Nelson-Atkins Museum, The Big Collection in the Midwest

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…

About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage. When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city. With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s. The result will be a book with a video component. We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url will point to the latest updates on this weblog.


Just got back from KC. I love that museum! That Bloch building is a spectacular addition to an already impressive museum. KC is a great city.

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