Generations: Women in the Early History of The Nelson-Atkins

The history of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is filled with legendary male characters. The stories of women, however, who figure prominently in the museum’s establishment and early success, are less well-known.

Lindsay Hughes in the Department of Oriental Art office (between 1935 and 1946)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Like many other wealthy women of their time, the generosity and vision of museum benefactors Mary Atkins, Ida Nelson, and Laura Nelson Kirkwood helped to make the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts a reality. In so doing they created an opportunity for the museum’s first generation of female staffers to use their education and begin independent careers.

The Nelson-Atkins opened in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression and a racially segregated Kansas City, with a small staff and a long line of people looking for work. Among these were a group of unmarried, college-educated, young white women. Hoping to gain museum experience, several started as volunteers but eventually moved into paid positions, usually in museum education. As was common for the time period, these women typically played supporting roles as assistants and secretaries to men who were in director and curatorial positions.

Roundel of Mary Atkins (1936) by Wallace RosenbauerThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Mary McAfee Atkins

Mary McAfee Atkins was born near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, around 1840 and became a local school teacher. She married her old friend James Burris Atkins, and they settled in Kansas City, where he had found success in milling and real estate speculating. When he died in 1886, he left Mary a sizable fortune and extensive property holdings.

Photograph of Mary Atkins on holiday in Dresden, Germany (around 1900)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Mary visited Europe for the first time in 1897 and returned at least five more times. There she developed a deep appreciation for art; the Louvre was a special favorite.

Mary McAfee Atkins (between 1880 and 1911)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

By the time Mary Atkins died in 1911, her fortune had grown to near $1 million, thanks to her management. The love of art she developed during her travels inspired her to bequeath $300,000 to purchase land and erect a museum of fine arts for Kansas City.

The trustees of her estate soon discovered, however, that though $300,000 was very generous, it was insufficient to build an art museum. In 1927, they decided to join forces with the Nelsons’ and Kirkwoods’ estates to realize the dream of a first-class art museum in Kansas City. By then, Atkins’s bequest had more than doubled.

Portrait of Ida Houston Nelson (1933) by Kansas City Star (American, Kansas City, MO, published since 1880)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Ida Houston Nelson

Ida Houston Nelson was born in Ohio around 1850. In 1881, she met William Rockhill Nelson in Kansas City. Nelson, a recent transplant to the city, was the founder and owner of the Kansas City Star, a real estate developer, and political voice. The two married; their only child, Laura, was born in 1883.

A founding member of the Kansas City Conservatory of Music and a staunch supporter of the symphony, Ida Nelson was committed to the development of the arts in her adopted city. When World War I broke out, she was active with the Red Cross and later supported efforts to create the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. Ida Nelson passed away in 1921.

Portrait of Laura Nelson Kirkwood (1933) by Kansas City Star (American, Kansas City, MO, published since 1880)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Laura Nelson Kirkwood

An only child and truly her father’s daughter, Laura Nelson Kirkwood was described as independent and impulsive. As a wealthy young woman, she was well educated in Kansas City, Boston, and Paris. She and her mother were prominent social hostesses, entertaining at their home Oak Hall, which stood on the current site of the Nelson-Atkins. She married Irwin Kirkwood in 1910.

Like her mother, Laura became heavily involved with the Red Cross during World War I. She was president of the Kansas City chapter and supported it through generous donations of her own money. She also took on responsibilities at the Star after her father’s death in 1915.

South Façade of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art building (Photographed before 1949)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In his will, William Rockhill Nelson bequeathed funds to create an art collection for Kansas City. Ida Nelson and Laura Nelson Kirkwood built on that legacy with provisions in their own wills to fund the construction of a museum.

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.

Portrait of Ethlyne Jackson with caption, from The Independent (November 1945) by The Independent (American, Kansas City, MO, published since 1899)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Ethlyne Jackson

Ethlyne Jackson campaigned for a position at the Nelson-Atkins for at least a year before being hired in August 1933. As Director Paul Gardner’s executive assistant, she oversaw the American wing, was curator of decorative arts, and lectured at the museum and the Kansas City Art Institute. In 1942, when Gardner left for military service in World War II, the Board of Trustees appointed Jackson acting director—the first and only woman to hold the position.

Group staff photograph on museum grounds (around 1943)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Jackson oversaw a much-reduced, largely female staff. Under her leadership, they put into practice the belief that the museum played an important role in keeping up civilian morale. They maintained regular museum activities, introduced new programming, and hosted dances for service members

Gardner returned from service in late 1945; the following year Jackson resigned to marry art dealer Germain Seligman and moved to New York. There she assisted him with his gallery, and the two co-authored articles about art. She died in 1993.

