The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is an American art museum in Kansas City, Missouri, known for its neoclassical architecture and extensive Asian art collection. In addition, the museum also has collections of European and American sculpture, decorative arts and works on paper, Egyptian art, Greek and Roman art, modern and contemporary paintings and sculpture, and the art of Africa and Oceania. The museum also houses a major collection of English pottery and another of miniature paintings.
The museum was built on the grounds of Oak Hall, the home of Kansas City Star publisher William Rockhill Nelson (1841-1915). 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 viewing.
In 1911, former schoolteacher Mary McAfee Atkins (1836-1911) bequeathed $300,000 to establish an art museum. Based on these two benefactors, this amount grew to $700,000 by 1927. Original plans suggested two art museums based on the separate estates. However, trustees of the two estates decided to combine the two bequests along with smaller bequests from others to make a single major art institution.
Design of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The building was designed by well-known Kansas City architects Wight and Wight, who also designed the entryways to the Liberty Memorial and the Kansas governor’s mansion, Cedar Crest. Ground was broken in July 1930, and the museum opened December 11, 1933. The building’s classical Beaux-Arts architecture style was modeled after the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The original building opened at a cost of $2.75 million. The dimensions of the six-story structure were 390 feet long by 175 feet wide making it larger than the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Originally, the east wing was named the Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, while the west wing was named the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art. In 1983 it was renamed the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art which combined both names.
Since William Nelson, the major contributor, donated money rather than an existing art collection, the curators were able to assemble an art collection from scratch. At the height of the Great Depression, the worldwide art market was flooded with valuable pieces of art for sale, with very few buyers. The acquisitions grew quickly and in a relatively short time, the Nelson-Atkins Museum had one of the largest art collections in the country.
The museum boasts work by famous European names such as Caravaggio, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Petrus Christus, El Greco, Giambattista Pittoni, Guercino, Alessandro Magnasco, Giuseppe Bazzani, Corrado Giaquinto, Cavaliere d’Arpino, Gaspare Traversi, Giuliano Bugiardini, Titian, Rembrandt, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and Peter Paul Rubens, as well as Impressionists Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh, among others.
The American painting collection includes the largest collection open to the public of works by Thomas Hart Benton, who lived in Kansas City. Among its collection are masterpieces by George Bellows, George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Church, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Willem de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, Agnes Martin, Bridget Riley, and Alfred Jensen.
Admission to the Museum is always free and visitors may use any of seven entrances to access the building. The main visitor’s desk is in the Bloch Building. Visit the Museum online.