Ready for Art: The 1933 Opening of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Over 20 years in the making, the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts opened its doors to the public for the first time in December 1933.

By The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, ca. December 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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A week-long schedule of events brought local and national figures, Kansas City area residents, art dealers and critics, and other museum professionals from across the U.S. and Europe to visit the "temple of art," as Museum Trustee J.C. Nichols called the museum in his dedicatory remarks.

"The Realization of a Dream" cartoon (ca. December 1933) by Kansas City StarThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

A Dream Realized

The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts was the realization of the dreams of William Rockhill Nelson and Mary McAfee Atkins. Both envisioned a world-class art museum in Kansas City as a means of enhancing the cultural life of Kansas City, their adopted hometown. Unbeknownst to each other, they each made provision in their wills to bring that vision to reality.

William Rockhill Nelson, MacDonald, Pirie, 1867-1942, between 1883 and 1915, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1841, William Rockhill Nelson practiced law and was active in Democratic party politics in his home state. He moved to Kansas City in 1880 and started the newspaper the Kansas City Star. There he pioneered the practice of investigative reporting to expose municipal corruption and used the paper as a pulpit to advocate for good government and civic improvements. A successful real estate developer and advocate of the City Beautiful Movement, he embarked on a crusade to "makeover" Kansas City. To that end, he created the neighborhood Rockhill, which was also home to his baronial estate Oak Hall. The home stood where the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art stands today.

Related to his efforts to improve Kansas City, in his will Nelson provided funds to create an art collection for the people of Kansas City; he directed that his assets be placed in a trust to be managed for the support of his wife and daughter, Ida and Laura, and to build the art collection.

Laura Nelson Kirkwood and Ida Nelson, Moffett Studio (Chicago, Ill.), 1921, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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William Rockhill Nelson’s widow Ida Houston Nelson and daughter Laura Nelson Kirkwood built on that legacy, both as trustees of his considerable business empire, which included The Kansas City Star, farms, and vast real estate holdings, and with provisions in their wills to fund the construction of a museum to provide a home for that collection.

Sadly, the two women passed away within eleven years of William Rockhill Nelson, but their combined trusts, which by late 1930 stood at $2.1 million, brought their joint vision to fruition in the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art.

Mary McAfee Atkins, between 1880 and 1911, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Mary McAfee Atkins was born in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, around 1840. She taught school in her hometown until 1878 when she married an old friend James Burris Atkins. They settled in Kansas City, where he had made his fortune in mills and speculation in downtown real estate. When he died in 1886, he left a sizable fortune and extensive property holdings.

Accounts detail Mary’s deep mourning on the loss of her husband, and she may have begun traveling to help overcome her grief. She first visited Europe in 1897 with her niece Elizabeth Jaquemot and returned on at least four more trips. As a result of her travels, she developed a deep appreciation for art.

Mary Atkins died on October 13, 1911, while visiting Colorado Springs. Soon after, the extent of her fortune, which had grown to almost $1 million thanks to her smart management of her widow’s inheritance, became known.

Mary Atkins passport, United States. Passport Bureau, May 3, 1900, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Her will set aside $300,000 of her estate to purchase land and erect a building to be used as a museum of fine arts for Kansas City. This bequest was borne of the love of art she developed on her European travels and a desire to improve her community.

The executors of Mary Atkins’s trust soon discovered, however, that though $300,000 was very generous, it was insufficient to build an art museum. Through wise investments, the trust grew to $700,000 by 1927, and at that time the trustees decided to join forces with the administrators of the estates of William Rockhill Nelson, Ida Nelson, Laura Nelson Kirkwood, and Iriwn Kirkwood to realize the dream of a first-class art museum for Kansas City.

Missouri newspaper coverage of the anticipated opening of the museum (1933)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Anticipation and Expectations

Kansas City and the
art world had watched as the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary
Atkins Museum of Fine Arts took shape. 
In the six years of planning, building, and acquiring art, the local
press kept up interest in the endeavor. When the December
opening was finally announced in September 1933, anticipation ran high.

In expectation of the high interest, the trustees and Museum Director Paul Gardner settled on a slate of events to help distribute the crowds.

Local and regional newspaper coverage of the anticipated opening of the museum, December 8, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Paul Gardner, Peyton, Strauss, ca. 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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A student of architecture and history, decorated veteran of World War I, and former ballet dancer, Paul Gardner was pursuing a PhD at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum when he left the program to become assistant to the trustees of the William Rockhill Nelson Foundation. He took charge of finishing the building, installing the collections, and organizing the first programs. The following year the trustees appointed him the first Director of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts. He soon put together a small staff who joined him in preparing for the opening.

Invitation to preview of opening exhibition (December 10, 1933) by William Rockhill Nelson TrustThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Opening Ceremonies

First on the calendar was an invitation only gala opening on Sunday, December 10. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his cabinet and the congressional delegations of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma were among those invited. Museum directors from Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Omaha, and NY dealers came en masse, the latter having loaned works for opening. Local judge and future U.S. President Harry S. Truman attended, as did Kansas artist Birger Sandzen, sculptor Charles Keck who had created many of the exterior reliefs on the building, and Associate Justice Own Roberts.

In all 2000 special guests celebrated the opening thatevening.

Sketch of museum opening. (December 11, 1933) by Kansas City TimesThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The main event--opening to the general public--came on Monday, December 11. In an effort to manage the anticipated crowds, the trustees chose a work day and designated December 11 and 12 specifically for Kansas City, Missouri, residents to attend. Still, 7950 people toured between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., when the formal dedication took place in Atkins Auditorium.

J.C. Nichols, Peyton, Strauss, between 1892 and 1950, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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In addition to University of Kansas President E. H. Lawler and Museum Director Paul Gardner, Museum Trustee J.C. Nichols spoke at the dedication ceremony.

Nichols played a key role in making the museum a reality and had been the primary trustee coordinating the art purchases with advisors and Gardner. Local radio station WDAF broadcast the ceremony live, and more than 40 NBC radio stations carried the festivities.

Dedicatory speech of J.C. Nichols, page one, Nichols, Jesse Clyde, December 11, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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In his speech, shown here, Nichols spelled out the role he hoped the museum and its art would play in the community: 'Art is not a fancy or fad. It is a vital force in the lives of us all...May these halls become a rallying place for high ideals and aspirations; may they crystallize a greater love for beauty; may they be a happy, democratic meeting place for all groups, all races, all creeds, all men, who call the middle west their home'.

While Nichols’s speech reflects aspirations of inclusivity, as a real estate developer Nichols promoted racially restrictive covenants that segregated Kansas City’s neighborhoods.

Dedicatory speech of J.C. Nichols, page two, Nichols, Jesse Clyde, December 11, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Dedicatory speech of J.C. Nichols, page three, Nichols, Jesse Clyde, December 11, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Dedicatory speech of J.C. Nichols, page four, Nichols, Jesse Clyde, December 11, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Dedicatory speech of J.C. Nichols, page five, Nichols, Jesse Clyde, December 11, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Kansas City Star, Kansas City Star, Wood, H., Miller, F., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Newspaper photograph of museum crowds, Kansas City Star, December 18, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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As described elsewhere, in an effort to manage the crowds, December 11 and 12 (Monday and Tuesday) were set aside for residents of Kansas City, Missouri, to attend. Wednesday, December 13 and Thursday, December 14, were designated for Kansas City, Kansas, and the suburbs, respectively, with Friday and Saturday advertised as ͞Children’s Days.͟ Sunday, December 17, was a day for the whole community. Wide-spread interest had not diminished by that Sunday when 11,000 visitors came between 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Indeed those admitting guests had to close doors three times to regulate the number in the museum.

By the end of December, an estimated 100,000 had experienced the new "temple of art."

Cover of Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (1933) by William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts.The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The Collection

So what did those thousands of visitors see on those first visits? Touted as the home of "treasures of 50 centuries" when it opened, the Museum was well on its way to being the encyclopedic collection of today.

By purchase and donation, the trustees had amassed an amazingly extensive and diverse collection of more than 5000 objects. Among them were a significant group of European paintings and sculptures of the Italian, Netherlandish, Spanish, French, and English schools, and a Chinese collection remarkable for its range and quality. The latter included bronze vessels, jade carvings, Buddhist sculpture, T’ang dynasty clay figures, paintings from the Sung to the Ch’ing dynasties, Ming and Ch’ing dynasty porcelains, Ming furniture, and a great wall painting and the Ming dynasty ceiling and screens that together made up the Chinese Temple. Japanese, Persian, Indian, and classical art also had featured installations. North America was represented with American Indian art presented in a contextual diorama, American paintings, and five reconstructed period rooms meant to show the development of decorative arts, painting, and architecture in the United States.

Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Dutch Galleries, page 27, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Spanish Galleries, page 34, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Spanish Galleries, page 35, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Department of Decorative Arts, page 74, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Department of Decorative Arts, page 75, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Dept. of Persian and Indian Art, page 89, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Department of Oriental Art, page 90, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Department of Oriental Art, page 91, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Department of Oriental Art, page 92, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Department of Oriental Art, page 93, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, American Wing, page 128, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, American Wing, page 129, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, ground floor plan, page 139, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Together these collections filled thirty galleries on two floors in the east wing of the new building.

Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, first floor plan, page 140, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Handbook of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, second floor plan, page 141, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Cover of A Loan Exhibition of American Paintings (1933) by William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts.The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

An Exhibit for "the most American city"

While the galleries featuring the permanent collection reflected 50 centuries of art from across the world, the museum chose for its first special exhibition one focused on American art since 1900. This perhaps was no accident.

Title page of A Loan Exhibition of American Paintings, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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William Rockhill Nelson’s bequest provided the funds for purchasing art, but he had stipulated that those monies could only be spent on works by artists who had been dead for thirty or more years. In practice, this provision somewhat limited the ability to purchase works by American artists.

Foreword of A Loan Exhibition of American Paintings, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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The loan exhibit partially made up for that missing piece. Without mentioning this provision, Paul Gardner, Director of the Museum, couched the exhibit of American contemporaneous artists as an appropriate choice for the museum’s first loan show by virtue of the museum being in the most American city, Kansas City, and linked the art’s Americanness to William Rockhill Nelson’s ideals.

Exhibition checklist, A Loan Exhibition of American Paintings, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts., 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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"A Loan Exhibit Draws Attention", Anderson Photo Company (Kansas City, Mo.), Kansas City Star, December 16, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Portrait of the Artist's Mother by James A. McNeill Whistler (more formally known as Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1) featured prominently in the exhibit and proved a large draw. On loan from the Louvre, the painting had been displayed June-November 1933 at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicagoand subsequently toured the United States, making a stop at the Nelson-Atkins in connection with the opening.

"Art Critics View Nelson Gallery" (December 11, 1933) by New York TimesThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In the News

Papers across the country and art publications took note of the museum and its opening. Such an accomplishment would have been news at any time, but it was particularly notable in the economic hard times of the Depression.

State of the art when it opened, the Nelson Gallery and Atkins Museum garnered special interest in the museum field. It featured two new, progressive features that enhanced the display of art. A unique artificial lighting system illuminated works of art throughout the museum and made it possible to adjust the light according to the mood of a particular painting or of an individual exhibit room, and its heating and cooling system kept temperatures and humidity constant and filtered the air.

Cover of Nelson Gallery of Art Special Number, Art Digest., Art Digest, 1933-12-01, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Reports and articles appeared in the American Magazine of Art, Literary Digest, Christian Century, Museums Journal, Art News, and Art Digest, among others. Art Digest published this special number, which featured highlights of the museum and a list of all accessioned works.

"Kansas City Invites You" (1933) by Merchants Association of Kansas CityThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Kansas City’s Museum

Coming as it did in the midst of the Great Depression, the museum’s opening offered a respite from the pessimism of the era and embodied Kansas City’s cultural aspirations. 

Kansas City Invites You, Merchants Association of Kansas City, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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As a point of civic and regional pride, it also offered a chance for the city to showcase itself to the many visitors, dignitaries, and, especially, representatives from the East Coast art world.

Kansas City Invites You, Merchants Association of Kansas City, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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That sense of optimism and boosterism was on display in this brochure published by the Merchants Association of Kansas City in connection with the gallery’s opening, as well as local editorial cartoons.

"Kansas City Welcomes Its Out of Town Visitors" cartoon., Kansas City Star, 1933-12-10, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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"Building for the Future" cartoon., Ray, S.J., Kansas City Star, 1933, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Indeed the museum was seen as part of a blossoming of cultural and educational institutions in the city. The year 1933 also saw the debut of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra and the opening of the University of Kansas City (now the University of Missouri, Kansas City).

"A Great Gift Becomes a Reality" cartoon, Kansas City Star, 1933-12-10, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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In the spirit of the holiday season, Kansas City celebrated the great gift of Mary Atkins and William Rockhill Nelson and his family, as the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts opened its doors. Now known as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the museum continues to be where the power of art engages the spirit of community.

Credits: Story

All items in this exhibition are from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Archives.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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