Kansas City’s embrace of art traces to the late 19th century and, unsurprisingly, William Rockhill Nelson. Intent on instilling cultural refinement in his budding metropolis, The Kansas City Star co-founder donated a collection of oil reproductions, casts of sculptures and some 500 framed photographs to the Kansas City Art Association in 1896.
It gave birth to the city’s first art gallery, the Western Gallery of Art, housed briefly in a building on West Ninth Street and then on the second floor of the Kansas City Public Library’s old quarters at Ninth and Locust. There it stayed for 36 years, renamed the Nelson Gallery of Art after Nelson donated additional pieces in 1901.
Today, of course, his name adorns the internationally renowned offspring of that original gallery, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
And the Library is holding fast to its own artistic heritage.
From paintings and murals to maps, etchings, posters, statues, photographs and intricately designed clocks and other furnishings, KCPL is home to more than 700 artworks, artifacts and objects of ephemera. That count used to be something of a guess. Records of the holdings were scattered across various spreadsheets and electronic and hard-copy file folders. But each piece is now being catalogued, researched and digitized as part of an ambitious, multiyear initiative that lends new clarity and potentially added attention to the collection.
More than 200 items are on display at the downtown Central Library. Others are on walls, shelves or some other means of display across the Library’s nine outlying branches. All will eventually be accessible on the Library’s website (at kclibrary.org/art-objects) with high-resolution photographs, detailed descriptions and information ranging from condition reports to whether or where they can be found in the Library.
The online feature quietly went live earlier this year, with a formal launch scheduled for July 1.
“We’ve created a comprehensive database that allows researchers and people who are interested in art in general to engage with the art at the Library or on its website,” says Poppy DiCandeloro, a co-founder and partner in D2 Research, a Kansas City collections management firm that has been working on the project since early 2018.
Almost the entire collection, she notes, is Kansas City- and Midwest-centric.
“It became very clear to me that all of these objects were chosen with care, and they really mean something to people at the Library, to the staff and to patrons,” says DiCandeloro’s D2 partner, Meghan Dohogne. “When we started moving the art around, people noticed. They really paid attention. It showed how much impact the objects have.”
Nothing remains from those first turn-of-the-20th-century pieces. