Museum Spotlight: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

FRAME member located in Kansas City, Missouri

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art arose from the instincts and ambitions of two private individuals who shared the dream of providing a public art museum for Kansas City and the surrounding region.

William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star, was convinced that for a city to be truly civilized, art and culture were necessities. When he died in 1915, the bulk of his estate was used to establish the William Rockhill Nelson Trust, the income from which was to be used for “the purchase of works of fine arts such as paintings, engravings, sculptures, tapestries, and rare books…which will contribute to the delectation and enjoyment of the public generally.”

Kansas City school teacher Mary McAfee Atkins had similar aspirations for her city. Although relatively unknown, she provided the city with approximately one-third of her million-dollar estate “for the purchase of necessary ground in Kansas City, Missouri, and the creation of a building to be maintained and used as a Museum of Fine Arts for the use and benefit of the public.”

The Nelson estate was combined with Mary Atkins’ legacy to build a 232,000-square-foot art museum for the people of Kansas City. The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and the Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts opened to the public on Dec. 11, 1933.

Photo by Beth Byers,

Unlike most major museums, the Nelson-Atkins holdings were not developed from existing collections of art.  With passionate leadership and the assets of the Nelson Trust, however, the Museum was able to quickly build a strong and expansive collection that has continued to grow ever since. The Museum’s early hiring of Chinese art expert Laurence Sickman, first as curator and later as Director, led to the flourishing of a vibrant Asian art collection. The gifted connoisseurship of the collection has been widely recognized. The Chinese galleries, once noted as “one of the finest single curatorial achievements in museum history,” along with holdings from Japan, India, Iran, Indonesia, Korea, and Southeast and South Asia, comprise one of the most important collections of its kind in the United States to date.

In the early 1980s, the Museum set about building its collection of modern sculpture. In 1986, the Hall Family Foundation, led by Foundation Chairman and Museum Trustee Donald J. Hall, purchased 50 works by Henry Moore which were loaned and later gifted to the Nelson-Atkins. That collection became the foundation for the Kansas City Sculpture Park, which opened in 1989, and was re-named The Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park in 2013.

The 22-acre park is now home to masterpieces and monumental sculptures from an array of modern and contemporary artists, including Shuttlecocks (1994) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, which have become Kansas City icons, Roxy Paine’s Ferment (2010), and Robert Morris’s Glass Labyrinth (2014).

Photo by Michelle Miller, "Shuttle Cocks" Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

In April 2001, excavation began on the first expansion in the museum’s history.  The Bloch Building, named in honor of Henry W. Bloch, Chairman of the Nelson-Atkins’ Board of Trustees, and his wife, Marion, opened in June of 2007.  Designed by acclaimed architect Steven Holl, the Bloch Building celebrates the vision of the new Nelson-Atkins and supports its aim to enhance every facet of its programming in the new millennium. The addition expanded the Museum by 71 percent, from its present 234,000 square feet to some 394,000 square feet. It provided more than 160,000 square feet of new galleries, offices, and other facilities, including a tranquil court dedicated to the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi.

In 2015, the museum announced an $11.7 million renovation that will showcase the internationally celebrated Marion and Henry Bloch collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The collection was bequeathed to the museum in 2010 under the leadership of Director Emeritus Marc F. Wilson.

Julián Zugazagoitia began his tenure in September of 2010 as the fifth Director & CEO of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. An international scholar, museum director and consultant, he served previously as the Director/CEO of El Museo del Barrio in New York.

Recognized internationally as one of the finest general art museums in the United States, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art now houses a collection of more than 35,000 works of art, from antiquity to the present. The encyclopedic collection represents a pinnacle of artistic achievement and serves as evidence of humankind’s history, religions, philosophies, aspirations, and daily lives.

Preeminent among these are the Asian art collections, particularly in the area of Chinese art, in which the Museum’s holdings are among the most important in the world. The Nelson-Atkins also has an especially strong collection of European paintings and of 20th-century sculpture, which includes the largest group of monumental bronzes in the United States by Henry Moore. In 2006, the Museum also acquired one of the most important private collections of American photography, the Hallmark Photographic Collection. Newly installed American galleries and new American Indian galleries were unveiled in 2009, and newly renovated Ancient galleries opened in 2010.