I enjoy art, but given my choice of activities when I am wandering a new destination, going to an art museum usually doesn’t top the list—unless I’m in Kansas City and the museum in question is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The museum houses more than 35,000 works of art ranging from European paintings by the Old Masters to an Egyptian coffin, Native American pottery and a 16th century canopy bed from China. You’ll even see an entire room from a Revolutionary War era house.
For me, that’s what sets the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art apart from other art museums. There’s so much to see, and it’s so varied that you could easily spend the day and only scratch the surface. Which, is okay since admission is free, you can come back again and again and again.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – A Place for Culture
The museum owes its existence to two benefactors who believed the city needed culture: William Rockhill Nelson, the founder of the Kansas City Star, and Mary Atkins, a former school teacher and the widow of a real estate speculator. Both left hefty sums to fund art museums for the people of Kansas.
Instead of creating two museums, though, visionaries combined their funds, opening the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in December 1933. Over the next decades, the collection grew to the point where the museum had to expand, and in 2007, it unveiled the Bloch Building.
This 165,000-square foot-addition, which increased gallery and storage space, was ranked number one on Time magazine’s list of “The 10 Best (New and Upcoming) Architectural Marvels.” It’s worth visiting the museum just to see how the Bloch Building’s modern design compliments the original neoclassical building.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – European and American Collections
The museum has 13 major collections, including the sculpture park, but one of my favorite is the European collection, which ranges from 17th century Baroque paintings to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. On display are Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” and El Greco’s “The Penitent Magdalene.”
I love Impressionists, so I was thrilled to see Paul Gauguin’s “Faaturuma,” Claude Monet’s “Boulevard des Capucines” and a section of his “Water Lilies,” as well as Edgar Degas’ “Rehearsal of the Ballet.”
There's also an impressive collection of American art, including the works of Missouri artists George Caleb Bingham and Thomas Hart Benton. Our guide spent quite a bit of time explaining Benton's “Persephone,” a recasting of the Greek myth with Hades, the god of the underworld, as a lustful old farmer with a rickety cart for his chariot.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – Chinese, Japanese and Asian Collections
With more than 7,000 works from every major period, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is recognized as having one of the finest collection of Asian art outside of Asia. The pair of Ming Dynasty vases and the Buddhist sculpture were impressive, but I was wowed by the “Offering Procession of the Empress as Donor,” a 1,500-year-old limestone panel taken from a cave.
The museum also has a renowned collection of more than 2,000 Japanese works ranging from scrolls to woodblock prints, ceramics and sculpture. Unfortunately, we breezed through this collection as well as the South and Southeast Asian collection. It’s definitely on my list of areas I need to revisit.
Architecture, Design, and Decorative Arts
Usually, I skip over exhibits featuring furniture and other decorative arts. Not here. While the Architecture, Design and Decorative Arts collection features French furniture, English silver, and stained glass, it also showcases the armor for a knight and his horse as well as an eye-catching chair by Joris Laarman called the “Makerchair Jigsaw.”
But, I really liked the hall from the Robert Hooper House because it’s an actual room from the Massachusetts house which served as British headquarters just before the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.
Removed from the house, which was in disrepair, the room was reassembled in the museum. It serves as an example of period décor and a reminder of this time in American history.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – Other Highlights
The museum also has a 400-piece collection of African art with masks, carvings and other works as well as a 200-piece collection of Native American pottery, basketry, sculpture, paintings, textiles, beadwork and more. The photography collection boasts the famous image, “Migrant Mother,” by Dorothea Lange.
Don’t miss the sculpture garden, where you’ll find one of the museum’s most photographed works, “Shuttlecocks,” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. The artwork, which imagines the original building as the net for a giant game of badminton, features four 18-foot shuttlecocks dotting the museum’s 22-acre lawn.
When You Go to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is located at 4525 Oak Street in Kansas City. It is open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Admission is free, but some special exhibitions are ticketed. These ticketed exhibitions are $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $10 for students with IDs. (Kids 12 and under are free.) Parking is readily available in the parking garage for $10.
If you get hungry during your visit, the museum’s Rozzelle Court Restaurant serves a wide variety of gourmet dishes in a 15th-century Italian courtyard setting, complete with a central fountain and potted trees.
More Art in Kansas City
Want even more art in Kansas City? Head to one of three Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art locations: the main museum on Warwick Boulevard, the smaller Kemper East one block away, and Kemper at the Crossroads on 19th Street. All have free admission.
In addition to the third Kemper location, the Crossroads Arts District is home to more than 400 local artists and 100 independent studios and hosts one of the nation’s largest First Fridays with more than 70 participating shops and galleries.
Kansas City is also the City of Fountains. You can download a map of the city’s more than 200 fountains and its significant sculptures here.