The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art arose from the aspirations of two individuals who likely never met, who had vastly different lives, but who each imagined a public art museum for Kansas City and the surrounding region. Both died more than 100 years ago and neither saw the museum become a reality. William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star and a real estate developer, was convinced that for a city to be truly civilized, art and culture were necessities. When he died in 1915, at the direction of his will the bulk of his estate was used to establish the William Rockhill Nelson Trust for the purchase of works of art. Mary McAfee Atkins, a retired school teacher and real estate investor, was inspired by the art she encountered on trips to Europe. When she died in 1911, she provided the city with approximately one-third of her estate to purchase land for a public art museum. The two estates were combined to build an art museum for the people of Kansas City. Buying art in the 1930s for the new galleries fell to the museum’s earliest curators and trustees, working with advisors and dealers. Visitors can experience those Depression-era decisions in the exhibition Origins: Collecting to Create the Nelson-Atkins, on view Aug. 14, 2021 to March 6, 2022. The museum opened to the public Dec. 11, 1933, with lines that stretched to the street. The east wing was named the Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, and the remainder of the building was called the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art. In 1982, in preparation for the museum’s 50th anniversary the following year, the institution became known as The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. During the first half of 2021, the Board of Trustees explored the museum’s earlier history and the history of its founders, as well as its name. In Summer 2021, the Trustees voted to retain the name and at the same time, to ensure and demonstrate that the Nelson-Atkins is a model for inclusivity. Since opening the doors on December 11, 1933, the Nelson-Atkins has welcomed all people, or in the words spoken that day, “all groups, all races, all creeds.” Toward further inclusivity, the Nelson-Atkins has offered free admission to all people for nearly 25 years. Trustees agreed to formally make admission free as part of the Strategic Plan adopted in 1998, and that is considered a core mission. With intention and planning, the Nelson-Atkins has deepened its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. That includes collecting works of art with an expanded inclusivity, stronger partnerships with community organizations, and better listening to community members, partly through soliciting memories and impressions about the museum. During the past year and a half, the museum also has held conversations and training for staff members, volunteers, and trustees on the topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Now nearly nine decades have passed since the museum opened to the public. Because of the care and support of many people through the years, the Nelson-Atkins is home to more than 42,000 works of art, with a campus that includes the original Nelson-Atkins Building, the Bloch Building expansion that opened in 2007, and the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park.

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