The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: A Kansas City must-see destination | Such a Fine Sight to See | The Tribune

The magic is still happening at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. In May, I made my annual solo trip to my hometown to visit friends and family, and to visit my favorite haunts there. The Nelson is one of the places I never miss.

Thanks go to two prominent benefactors. The Nelson was built on the grounds of Oak Hall, home of Kansas City Star publisher William Rockhill Nelson. Mary McAfee Atkins, former schoolteacher and widow of real estate speculator James Burns Atkins, bequeathed $300,000 to establish an art museum in Kansas City. Ground was broken in 1930, and the 6-story Beaux-Arts structure was opened on Dec. 11, 1933 to great acclaim and appreciation.

South entrance to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Libby Kinder

When my family moved to Kansas City from Chicago in 1957, the Nelson was only 24 years old. It quickly became deeply ingrained in me as a Kansas City gem to be experienced over and over again. With four kids, my parents were always on the lookout for family excursion destinations that wouldn’t break the bank, and the Nelson has always had free admission.

I have distinct memories of climbing up the outside steps of the north entrance, and walking into the vast, soaring Kirkwood Hall. Flanked by 12 massive columns of black and white marble, it was truly awesome then, and still is. Back in the 1950s and 60s, the hall was filled with huge medieval tapestries, and knights and their steeds dressed in suits of shining armor. It felt like stepping into a world of magic.

The north entrance and reflecting pool of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art with one of the iconic giant shuttlecocks in the lower right corner. Libby Kinder

As kids we would troop through the galleries, gazing at the world-class art collections, while picking out our favorites. One of mine was Claude Monet’s expansive water lily canvas that practically covered one wall. Another was a furnished, oak-paneled room from Oak Hall, that is unfortunately no longer there.

While attending Border Star School, we students were periodically bussed to the Nelson for field trips. There was an air of excitement for not only getting out of school for a day, but to having the opportunity to roam the galleries, giggling at the nudes as our eyes and minds were opened to a world of wonder and creativity.

My sister, Susan Krueger, is a longtime docent at the Nelson. The training can be likened to netting an education equivalent to a masters degree in art history. Susan has taken me on many outstanding tours there over the years, and this year was no exception. A special exhibit of artwork and sculptures by French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was in progress, and Susan used me as a guinea pig to practice her upcoming tours.

One of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana sculptures is part of a special exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Alas, I had never heard of Saint Phalle, but I was in for a treat. Saint Phalle said that her art saved her, but it also killed her. As an adolescent she was overwhelmed with depression, and institutionalized. She used her art “as a rebellion against a patriarchal society and childhood trauma”. The exhibit follows her metamorphosis as an innovative contemporary artist. Early works include assemblages (arrangements of found items), and her “Shooting” paintings. One room features the large-scale figures Saint Phalle is probably best known for: her “Nana” sculptures that represent images of empowered womanhood.

It was fascinating to walk through this representation of her prolific life’s work. She created thousands of pieces of artwork during her too-short lifetime, eventually succumbing to emphysema. Over the years she had unknowingly breathed in toxic polyester fumes while working on her art projects.

Be sure to have a meal, snack, or cocktails in the magnificent Rozzelle Court Restaurant. It is styled as a dramatic, 15th century Italian courtyard, and you will feel as though you have been whisked away not only to Italy, but into another time period.

Rozelle Court Restaurant at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art is styled as a 15th century Italian courtyard. photos Courtesy of Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art

In 1994 something astounding happened at the Nelson. Four oversized badminton shuttlecocks, each 18 feet tall, seemingly landed on the extensive park-like lawns. I remember the controversy surrounding these unusual sculptures, but over time they have become Kansas City icons.

Two of the iconic giant shuttlecocks on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Courtesy of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In the early 2000s the new, contemporary Bloch building was gradually opened in phases, and the entrance to the museum was moved there. This expansion more than doubled the existing space. Once again controversy surfaced, as the architecture of the addition is a stunning, contemporary contrast to the neoclassical beauty of the original museum.

You can easily spend a day at the Nelson perusing the galleries, exploring the walks that wind through the outdoor sculpture park, picking up a beloved souvenir in the museum shop, and dining in the restaurant or grabbing a beverage at the coffee shop. Here is the epicenter of the Kansas City art community, and a true treasure not to be missed during a visit.

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