In Situ: Impressions from the Bloch Galleries
Join flatlandkc.org, KCPT's digital magazine, as we follow five treasured works of art - with names like Cézanne, Monet, and Manet, among others - from their positions in the home gallery of the Bloch family through the painstaking details of being transported to their new permanent location.
"I've felt out paintings would be happier at The Nelson" - Henry Bloch.
- It takes about two minutes to sell a painting in auction.
You do it by telephone
and she said do you want to bid?
I said okay, I'll bid so much.
Do you want to bid?
I said I just did bid.
She said yeah but somebody's bid after you.
She kept saying do you want to bid, you want to bid,
you want to bid?
I said yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
And I finally bought it.
And that was the last one I ever bid on myself.
- I think what stands out is the monumentality,
the solidity of the figure.
He's almost sculptural to me.
He feels isolated in space and in time
and yet there's a humanity to him.
There's a realism to him.
We don't think he's a gentleman that we see
in a French salon.
He's not working in a field and yet you feel
the weight of a worker, of somebody who's lived,
you feel that inner gaze and that self reflection.
- Many many years ago, my wife and I built a house
and we thought we should have some art in it.
In those days,
the Nelson sold paintings.
Ted Cole helped me find some and saw those Renoirs.
I said that's very pretty and we bought it.
Marion liked it.
- And that was in 1975 that he bought his first painting
for French Impressionists.
- People would send things to us on consignment.
I'd buy some and send some back.
It was interesting but we got a great collection.
- Well Henry bought this painting in 1992
and when Henry would buy a painting
it would come directly to Kansas City
and straight to the Nelson.
The painting's in good condition,
but it did have a discolored varnish
and grime on the surface.
So I restored the painting for Henry before it went
to his home.
I took it down to his car, it was a nice sunny day.
He had driven in this little sports car
and he had the top down and he says,
"Oh, just slide it behind my seat."
And I go, "Oh Henry, are you sure you want it there?"
He said, "Oh, I'm not going very far."
So I put the Cezanne in this convertible sports car,
sticking out in the air while he drove home
and then it would go to his home
and hang up in his living room or dining room
or wherever. (laughs)
So it was a nice intimate transition
for the building of the collection of Henry in his home.
- The fact that this painting,
which we could almost look at
as a sketch or a preparatory drawing
can stand on its own, gives it that weight to it.
It's not fast.
We feel the whole space of the figure and we also feel
that he could stand just in isolation.
He doesn't have to be with a group of figures.
- So over the years, I as the director, naturally,
worked with Henry and planted a seed.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if your collection,
this great Impressionist collection, came to the Nelson.
It would be so meaningful and all a sudden it
would be in the middle of the United States,
one of the truly great assemblies of Impressionist picture.
As we were building the Bloch building, it had no name.
One day, it was probably around 2003,
we were talking about the future and the Nelson
and this collection, and he said to me,
"You know Mark, it's just so valuable and so important.
I think the Nelson is the right home for this."
And I, of course, says oh that music to my ears,
I'm the art museum director.
I mean, this is what...
Do I hear angels singing some place up?
And he said, "What about if we name this building?"
It gets named the Bloch building and in exchange for that,
I'll give the collection.
- I mean, that's where they belong.
They've always had a good collection at the Nelson.
Now they've got a better collection.
- Changing the paintings out at Henry's house
was, I don't know, kind of like a sacred moment, right?
He'd been collecting paintings for 40 years,
and the first thing you notice when you walked in his house
was oh wow, everywhere you look,
you're in the entryway, you look off the living room,
you look off to the sitting room,
it was Cezanne, it was Van Gogh, it was Monet.
I mean, one incredible painting after another.
- Henry and Mrs. Bloch, they were the care takers
of those paintings.
I mean, they are part of the their family
and they do have a life of their own.
They took on the responsibility of owning them,
looking after them, putting them in beautiful frames,
and now transferring that to the Nelson
and really making the paintings available to people
all over the world.
- We planned it out very well.
We had visited Mr. Bloch's home in advance
and measured the pieces so that we could prepare
packing materials and bring them to his home.
- So you'd take them down off the wall,
you'll pull off the wires and the lamp,
wrap it up and carefully take them away.
- Some of the objects were super sensitive for handling.
They don't move very often so you work with an conservator
to make sure that all the proper materials
and handling techniques are applied.
You always hope for things like this.
You really anticipate someone as magnanimous
as Mr. Bloch would give a gift like this.
So you plan in advance because you have to accommodate
works to come off site, they're off view,
and place them somewhere secure.
So you're always thinking about when they pull the trigger,
how much do I need to do this.
It's usually anywhere from three to ten years
in the making.
