KEARNEY — The northern gateway to Downtown Kearney is set to get a brand-new welcome sign with the Museum of Nebraska Art planning a 16,000-square-foot expansion along Central Avenue.
MONA announced Wednesday afternoon that it is forming plans to expand the museum and renovate 25,000 square feet of its existing space. The plan is accompanied by a $20 million capital campaign.
While museum leaders see the project, which is five years in the making, as a leap forward for MONA, they also see it as a big step for Downtown Kearney.
“I think that this can be an anchor for revitalizing Central Avenue,” Marilyn Hadley, president of MONA’s board of directors, said in an interview with the Hub. “We’re not the only cultural group or business that’s revitalizing.”
She mentioned just a block away, The World Theatre has undergone steps toward refurbishing its space with new seating upstairs and building a candy shop in the space next door.
“I think we’re part of this enhancement of Central Avenue, and it’s important to us that we have the addition face Central Avenue as an entry into the downtown,” Hadley said.
Though still in the planning stages, MONA plans to add several new features to its building:
- A modern gallery experience;
- A community studio that functions as a makerspace, stocked with supplies and tools for visitors to use;
- An enlarged sculpture garden outside that will be open to the public;
- New amenities including a café/coffee bar;
- Community space in and around the exterior of the museum;
- Inside event space that can accommodate up to 275 people, with ample storage and a kitchen
- Flexible spaces for MONA to host large programs, performances, lectures, events and special activities.
Executive Director Nicole Herden told the Hub she sees a variety of new programming opportunities available in the new space. These plans still are preliminary, but she suggested Toddler Tuesday programs or family nights where visitors perhaps can play board games and chat with a featured artist.
“What’s really special about this opportunity here at MONA is that we are at a milestone where not only can we adjust and be relevant to our community in creating more programming ... but we can actually change the structure of what the building looks like,” Herden said.
While more space naturally comes with the ability to host more, larger gatherings, specific types of space also bring better artistic vibes.
Herden said that MONA currently has a 700-square-foot space in the basement for an education workshop. However, additional space will allow them to bring the workshop upstairs and have more offerings.
“My vision for our community is to not have our visitors go in the basement of a museum to be inspired and create. I’m looking forward to really having an open space where any visitor of any age can tinker with objects or feel free to sketch or paint,” Herden said of the new “makerspace.”
MONA presented the preliminary plans to the Kearney Downtown Improvement Board Wednesday morning, and the next step in the process is to get city approval to rezone the space north of MONA.
Currently, a parking lot is located north of the museum. As such, it would need to be rezoned for a building.
Hadley said the plan is to move parking to the southeast corner of the block, where the sculpture garden currently sits, and wire the space to provide infrastructure for outdoor events.
MONA’s plan is not only to move the sculpture garden, but make it more accessible to the community.
“Our sculpture garden now is east of the building, enclosed by walls and locked when we’re not open,” Hadley described. “Our vision of the (new) sculpture garden is that it will be located north of the addition and be a green space for the community, for anyone who works downtown, for people who are shopping to be able to walk through this green space and enjoy the art that will be exhibited to them without any barriers.”
With more design planning and approval processes to complete, MONA does not currently have a timeline set for the addition and renovation. The capital campaign is also only in the beginning stags. However, Hadley said the board is “really excited” to expand.
Plans for this project are years in the making.
MONA was last renovated in 1993. The neoclassical building originally was a 1911 post office building, purchased in 1986 to become the museum. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Beginning in June 2019, museum leadership began working with Jon Maass, a New York-based architect, project director and owner’s representative, to undertake a comprehensive space programming process, researching and defining needs for a rejuvenated facility.
Then in June 2020, MONA began working with Mark Bacon and his Lincoln-based BVH Architecture team members, who have created a conceptual design and are creating a more detailed schematic design based on the programming plan for the museum.
In addition, a feasibility study was completed in 2018 by fundraising consulting firm Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt. The fundraising consulting firm recommended that the MONA board move forward with planning a capital campaign to raise $20 million for expansion and restoration/renovation and to create a $5 million operating endowment.
The MONA board of directors agreed with the recommendation and is in the early stages of fundraising.
“This is the type of project that is just a milestone for us,” Herden said. “And for Kearney to have this opportunity, I’m just so thrilled.”