DATE OF EVENT: Monday, Dec. 11, 1933
DATE PUBLISHED: Tuesday, Dec. 12, 1933, in The Kansas City Times
Editor’s note: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, originally the Nelson Gallery of Art and Atkins Museum, began with bequests from publisher William Rockhill Nelson and former schoolteacher Mary Atkins. When builders broke ground for the museum in 1930, however, they “didn’t even own an etching,” according to director emeritus Laurence Sickman. After extensive buying in Depression markets, the gallery was opened to the public on Dec. 11, 1933, with “Whistler’s Mother” lent from Paris for the occasion. University of Kansas Chancellor E.H. Lindley’s speech emphasized the “democracy of art,” and Eastern art critics eventually joined in the praise—sort of: “The sight of blue-jeaned agrarians tramping up The Nelson’s Sienese-marble stairway (is) not unusual,” Newsweek sniffed in 1936. “Farmers have … shown a genuine and intelligent interest in old masters.”
In the spotlight of the intangible world of drama, beauty and dreams, the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Atkins Museum yesterday afternoon was dedicated to the use of the people of Kansas City and the Southwest.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon a large crowd had gathered, and it grew throughout the day. At 10 o’clock, closing time, most of the galleries were filled, many persons apparently numbed by an attempt to see the whole museum. There was no real congestion except in the period rooms where a waiting line extended into the corridors in the last two hours of the showing.
The dedication was both formal and informal. Nearly 7,500 persons dedicated the museum for themselves by going through the galleries yesterday and last night. In the formal part of the afternoon program a thousand persons crowded into the auditorium of the Atkins Museum while several hundred others sat on the marble stairway and filled the corridors outside. …
In dedicating a temple to art long speeches were ruled out and the greater part of the program occupied by the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra in its national debut. The three brief talks, by J. C. Nichols, Chancellor E. H. Lindley of the University of Kansas, and Paul Gardner, director of the museum, set the keynote of the place an art gallery is expected to take in the life of the Kansas City territory.
They spoke of the fundamental purposes of art, of art as it has helped to dramatize and idealize life through thousands of years. It is art as it lives close to the everyday life—a flare of light to encourage the mechanic in his hour away from his machines, the business man escaped from his balance sheets, the housewife who had left the children for an afternoon, the college student thrilled with the glimpse of new meaning.
Throughout the program part of the crowd already was experiencing the promised thrill. Persons unfamiliar with art passed through the galleries pausing here and there when they were arrested by the sudden glow of an eye from the wall, by lonely landscapes that awakened old memories, by unexpected beauty and familiarity in oriental statues. Yes, 7,500 persons went through the galleries and for many it meant a glimpse into a new world of pleasure.
“Art is not a fancy or a fad,” said Mr. Nichols. “It is a vital force in the lives of us all. Art is never sterile. Always rugged, it surges through every activity from education to commerce, yet it is as tender as the smile on a baby’s face. …
“The Nelson collection could not have come at a more opportune time. Perhaps the struggle of the next decade will be in the human heart and soul, rather than in commercial conquest or the effort to extend land frontiers. …
“These mute messengers from the past should sweep aside any doubt as to the permanency of our civilization.”
Chancellor Lindley spoke of the universal quality of art.
“The ancient Greeks,” he said, “considered private ownership of a great work of art profane. Beauty was for all.
“In the spirit of this noble tradition, William Rockhill Nelson sought to bring beauty not only to the rich, not alone to a few who are highly educated in art, but to all the people. He conceived art not as a luxury but a necessity. Unless art can penetrate every nook and cranny of the life and work of common men its conquest is incomplete. He believed in the democracy of art.”
Mr. Gardner as director of the museum welcomed visitors for the present and the future.
“In planning these galleries,” he said, “we went on the assumption that each object is a work of art worthy of being properly displayed. We tried to put the objects and pictures in a natural setting. We realized that portraits were made to be hung on the walls of homes. Here we have hung them in rooms furnished in keeping with the pictures on the walls. Whenever it was possible we isolated pictures and other works of art. Don’t worry about the blank space on the walls. It is intentional.”