- With these paintings, in fact,
the decision had been made the paintings should go
to the Nelson and what does the collection itself need,
what does the Nelson need in order to prepare
both of those for the integration of the collection
at the Nelson?
As a conservator, our job is to really understand
how the artist built up the painting
and also the condition of the work.
One of the tools that we used
is a good binocular microscope
and what that means is we're looking through both,
with both of our eyes, so we see the three dimensions
of the surface.
You know, when you look at the Van Gogh, for instance,
with all the heavy paint work,
it's like being in an airplane flying over a mountain.
- What is more popular than Impressionist
and post Impressionist painting?
All around the world, doesn't matter where you go,
this is the most popular.
It seems to be the most appreciated generally assessable
If you ever heard of one artist, you've probably heard of
Monet or Van Gogh.
- What makes Van Gogh Van Gogh?
That's a really great question.
I think that we see an artist who's really sensitive
and feeling and you feel some of what's going on
in his life in a lot of his work.
And the period that he painted the Restaurant Rispal
is a dramatic shift from his earlier career
that we see with him painting in Newnan and in Holland.
That palette is so dark and moody.
So different in sensibility than when he gets to Paris.
The palette brightens.
The climate, of course, if very different than Holland.
It's wet and rainy there and it's much brighter and sunnier.
So I think that's definitely a marker that you
really feel him as an artist,
his personal biography in his works.
- Of course I heard about Impressionist paintings.
That sounded good and I knew to collect,
they have to be in good condition.
If they're not good condition you want to stay away from it.
- He was not someone looking for a bargain.
I mean, obviously he's thinking about how much things cost,
but he did not want to buy a painting that had
bad condition problems because it was less expensive.
Always was interested in good condition.
- Whatever you buy like that,
all it'll do is get more valuable.
If you buy cheap things, they're gonna stay cheap.
- If one of Henry's paintings arrived and we examine it
I would assess it, talk to Henry about what it needs,
he would agree, and then I would do a thorough examination,
which includes a written report articulating the condition
of the work.
When we're cleaning a painting,
there can be grime on the surface, dirt.
When you think of paintings that are over 100 years old
in homes at that time,
they lit with kerosine lighting.
They burned coal.
They burned fire places and all of that
dirt would get on a painting in a home.
And so we have different soaks, surfactants,
to dissolve what we want to remove without hurting
the paint underneath, so there's a lot of chemistry there.
A painting with all these different colors
mixed up by an artist over 100 years ago
the different areas of the painting behave differently.
And so, you know, you have one approach that's working well
in one area and then suddenly it's not gonna work
in another area.
You inch out of that and figure out what to do about that.
Even the process of deterioration are chemical processes
and so understanding how that works
we could reach in and try to slow that down
or arrest deterioration using the materials that we have.
- They're not as static as you think they might be
because you do have to pay attention to them
and take care of them.
I think that one of the most interesting things about
Mr. Bloch's paintings are all of the labels
on the backs of them.
- They ought to show the back of some of them,
where they've been exhibited.
They're just full of exhibited, this was exhibited in China,
San Francisco, so on.
- When you lend pieces to exhibitions,
or an auction house has a piece,
they put labels on the backs.
It might say what exhibition it was in and what date.
And so you get this amazing history, documented literally,
on the back boards on the paintings,
and it's a beautiful thing,
fascinating thing that you don't see
when it's hanging on the wall.
- Every work of art has an interesting past.
We document the journey of every work of art
and it really is a living history.
- What Henry gave us with his 29 objects that we have here
in the galleries really was a once in a lifetime gift.
So, what we wanted to put in place
was technology that could serve the stories behind
those objects, why he chose them,
why they're important, why that artist is important,
why this particular object is that that artist created
All of that needs some sort of connecting technology,
story telling, in order for people to understand
the importance of those things.
That's why we wanted to do our best effort
in having a home for these objects.
- When museums plan for renovations,
they often start with their collection
and then they think about the architecture
and the space and they try to build affinities
between the collection, how they intend to display it,
and then the physical space in which it is displayed
and then also you think about the ways in which
you can tell the most important stories to visitors
in a variety of ways.
- It was very clear the Nelson needed to remodel
a suite of rooms in order to gain more wall space
but also to improve the technologies of display
to bring them up to date.
So Henry not only gave the collection,
but his foundation gave over 11 million dollars.
- You know, Henry had very specific goals.
He wanted to make the art available to the city
that he loved and to the people that he loved.
- Most collectors say I want this to be a monument to me,
therefore it has to be a separate room, a separate place
and so forth.
Henry said no, mix it in, this makes sense, I understand
why you're doing this.
- That was his vision.
That was his idea.
That's why he brought all these great folks together
- The design and the construction of the Bloch galleries
was a two and a half year process that began
in the summer of 2014.
