Three judges can be found on the second floor of the renovated Jackson County Truman Courthouse in Independence.
That wouldn’t be unusual, except for the way the judges gaze upon visitors — steady, unmoving and frozen on canvas.
Turns out all three judges sat for 19th century Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham. Now their portraits hang on a wall of the new Jackson County Museum of Art, opening Saturday in the recently renovated courthouse, not far from the offices of the county’s assessments and collections departments.
Many of the 27 Bingham artworks displayed are owned by Ken McClain, Independence lawyer and developer.
“Bingham is recognized as a national treasure, but his Jackson County roots are not focused on that frequently,” McClain said of the artist, who maintained a studio in his Independence home, later served as a Kansas City police commissioner and is buried in Union Cemetery.
“I thought the courthouse would be an appropriate place for a museum dedicated to him.”
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders worked with McClain to set aside during courthouse renovations several second-floor rooms that have been transformed into a gallery.
Ceiling-mounted pendant lamps that recall the courthouse’s 1933 renovation now hang alongside track lighting. Long blinds have been installed in the building’s tall window frames to protect the paintings, some of them about 150 years old.
“Ken’s vision has moved the courthouse renovation from a great project to an incredible one, increasing its value exponentially,” Sanders said. “Visitors will come here from all over the country.”
The Bingham artworks make up the principal holdings of the nonprofit museum, which will be administered by its own board of directors. Other works are on loan from the State Historical Society of Missouri and the Jackson County Historical Society.
McClain hopes that future acquisitions, as well as other loaned artworks, can be rotated through the holdings.
Bingham began painting about 1830. Although his reputation today may rest on paintings such as “The Jolly Flatboatmen” and “The County Election,” Bingham often earned his living by painting portraits.
McClain started collecting Bingham portraits about eight years ago. A painting of Samuel Locke Sawyer, a 19th century Jackson County lawyer and judge, was one of his first acquisitions. Now that portrait hangs just inside the museum’s door alongside portraits of Missouri judges Francis Marion Black and Priestly Haggin McBride.
But McClain sought out more Bingham portraits, especially those that had been handed down by generations, not always receiving the best of care.
Patricia Moss, a Washington state fine arts investigator who grew up in Kansas City, helped McClain track down a Bingham portrait of Thomas Hoyle Mastin, a 19th century Kansas City banker who also was an investor in The Kansas City Times.
When Moss found the portrait in 2007, it had been hanging in a Texas Gulf Coast antique shop operated by the wife of a family descendant and her business partner.
The business partner hadn’t liked the painting and had at some point taken it down and moved it to a storeroom. But the neglect had not ended there.
“The painting had been used as a table, good side up,” said Moss.
The weight of various objects on the canvas resulted in a prominent gash in the portrait’s lower left-hand corner. Alerted by Moss, McClain acquired the torn and sagging portrait.
“The owners felt terrible about what had happened,” Moss said.
“They were happy to sell the painting and know that it would get the care that it deserved.”
A Minneapolis conservator restored the Mastin portrait. Today it hangs in the new museum, accompanied by before-and-after images that illustrate the painting’s rescue and restoration.
Another Bingham painting located by Moss is an 1850s portrait of James Sidney Rollins, a 19th century politician who helped establish the University of Missouri. The painting had been owned by a family descendant who didn’t know who had painted it.
“Generations of a family die off, and sometimes people just forget,” said Moss.
Although the Mastin portrait long had been acknowledged as a Bingham, Moss collected the opinions of other area experts on the Rollins canvas. After a consensus emerged that Bingham had rendered it, McClain acquired that canvas as well.
By pursuing the preservation and public display of these Bingham originals, McClain said he is fulfilling the wishes of an artist who believed the appreciation of fine art need not be reserved for those who can afford to own it.
“Bingham’s paintings need to be seen, not be hidden away in basements,” he said.