to teach you a body of knowledge that somebody has sanctified," Mr. Wilson says. The Nelson-Atkins had a gallery of sculpture from the Renaissance through the late 19th century, for example. "Did you understand sculpture from it?" asks Catherine L. Futter, curator of decorative arts -- or might those works be better understood in the context of paintings made at the same time?
Tampering with tradition has another virtue: Many museums lack the necessary works to truly illustrate the various chapters of art history. The Nelson-Atkins has a strong collection of items from all cultures and periods, but it has holes. "We used to have a room of just Spanish painting," says Ms. Futter. "But we couldn't tell the complete story of Spanish painting." There was no Velázquez, for one thing.
The trick, of course, is reorganizing without pandering. When, a few years ago, the Brooklyn Museum turned its American galleries into a teeming mix of paintings, furniture, sculpture and decorative objects set against bright walls of orange, green and blue with lots of labels, they drew criticism for being dumbed-down and heavy-handed. In 1999-2001, the Museum of Modern Art adopted display themes like Utopia, human anatomy, and science. Again, thumbs-down comments prevailed. The Denver Art Museum and the High Museum in Atlanta are among others who've experimented with thematic display, usually earning brickbats.
At the Nelson-Atkins, teams of curators, educators and designers began their rethink by devising "affinity diagrams" showing how works of art in each main curatorial department (European, American, and so on) relate to others in the collection. These would aid the search for "moments," or "windows of engagement," that would connect people to art.
In the first stage of the reinstallation, of the European galleries, completed last year, changes are subtle. Medieval sculpture and stained glass are now joined in one gallery by religious paintings of the same period, for example, resulting in a churchlike setting that provides context.
In another room, portraits by Rembrandt and Hals and paintings by van Huysum, van Vliet and Jan Steen have a few new neighbors: a French cabinet like one in the Steen (pulled from storage), a 1670 German ivory goblet (once on view with Italian bronzes), and an owl-shaped Staffordshire jug made in 1690 (a recent acquisition). All three objects might have been owned by people in the paintings, Ms. Futter explains -- and they "break up" the monotony of a room full of paintings. It's still a room that shouts "Golden Age of Dutch painting," and the new items might prompt people to study the paintings longer (museum experts peg the average at about five seconds).
When I ask Mr. Wilson to take me to the most successful gallery, he heads into the deep-blue-walled French baroque room. At one end stands a marquetry ormolu commode, flanked by cases holding gilded English chocolate cups, English silver sugar casters and French silver candlesticks. In the center is a bronze of Louis XIV. On the walls hang a Chardin still life, a picture of a woman and her servant by Liotard, a portrait of Augustus the Strong, two portraits of aristocratic women, a pair of domestic scenes by Jean-François de Troy, and a gilt clock.
"The first thing I think is that the French lived pretty damn well in the 18th century," Mr. Wilson says. Then, he says, notice that the gilt pattern on the commode looks like the engraving on the cups. "It makes you think, 'hey, ormolu is drawing.'" Earlier, Ms. Futter had also noted the similarity between the silver designs and the ormolu mounts, as well as the supercilious air and flowing curly hair of both Louis XIV and Augustus. And, she said, the clock in one de Troy is like the clock on the wall. These juxtapositions, again, might prompt lingering, and perhaps send visitors to the wall labels (which are limited to 120 words).
The contemporary galleries also looked fairly conventional, and Jan Schall, the contemporary art curator, agreed. One gallery contains Abstract Expressionist works, plus Giacometti's painted "Chariot" from 1950, for example. "It's not an earth-shaking new approach," she says. Her team discussed two themes (one, "people, places, things"; the other, more conceptual) but decided they didn't work. "So we chose a stylistically based, mostly chronological installation," she says. "The one thing I was thinking about -- these are linear galleries, with multiple entries -- was how every wall can be a 'Pow!' "
That's achieved in one gallery where a large black Louise Nevelson sculpture faces a striking wall: a black vertical painting by Ad Reinhardt, an Agnes Martin called "White Flower II," Ellsworth Kelly's "White Black," and a black-white-blue-gray swirl by Bridget Riley called "Arrest 2." Most people would get the color connection and the Minimalism. With the wall labels, Ms. Schall says, viewers can go further. "These are expressive works about profundity, delicacy, the dualities of light and shadow, and movement," respectively, she says.
The rethinking is more evident in African art, where works are typically organized by geography, tribe, village, type of object, and so on. In the Bloch building galleries, visitors are greeted by a vitrine with a message: It displays the oldest piece in the collection, an equestrian figure from Mali (12th to 16th century), and an earthenware pot from 1994 by Kenyan Magdalena Odundo. "They show the long history of African art," Mr. Wilson says.
The rest of the works are arranged around themes like royal power (works include a prestige pipe from Cameroon and a mask from Tanzania) and the wilderness (a monkey mask from Zaire and an antelope headdress from Mali). I recall here a complaint Mr. Wilson had made about art-historical installations: "Art history splits things into smaller and smaller divisions, but no one puts it back together into something people can understand." These displays do make links.
Mr. Wilson promises similar revelations when the Native American collection is reinstalled in the coming months. Instead of being displayed -- inanely -- with African and Oceanic art, those works will occupy galleries that flow into the American art galleries, which will no longer be arranged on a theme of people, places, things. Instead, the works will illustrate six key dates in American history and American art history: 1776, 1826, 1850, 1886, 1913 and 1939. That means, for example, that portraits by John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins will be separated -- going to 1776, 1886 and 1913, respectively, where they will meet landscapes, still lifes, furniture and decorative arts from those eras.
It promises to be big change. Yet given what the Nelson-Atkins team has produced so far, I'm not worried. There are no radical ruptures here, no phony narratives or concepts that strain the imagination. These changes both play to the collection's strength and, frequently, prove revealing.