I suppose I didn’t know what to expect from an art museum in Kansas City. I didn’t really know what to expect from Kansas City. I had driven by it and seen the skyline before, but that hadn’t provided much of a flavor for the place.
That all changed with a day-trip by plane from Dallas. Arriving a full hour and a half before the Nelson-Atkins museum opened, a quick stop at the monumental Kansas City Union Station was in order. I’d seen images of the building on old postcards and in books, but its hard to tell the scale from those. The station was much larger than what I had presumed, and that theme would carry on throughout the day, both in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts hall being constructed downtown and in the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum.
Approaching the museum, oversized badminton birdie’s, or more properly shuttlecocks, by Claus Oldenburg are seen on the great lawn. Another sits closer to the façade. I was proud of myself for correctly identifying these as the work of Oldenburg, someone who didn’t work in the 19th Century.
Inside, two comments carry for the theme of this post. One was from a docent who commented that she thought the museum was in the top if museums in the US were to be ranked. Perhaps even in the top five. Top five? A list quickly went through my head. Met, Boston, Philadelphia, National Gallery, Chicago, Brooklyn, Cleveland—that’s seven right there. Perhaps if we were to come up with a list of comprehensive museums, Philadelphia and Chicago might prove weak in some areas—Nelson-Atkins might make it to a higher ranking. That’s not so important, however. The fact is there was more here than could be seen in a day, plus a restaurant with architecture so alluring time had to be allotted for that!
The second comment was with a fellow from Boston we met in the Asian galleries. Like us, he had flown in for the day. “Whoa, why is this here?” This could be a common reaction, except he seems to have known about the great collection of Asian art before he left Logan Airport. He also mentioned Cleveland, the home of another great collection of Chinese and Asian art—and apparently the museum after which Nelson-Atkins was modeled. Both museums are fronted by Rodin’s The Thinker. The exception is the cast in Cleveland was badly damaged by vandalism in 1970 and is displayed in an unrepaired state. The perpetrators were a faction of the Weathermen, possibly the same individuals later killed in a bomb-making accident in New York City.
The Nelson-Atkins museum was built on the grounds of Oak Hall, the home of Kansas City Star publisher William Rockhill Nelson. When he died in 1915, his will provided that upon the deaths of his wife and daughter, the proceeds of his entire estate would go to purchasing artwork for public enjoyment. Around the same time, former schoolteacher Mary Atkins (widow of real estate speculator James Burris Atkins) bequeathed $300,000 to establish an art museum. The amount grew to $700,000 by 1927. Original plans called for two art museums based on the separate bequests. However, it was decided to combine the two bequests along with smaller bequests from others to make a single major art institution.
The original dimensions of the six-story building were 390 feet (120 m) long by 175 feet (53 m) wide–larger than the original Cleveland Museum of Art.
There’s an inscription on the museum that reads “The soul has greater need of the ideal than the real. It is by the real that we exist. It is by the ideal that we live.” It seemed a bit like John Galt was speaking. It also seems to be a statement discordant with most modern art. It’s a big statement to make, but big seems to be the norm around here.
When someone comes into your town from Texas and says it’s big, it’s big.
Stay tuned for some observations on favorite works of art inside the museum…