If you live in Kansas City, Missouri, and have never visited the Nelson Art Gallery, it’s well worth a visit if you’re an art lover. And even if you aren’t, you’ll find something there worth your time to appreciate.
Two people who had a passion for fine art and wanted a gallery in Kansas City were Rockhill Nelson and Mary McAfee Atkins. Interestingly, these two people never had the opportunity to meet in person.
Years after Nelson and Atkins passed away, their dream was realized when trust funds from their estates were used to create a museum. It would take two decades of organizational planning to churn their dream into something very real.
Atkins was a widow of a real estate dealer. For the remainder of her life, she visited galleries in Europe which brought her a lot of inspiration. When she passed in 1911, around $300,000 was left to build a gallery.
Nelson was the owner and editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, The Kansas City Star and The Kansas City Times. He also went to Europe in 1896. He believed that the city should have an art collection to help promote the city. Nelson set out to buy beautiful reproductions of famous paintings and put them in a gallery collection. In 1915 when he passed away, he had a trust fund of about $11 million which could be used to acquire more art. His family members and family lawyer also left funds in their wills to contribute to a museum that would contain Nelson’s art collection. Nelson’s 20-acre Oak Hall estate was left for a gallery site by his daughter Laura Nelson Kirkwood and her husband Irwin. In 1927, the estate turned city property.
Atkins’ trustees were planning on building a gallery on the Liberty Memorial mall, but it was learned from the Nelson and Kirkwood trustees of their plan, so they all decided to work together to build a much larger gallery.
Irwin Kirkwood’s will had provided instructions as to the type of design to be used for the gallery—neo-classical. The gallery’s design was provided by a well-respected architectural firm known as Wight & Wight. This firm collected ideas from their studies in Greece and Italy, and inspiration from the Cleveland Museum of Art of the neoclassical design.
The building of the museum and gallery would cost $2.75 million. The Atkins Museum would be located in the east wing and the Nelson Gallery of Art would be in the west wing. After the exterior was completed, another year would pass to finish the interior plus collect the art and install it. Even thoughtful landscaping was put into place to draw in visitors as they entered the museum. There were 200 added trees planted also.
On December 11, 1933, the museum and art gallery opened to the public. Once opened, over 1,000 visitors a day were attending in the first year. Attention to every detail inside and outside was commanding to fulfill the dreams of Nelson and Atkins.
In time, an additional building was added in honor of Henry W. and Marion H. Bloch as well as some renovation to the existing museum.
As stated earlier, if you have not been to the museum and gallery, it’s worth the time. It’s a beautiful and most interesting museum and gallery to walk through. If you enjoy and appreciate art, you won't be disappointed.