Former Mint Museum chief Milton Bloch dies

Prematurely gray, natty in a knotted tie and sport jacket, Milton Bloch, seated in his office at the Mint Museum, liked to explain things, spreading his hands for emphasis and smiling when he was done.

He had a passion for ideas and bringing projects to life and with those gifts - plus some 70-hour work weeks - the former director transformed Charlotte's art museum from a sleepy institution to a community and regional player during a 14-year tenure beginning in 1976.

Bloch left in 1990 for the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, a prestigious museum and school in Utica, N.Y. where he stayed for 18 years. He and his wife, Mary Karen Vellines , a college administrator, retired to Charlotte two years ago. On Tuesday, Bloch died at home of cancer. He would have been 75 on April 1.

"He did so many things," said Zach Smith, who as president of the Mint board worked with Bloch. "He could balance the budget and present fabulous art at the same time. These are talents you don't often find in the same person."

Under Bloch, the Mint's budget increased from $380,000 to $2.5 million and the staff from 17 to 50. With a $6 million addition to the Mint's home in the Eastover neighborhood off Randolph Road, the museum tripled in size from 17,000 to 76,000 square feet, giving it much needed space to exhibit and store art.

In 1980, the Mint mounted an exhibit on Charlotte native Romare Bearden, gaining national attention. In 1988, it hosted "Ramesses the Great," a show of ancient Egyptian artifacts from Cairo featuring a colossal statue of the pharaoh. It attracted 634,000 visitors, an unequaled record.

Jerald Melberg, a Charlotte gallery owner and former Mint curator, said Bloch was loved and respected by his staff.

"He knew how to put you back on a path, with you walking away feeling really good about yourself and about him," he said. "He hired good people behind him and we moved forward and got some things done."

Rivers and De Niro

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., Bloch had a degree in design from Pratt Institute and a master's from the University of Florida. When he arrived at the Mint from a museum in New Jersey, he found it had no written policies on important matters such as acquiring art. He set about creating them.

He worked with the Women's Auxiliary on expanding the collection so the museum had a work by each of the eight members of the Ash Can School, an early 20th century group of American painters.

Wanting to energize the Mint by producing more of its own shows, he hired Melberg, then an untested 29-year-old. "We didn't have big budgets - $6,000 for a 12 or 14 week show - but we'd find a way," he said.

Exhibits on painters Larry Rivers, Robert De Niro Sr. and sculptor Seymour Lipton followed. The culmination came with the Bearden show, one that re-introduced the African-American master to his hometown and traveled to several venues.

In Utica, Bloch led the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute through its largest period of growth. Several major projects doubled the size of the campus, including construction of an education wing that included an underground art storage facility. He also promoted renewal of the Institute's neighborhood.

In a statement, president Anthony Spiridigloizzi, who served as vice president with Bloch, said, "He was more than a 'boss.' He was a mentor and an inspiration. He treated everyone with respect; there were no ideas that he didn't consider valuable."

Magic and poetry

Not all of Bloch's endeavors in Charlotte met with success. He hoped "Ramesses" would make the Mint a stop for big touring exhibits. It didn't. And the increased attendance forecasted didn't follow, largely because the Mint closed for a year total to install and take down the show.

Bloch also resisted an idea pushed in art circles that the Mint should have an uptown presence. In 2010, the Mint finally got a new home in Levine Center for the Arts on South Tryon Street.

Bloch was known for his candor and a reserved public persona. Behind the scenes, he wrote poetry, made art and expertly cooked Chinese food.

To his grandchildren, he was known as "Magic" for the tricks he performed at gatherings. An amateur magician since high school, he was a member of the International Brotherhood of Musicians.

In 2003, he exhibited masks at a Charlotte gallery created from discarded objects he collected, noting to a reporter, "My wife says I have one of the world's larger collections of rust."

He also said he kept up with the Mint. "I cheer when they have a success and worry when they don't. It still is very much on my mind and in my heart."

Melberg visited Bloch several weeks before he died.

"I'm so angry and I'm so sad," he told his friend and mentor.

"I'm not," Bloch replied. "I've had a great run."