How Did Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art Get Such A Massive Collection Of Asian Art?

Jan 13, 2017

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a much-loved institution in Kansas City. What many Midwesterners may not know, though, is that the Nelson also has a world-renowned reputation among artists and scholars of Asian art. With more than 7,000 works spanning 5,000 years, the museum boasts one of the most celebrated collections of Asian art in the West.

“Everybody in the field of art knows the Nelson-Atkins," said Sherry Fowler, professor of Japanese Art at the University of Kansas. "As an undergrad, the Chinese collection at the Nelson is in all the textbooks on Asian art in English.”

So how did such a great collection make its way to the middle of the United States? In a recent conversation on KCUR's Central Standard, Marc Wilson, the Nelson's director emeritus and former curator of Chinese art, said the answer dates back to the museum's early days.

The museum didn't start with a collection. But the founders, William Rockhill Nelson and Mary Atkins, provided funding to purchase works of art and to purchase the land. So, in the years leading up the museum's opening in 1933, a collection needed to be acquired.

One of the trustees, developer J.C. Nichols, wanted to fill the museum with unique pieces that would draw a crowd to Kansas City. In 1931, art historian Laurence Sickman was recruited for that role, and he began to buy artwork. Sickman later became curator of Asian art and director of the museum and proved instrumental in building the collection. 

According to Wilson, Sickman was successful because he avoided changing trends in art buying. Instead, he embraced Chinese culture and bought many pieces that were inexpensive but that “leap off the wall or out of the case and grab hold of you." 

Among such works are the scroll paintings. Numerous such paintings exist, but Sickman brought many of them together, and the museum now has one of largest collections outside of Asia. It's also in possession of the only work attributed to Qiao Zhong Chang, a master of the Northern Sung Dynasty.

Today, the museum has more works of art than space to display them, and it rotates the paintings and scrolls throughout the year.

Ancestors, Ritual, and the Tomb: the Ancient Chinese Art Galleries
Credit The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In addition to numerous paintings and pieces of clothing and a large collection of ink scrolls, the museum is home to the 12th-century polychrome wooden figure, Guanyin of the Southern Sea, often proclaimed as the finest sculpture of its kind outside China.

Such artifacts and a knowledgeable staff have contributed to the museum's reputation. As Fowler said, "When I do field work and tell people where I’m from, they don’t say, ‘Where’s that?’ They say, ‘Oh, the Nelson-Atkins.’” 

Wilson said he is glad the museum is able to share such works of art. He said kids often come into the museum and say, "Wow I’ve been sharing the planet with somebody who made that?”

Emperors, Scholars, and Temples: Tastemakers of China's Ming and Qing Dynasties, is up through July 9 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111, 816-751-1278.

Caitlin Troutman is an intern at KCUR. You can reach her at arts@kcur.org.