It's a extremely rewarding experience to take a building
that has great bones and build a new building
essentially within it,
creating a high performance art environment.
- The painting, I think, stands out amongst a whole group
of fabulous works in the Bloch collection.
I think the scale of it is both intimate
and has a big presence.
When you see a reproduction, you might see it's much
smaller than it is and then when you come to it
you just feel, like you can enter that scene
and be part of it.
- The project of this size really flows seamlessly
through flawless planning.
A little nerveracking at times lowering a 12 by 22
foot wall literally off the substructure
and keeping it intact with no damage.
- I think another thing that was a challenge
was that we were able to accomplish this project
and keep the museum open.
That meant galleries that are adjacent to the work area
had to keep life safety systems up and running
operational and that was not a small feat.
- In the study we probably looked at 30 or 40 or 50
different plan layouts for the galleries,
all based on diagonal views and what the user experience
was gonna be like.
All of those little bits of details.
The type of flooring they put in, how soft the cushions are,
the beautiful colors that were chosen.
The museum goes through a lot of trouble
to make sure that the visitor experience is welcoming
and friendly, that there are surprises every now and then
that delight you.
All of that, we think, is the best home for these amazing
objects to live in and that people will be interested in
coming back time and time again.
- We've always had our classic galleries with objects
and labels and text panels.
We, of course, are always trying to better those things.
The technology is bringing kind of a brave new world
to the museum visitor's experience.
In creating new finished floors, we take the existing slab
down to the structural slab, but what that allows us to do
is then incorporate raceway beneath the floor
so that the museum staff, as technology evolves,
they're able to tap into that raceway.
- The favorite thing for me was just getting those
foundational systems in place because there are lots
of stories here at the museum and we want to do something
more than just an audio stop or just a label
to be able to tell those stories.
In the details interactive we put a back end
content management system on it
and we'll be able to spin that up in other galleries
around the museum.
Same thing with the gallery plus.
We spent a couple of months with our architects
getting CAD drawings, sent them off to Apple.
Appel turned them into a GeoJSON format.
We then had to walk every square foot of the museum
mapping all of that so that when you have your iPhone
in the gallery it knows where you're standing
in the gallery.
If you're in front of a work of art or walking through
a doorway and that's been a real technical challenge
to get working but we're so glad it's in place now
and we're set up for the future.
- And then when he saw the installation,
he said, oh they looks, you know Henry can get a little
dramatic, he'll wave his hand and said they look so much
better over here than they ever did in my house.
And then, they looked really good at his house.
- Oh I think they've done a magnificent job.
It's one of the best museums in the United States.
- In many ways, I think the Nelson has shown itself
in the last many years to be a leader among museums
in terms of quality, innovation, and that's what counts.
- What I love about this painting is the informality.
When we might look at this painting we might see people
who seem overdressed because that was what the costume
or the fashion was of the day was long dresses for women,
all with long coats and things like that, men in suits,
but that was their casual dress
and the fact that they're having this croquet party,
you feel the wind blowing, the woman holding her hat
onto her head, the dogs playing off to the left hand
side of the painting.
You feel that informality of friends together.
- The museum of old was maybe a place that,
I'll admit, we were a bit snobby.
And we're trying to change that completely now
and make sure that the museum is a place that anybody
in Kansas City or the world can come to and get something
out of the art.
That they leave a better person than when they came in.
- [Man] Welcome to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art
and I'm delighted that you're visiting
and using detour app.
I invite you to hear exciting insights on the works
of arts from amazing benefactor, Henry Bloch,
from fascinating curators and personalities.
Tap the explore button to get started.
Discover the museum at your own pace, by yourself
or with family and friends.
Make it your museum.
- One time I had it down here on the first floor
and I didn't like it.
So I put it upstairs and then the Sotheby's came
to my house and I took him up there to show him
that painting and it was up there, and I said,
"You know, I just don't like this painting.
Supposed to be a very fine painting but I don't like it."
And he said, "You know what's wrong with it?
It needs a different, completely different kind of a frame."
We put this new frame on that he helped me pick out
and now it's my favorite painting, my very favorite.
- Framing is so important to the success of an art work.
It's a very important conversation that if it's wrong,
it goes really wrong but once it's right,
they just sing together and this pairing sings.
(plucky jazz music)
- You know one of our prime rules was to not
have technology be front ant and center.
We would be very sad if people came in the galleries
and they saw people looking at their phones
instead of the works of art.
So we wanted to make sure that the technology
was in the background, it was intuitive,
it was hidden, magical even.
But the main reason it exists is to tell
some kind of story about the art.
The stuff you can see are a couple of big interactives
that people walk up to, touch screens that do a couple
of different things.
One of them is a create your own modernist work of art.
