After being locked away for years, a Thomas Hart Benton painting purchased in 1957 as a class gift by Shawnee Mission High School students has found a new home.
Benton’s “Utah Highlands” is now on long-term loan to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It will return to the public eye in late April in the Enid and Crosby Kemper Rotunda in the museum’s American Wing.
“It is fitting that this painting has found a home in the Nelson-Atkins since the museum has such a strong history with Benton,” museum director and chief executive Julián Zugazagoitia said in a statement. “We are delighted the students who purchased the painting will be able to come and see it. And the timing is perfect because we have a major Thomas Hart Benton exhibition coming in the fall.”
The Shawnee Mission School District had been looking for a way to safely exhibit the painting since a Kansas City Star story Jan. 26 raised questions about its whereabouts. District officials produced the painting days later, saying it had been stashed in a vault for safekeeping.
“We are pleased to partner with the Nelson-Atkins to ensure the Benton painting, a treasured class gift, will be displayed publicly and enjoyed by past, present and future students, along with the many visitors to the museum,” said district superintendent Jim Hinson.
The district reached out to the Nelson, which has partnered with the district in the past on several art education projects in the schools, said district spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal.
“We believe it is a perfect fit,” she said. “This is a great solution for us.”
Alumni who wanted to see the painting also were pleased.
“I think this is wonderful news,” said Ron Abbott, a 1957 graduate of Shawnee Mission High, now Shawnee Mission North High School. “There are a lot of people who will be very happy to hear this. I think it makes sense for it to be at the Nelson, to be shown in a local museum.”
Students went to Benton’s home in 1957 to pick up the painting. They paid Rita Benton, his wife and manager, $750.
“At the time our idea was ‘Let’s give something different from what other classes had done.’ Our idea was ‘Let’s do something cultural,’” Abbott said.
That cultural gesture turned out to be a good investment. The painting is now worth an estimated $700,000 or more.
Abbott said the graduating teens had no idea the painting would become so valuable — too valuable, school officials said, to be exhibited on the wall of the school library, as it was for years.
In 2008, the Benton painting was moved to storage, and a digital copy took its place on the wall.
And so it was until alumni began asking to see the painting they recalled buying for their school nearly 60 years ago.
The Nelson, which already has 130 Benton paintings, drawings and prints in its permanent collection, on Oct. 10 will present the exhibition “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.”
The Shawnee Mission Benton won’t be part of that exhibit.
“It will be installed in our permanent gallery,” said museum spokeswoman Kali Hudson.
“Utah Highlands,” which will remain the property of the school district, will be rotated on and off display to conserve the art and limit its exposure to light.
But first, Hudson said, the museum will assess the painting “to see if there is any damage and make sure it is in the best condition possible before viewing.”