Nelson-Atkins Acquires 800 Photographs, Director Says Collection Is Now 'Unparalleled'

Nov 8, 2017

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art announced on Wednesday that it had acquired more than 800 photographs thanks to a $10 million grant made two years ago by the Hall Family Foundation.

"It goes from ancient photography to contemporary," said Nelson-Atkins Director and CEO Julián Zugazagoitia. The addition of the pieces to the museum's already rich and deep collection, Zugazagoitia said, "makes Kansas City a beacon for the study, presentation and collection of photography."

The oldest of the new acquisitions is a print made in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography; the newest is a 2016 piece by the musician Patti Smith.

"What's interesting is they range from single print by an artist we didn’t have, to a whole portfolio of an artist who kept his prints and traveled with them from Europe to America," Zugazagoitia said, speaking of Jewish photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who emigrated to the U.S. from Hitler's Germany. 

And the museum didn't just acquire Eisenstaedt's portfolio of 89 photographs, many of which became iconic images — it also now has the original suitcase in which he brought his personal collection of prints, "guarded as a family treasure since he left Germany in 1935," according to the museum.

Other acquisitions include pieces by historically famous photographers such as Nadar, Edward Steichen, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus, as well as currently famous artists such as Cindy Sherman, Ellsworth Kelly and Carrie Mae Weems.

Gustave Le Gray's 1853 salt print 'Rome: Sortie du Pont Tescato au Trastevere' is also among 800 photographs the Nelson-Atkins acquired with a $10 million Hall Family Foundation grant.
Credit Courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The idea behind the $10 million from the Hall Family Foundation, Zugazagoitia said, "was to acquire and in a way celebrate the tenure and vision" of the museum's curator of photography, Keith F. Davis, who has overseen the Hallmark Photographic Collection for nearly 40 years.

Hallmark transferred that collection's 6,500 pieces to the Nelson-Atkins in December 2005; prior to that the museum had 1,000 photographs, but it now holds approximately 15,000. Hallmark CEO Donald J. Hall, Jr., is a museum trustee.

Davis, who was out of the country and unavailable for comment, selected the new pieces with Photography Department Curator April M. Watson and Associate Curator Jane L. Aspinwall.

"We three curators reviewed a great deal of work and thought hard about collection priorities," Davis said in a news release. "These new works will allow for more varied and stimulating shows, and fresh scholarship, for many years to come."

The first of those new shows, "The Big Picture," is scheduled to open in April 2018 and promises to highlight "the most significant of these acquisitions."

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.