History of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Up for a game of badminton? | Photo by @shotsbyrforee

It’s a well known fact that the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is one of Kansas City’s gems. From family outings to aesthetic pictures with its shuttlecocks, it has remained a staple spot to visit if you’re looking to relax + unwind. So, step onto the court as we swing some of its history your way.

William Rockhill Nelson + Mary McAfee Atkins were two strangers who had never met, but they shared one thing in common — a goal for Kansas City to have its own public art museum. Nelson, the founder of The Kansas City Star, was inspired by the art in Europe during his trip in 1896. He bought fine reproductions of famous paintings and even left a trust fund of $11 million to purchase more art after his death. Atkins was similarly moved with art during her trips to Europe and left ~$300,000 of her estate for the construction of a museum. 

The funds left by Nelson and Atkins joined forces to finally build their dream, with Nelson’s estate + Atkins’ trustees pooling their resources to achieve a grander gallery. Prominent architectural firm Wight & Wight designed the museum, with doors opening to the public on Dec. 11, 1933. The east wing was initially named the Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, and the rest of the building was called the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art. In preparation of its 50th anniversary celebration, the public art museum’s name was renamed to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and has remained so ever since.

In July 1994, four shuttlecocks were donated to the museum from the Sosland family. Three of the shuttlecocks are sprawled along the front of the museum, with the fourth one in the back. This placement was intentionally chosen to mimic the museum building as a badminton net and the shuttlecocks as… well shuttlecocks

Local funding for the public art museum did not stop with just Nelson and Atkins. In 2007, Marion and Henry Bloch donated $12 million to expand the Nelson-Atkins with the addition of the Bloch building. The building was designed by Steven Holl and received critical acclaim, including its No. 1 ranking in Times’ “The 10 Best (New and Upcoming) Architectural Marvels.

The Nelson-Atkins has strived to practice accessibility, with free admission for the past 25 years as part of the Strategic Plan adopted in 1998. Diversity has also been on the forefront of its mission, which can be seen by the museum’s practice of “collecting works of art with an expanded inclusivity, stronger partnerships with community organizations, and better listening to community members.” Today, the museum holds cultural festivals, such as Passport to India + Día de los Muertos, to celebrate the diversity of art in cultures around the world