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Marc Wilson to Retire: Bloch Building Cements His Legacy

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Marc Wilson in the acclaimed 2007 Bloch Building, designed by Steven Holl

With Philippe de Montebello gone from the Met, I believe it’s safe to say that Marc Wilson, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, is currently the longest-serving head of a major encyclopedic museum in this country. And he served, if not with equal fame, with comparable distinction. He has just announced that he will retire, after 28 years in his post, on June 1, 2010.

The museum he oversees is now perhaps best known for a relatively recent development in Marc’s long tenure—the 2007 opening of Steven Holl‘s bravura new building that I finally managed to visit this month during my Midwestern trip.

As today’s press release suggests, the client, Wilson, was as much responsible for this success as the architect:

The Bloch Building would not be as spectacular as it is without Marc’s constant attention and his oversight of every detail of the project,” said Estelle Sosland, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “The results, deserving of all accolades, was due to Marc’s creativity and tenacity.” Henry Bloch, a former chair of the Board, said Wilson could easily visualize the building as it began to take shape, even though the design was complex and the building was difficult to construct.

Everyone is awed by the iconic nighttime view of the glass “lenses.” (The museum made sure to order lots of extra panels, because the glass will not later be replaceable.)

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But what most astonished me was how complementary (despite being so radically different) this ultra-modern addition was to the museum’s traditional, monumental temple to art:

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(It was raining when I took this.)

Its interiors, with so many complex, intersecting angles, took the risk of excessive intricacy, yet pulled it off with geometric elan:

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Even the ceiling in the library was bent and shaped:

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But what most impresses me about Marc is that, unlike so many museum directors who get bogged down in administration, capital projects and fundraising, he remained a curator and serious scholar of Chinese art. Here he is with students from the University of Kansas, helping to assemble the current exhibition of Chinese paintings from the collection, Sense and Sensibilities, which I had the recent pleasure of perusing:

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I also got to see the museum’s new installation of its rebuilt and expanded American art galleries. I’ll have more to say on that later, probably after I get to compare and contrast that rehang with the American art galleries at another Midwestern institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, where (if all goes according to plan) I’ll be covering next month’s opening of that museum’s new Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano.

But what’s this I hear about Marc’s future plans? According to the press release:

Wilson plans to remain active in his profession, perhaps pursue an entrepreneurial adventure, and tend to his farm in Weston, Mo.

“Entrepreneurial adventure”? When I asked Randy Attwood, the museum’s media relations officer, what this might be, I became even more perplexed:

He did mention that with the economic downturn there were fewer billionaires in the world and perhaps he could venture forth into that territory.

I forgot to inquire about what exactly Marc farms. For a more thorough accounting of Wilson’s myriad accomplishments, read today’s appraisal by Alice Thorson in the Kansas City Star.

an ArtsJournal blog