And then on some of the benches around here you'll see some
iPads that are labeled Gallery plus
and these provide what I'll call contextual information
for objects around that iPad.
- We have this thing called the detour app.
It knows where you are.
It uses geo fencing.
It can tell where you are
and tells you there's audio content available.
- [Woman] Alfred Sisley painted this river scene
where he lived in the village of Saint-Memmes,
two hours outside of Paris.
The title suggests that the subject of this work
is the lock, the point at which boats had to slow
as they approached Paris.
The mechanism that controls the lock is inside
a little shed with a blue roof.
- And it really is reflective of what's going on in France
at the time, this increasing foot print of industry
in the mid 1880s.
The quivering brush work is just picking up all the aspects
of light that are reflecting off the water.
It's just a wonderful composition.
(upbeat jazz music)
- By taking a tour, you're context can be expanded
a little bit more.
You'll spend a little bit more time looking at that.
You'll learn the artist's name.
You'll look for other objects with stories around them
and that's what we think gets people excited about
the art museum.
- You know what's pretty impressive
right off the bat it grabs you.
So I'm pretty excited to check the rest of it out.
- Yeah, this is the first time I've been here.
It's a terrific museum.
We're really enjoying it.
First of all, it's great that it's free.
We made a donation but it's wonderful to have
art of this quality so assessable to the public.
- I've been really impressed by his generous
and how he just donate all his collection
to the Nelson Art Museum.
This is awesome.
- I loved it.
I thought it was beautiful and very interesting
and the whole story about the Blochs donating
their 29 paintings to gallery and I really enjoyed it.
- The Bloch Galleries is a Kansas City love story
if there ever was one.
He didn't probably realize when he started buying a single
painting that he would, in fact,
come 40 years later to transform the Nelson Atkins Museum
but he did
and it's exciting to see people on those
life journeys and how they can transform an important
institution in their community.
- I find this painting evocative of different moods
and different feelings.
I think the glow of the afternoon light on the buildings
and on the snow gives it a warmth,
and yet you know it must have been quite cool
because there's snow on the ground.
But the artists all ran outside to capture
the effects of snow on the landscape.
- Here, you've had in your house,
like most of us would have all the stuff you see
around this house,
except here were these great works of art by Gauguin
and Monet and Van Gogh and you know,
these are on your wall
and he really loves this environment.
This is a man who really liked having these pictures.
He thought these pictures were wonderful,
they're a part of his life and a part of who he is.
Well, how if I give them to the museum,
I'm not gonna have anything on my walls.
And everybody says, we gotta figure something out
that you can give them to the museum and enjoy them.
How can you do this?
Well, the solution was a brilliant solution
from Steve Waterman.
- Steve, Steve, oh there you are!
This guy's a genius!
He showed that I can have my cake and eat it too.
- So when Henry decided okay, you guys can take my paintings
but what are we gonna do?
Cause I can't live without my paintings.
We came to this idea that we would make
reproductions, which really in today's world,
technology, cameras, it's really not that hard to
take good images of art work and reproduce them really well.
We basically made sure we had the best photographic image
that we could.
We printed it on a paper that had kind of a canvas like
texture to get a little bit more of a real painting feel
and then went online and found some sort of nifty
frames, bought them, and over time, just kept
changing them, changing them in the house.
Probably like five a week.
It was really a fun process to help Henry have
his house (voice drowned out by music).
- One of the other things that's so exciting
is that with the Bloch collection
and the Nelson Atkins collection, we can bring actually
a group of paintings, of snow scenes, by Monet
and also by Sisley, and show that this was a subject
that the Impressionists were quite interested in
because of the effect of light on snow,
on different kinds of surfaces and different kinds of
atmospheres and of course they were very interested
in capturing the effect of light and shadow
in the world around us, especially in the natural world.
- And I asked him, now once in a while I shut a curtain
because I don't want the sun shining on these paintings
and I said do I need to do that now with these new ones
He said no, (laughs),
if it does I'll just give you another one.
- [Man] I'll just bring you another one.
- So I was gonna see if any of you have paintings that
you even think about, you could, Steve could make one
for you that probably looks better than what you have now
and have the pleasure of giving it to the Nelson.
- Once he was satisfied with the reproductions on his wall,
perfectly fine for him,
I can't tell you how relieved I am, I don't have to worry
about security, I don't have to have a guard out
in front of my house all the time.
He said I just feel so much more relaxed about this.
- To be honest with you, this is better, the reproductions.
You don't worry about them.
I carried insurance, which was very expensive.
I worried when we went on vacation.
This way people in the community could enjoy them
and it helps the Nelson.
Another thing I felt our paintings would be happier
at the Nelson cause they have a lot of the same painters
that we have.
Now they'll all be together.
They won't be lonely anymore.
I think it's the best thing I could have done.