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Nelson-Atkins set to open Bloch Galleries of European Art

Henry Bloch inside the Bloch Galleries of European Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.Photo by Mark McDonald

Next week, on March 11, the Bloch Galleries of European Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will be open to the public.

The Bloch Galleries feature 29 masterpieces from the Marion and Henry Bloch collection.  

The Bloch collection of impressionist and post-impressionist European paintings has been incorporated into the museum’s permanent collection of European art in the Bloch Galleries. Julian Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, said the Bloch collection has been transformative. He added that the collection demonstrates the Bloch family’s commitment to the museum and serves as a permanent resource for Kansas City, the country and beyond. 

“It takes the Nelson to another level,” said Zugazagoitia. “It is totally transformed. His collection would marry the collection in the DNA of the Nelson. Thanks to Henry, we could make a transformative difference in Kansas City and the world of art.”

Bloch has been associated with the Nelson-Atkins for decades and at one time served as chair of the trustees. Originally, he planned to donate the masterworks that he and his wife, Marion, collected for decades upon his death. After his wife’s passing, however, Bloch decided to donate their art to the museum and to Kansas City, a place he has always called home. In addition to gifting his paintings to the museum, The Marion and Henry Bloch Family Foundation funded $12 million for the renovation of the Bloch Galleries, located in the northeast section of the original 1933 museum building.

“We not only gave the paintings, we paid for the walls,” said Bloch. “I am thrilled with it to keep all 29 pieces together for the city.”

Bloch, co-founder of H&R Block and member of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, said he has given to Kansas City throughout his life, including more than 30 years with the Nelson-Atkins. Bloch considers the Nelson-Atkins a Kansas City treasure, as well as a national resource. He was happy to locate a permanent home for his collection, a place where the art is secure in a fire-proof facility and can be enjoyed by anyone in the museum.  

“It’s a wonderful museum,” said Bloch. “If the museum weren’t here, I don’t know what we would have done. I would have hated to see them go out of town.”

The Bloch collection nearly doubled the museum’s current supply of impressionist and post-impressionist art. Each of the 29 paintings has a small blue square on its description plaque to designate they are part of the Bloch collection. The Bloch collection includes masterpieces by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gough, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse. The first painting the Blochs purchased was Auguste Renoir’s “Woman Leaning on her Elbows” in 1976. Their last piece was Camille Pissarro’s “Chestnut Gove at Louvenciennes” they acquired in 1997. Bloch’s favorite is an oil by Alfred Sisley titled “The Locke of Saint-Mammes.” He was not fond of the painting until he found just the right frame, and then it became his favorite, he said.

“I just love the detail in it,” Bloch said. 

Bloch says it was natural to donate his collection to the museum after a long relationship with the museum’s staff through the years. Ralph T. Coe, a former director of the Nelson-Atkins, worked with Marion and Henry through the years to help them expand their collection. He didn’t completely give up his collection when he gifted his art to the Nelson-Atkins. The museum created high-quality replicas of his 29 paintings in order for Bloch to enjoy them in his home. He is pleased with the replicas, he said, and his concern over security, fire and sunlight have dissolved under the museum’s protection. A family member helped him find just the right frames for the replicas that hang in his home. 

“Now, no worries,” Bloch said. “(With) new frames, they look very nice.”

The renovation of the Bloch Galleries took two years to complete. The 9,000-square-foot space was designed by BNIM Architects and constructed by JE Dunn Construction, both of Kansas City. The expanded galleries added more than 220 linear feet of wall space, creating state-of-the-art lighting, technology and music to enhance the viewers’ experience. 

“It’s another dimension to enjoy and study and learn about the art,” said Shirley Helzberg, chair of the board of trustees at the Nelson-Atkins.

The Bloch Galleries feature tunable lighting to create different moods with the art. iPads are located on the benches in the galleries for visitors to scroll through information about the paintings, artists and related history. There are speakers that can sync with audio tours and allow for music or discussions and visitors can download an app on their iPhones to further enhance their gallery experience. The app, through a Wi-Fi system, delivers cultural, social and economic events connected to the art, triggered in real time at the visitor’s location. The app is available in galleries throughout the museum.   

“These tours offer our visitors a cinematic experience for the ears,” said Doug Allen, chief information officer at the Nelson-Atkins. “There’s almost no interaction with the device at all — visitors can forget about their devices and keep their eyes on the art.”  

The opening of the Bloch Galleries coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Bloch Building, the 165,00-square-foot expansion to the original Nelson-Atkins museum building. The Bloch collection of European art was exhibited during the 2007 opening of the Bloch Building and was promised to the Nelson-Atkins in 2010 as part of the museum’s 75th anniversary celebration. Bloch said seeing his collection in the galleries bearing his namesake are a feast for the eyes. 

“They look so beautiful, beyond my expectation,” he said. 

Helzberg was in awe when she set eyes on the Bloch Galleries for the first time, she said. 

“I had to catch my breath,” said Helzberg. “It’s amazing. We don’t have a sense of how transformative this will be. There is such a beautiful story behind this.

“It’s so beautiful — to realize the significance of each painting of Henry and Marion. It’s much more than you can dream.”