Excerpt of letter from Ethlyne Jackson to the Board of Trustees (January 1944) by Seligman, Ethlyne JacksonThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

During her tenure, Jackson appealed to the Board of Trustees for a raise for museum staffers, including herself, noting that she was making one-fifth what Paul Gardner had been paid as director.

The board, under some constraints because of War Labor Board regulations, approved the increases, including a 25% raise for Jackson

Letter from Ethlyne Jackson to J.C. Nichols Letter from Ethlyne Jackson to J.C. Nichols (November 11, 1944) by Seligman, Ethlyne JacksonThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Jackson also advised on acquisitions. Here, she discusses items presented for consideration by Harold Woodbury Parsons, the museum’s advisor on European art.

Letter from Ethlyne Jackson to J.C. Nichols Letter from Ethlyne Jackson to J.C. Nichols (July 23, 1945) by Seligman, Ethlyne JacksonThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In this letter to Trustee J.C. Nichols, Jackson takes the opportunity to outline programs the museum could undertake if he followed through on an earlier mention of a his possible donation to the museum to fund speakers. Her ideas included outreach to underserved children, free adult lectures, and musical performances and films.

Portrait of Lindsay Hughes (around 1945)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Lindsay Hughes

After eighteen months of persistence, Lindsay Hughes landed a job at the as-yet unopened William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts in 1933. Appointed Laurence Sickman’s assistant when he was hired as Curator of Asian Art in 1935, she ran the department during his frequent absences to teach at Harvard.

Diary of Lindsay Hughes (January 7-13, 1940) by Cooper, Lindsay HughesThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Hughes’s diary illustrates the variety of work she performed at the museum--giving lectures and tours, curating exhibitions, writing and recording educational radio programs about the collection, and running the library. It also gives a glimpse into the social life of a young professional woman.

Chinese Fair Exhibition (Fall 1944)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In 1942 when Sickman joined the Army, Hughes became Acting Curator of Asian Art. During her tenure, she built up the Persian art collection and organized a special “Chinese Fair” exhibit to raise money for Chinese war orphans. She also received a leave of absence to study at the University of Chicago in 1945/1946 on a competitive fellowship sponsored by the Chinese government.

The Kuo Chʻin Wang Textiles The Kuo Chʻin Wang Textiles (1945) by Cooper, Lindsay HughesThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Chinese textiles were a particular interest of Hughes. Her research and writing in this area were significant because very few Chinese textiles had been placed in a definite time period. These articles won her an invitation to speak to the Chinese Art Society of America at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March 1945, the first woman to address this distinguished group.

Seated portrait of Lindsay Hughes (around 1945)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

When Hughes moved to New York with her husband, Frank Cooper, she took a job with the Asian art dealer C. T. Loo, from whom the museum had long made frequent purchases.

After stints in California and Iran, where she taught English, the Coopers returned to Kansas City in 1970. She resumed her association with the Nelson-Atkins as Sickman’s assistant, a position she held until his retirement in 1977. Lindsay Hughes Cooper passed away in 1997.

List of museum employees and their responsibilities (between 1939 and 1942)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Given the small staff of the museum in its early days, each employee wore a variety of hats, especially the women. In addition to Ethlyne Jackson and Lindsay Hughes, other first generation female staffers included: Frances O’Donnell (1934-1939), Louise Nelson (1936-1944), Jane Rosenthal (ca. 1934-1968), Frances Webb (1938-1943), Mary Louise Clifton (1942-1946), Louise Lebrecht (1943-1945), and Dorothy Throm (1939-1947).

All of these women took on multiple roles during their time at the museum. Largely focused in the Education Department, commonly seen as the domain of women, they were also responsible for programming, label writing, and research.

Nelson-Atkins associates at the wedding of Louise Nelson (November 1944)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

World War II marked the end of a chapter in many of these women’s lives and the life of the museum. As the war ended, most in this first generation of women opted to leave the museum to serve in the war in an official capacity, to marry (which almost inevitably meant leaving outside employment), or to pursue additional education and opportunities.

Director Paul Gardner reflected this turning point when, in recounting the departure of many of these women in his annual report to the Board of Trustees, he wrote, “1946 was a disastrous one for the staff as it saw the resignation of members who had been with the Gallery since the opening.”

Group photograph of staff seated on south entrance steps. (around 1943)The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Mary Atkins, Ida Nelson and Laura Nelson Kirkwood, Ethlyne Jackson, Lindsay Hughes, and their colleagues laid the foundation not only for The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s celebrated building, world-class collection, and innovative and responsive programming but also for the many women who succeeded them and have contributed to the museum and its mission.

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All materials from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Archives.

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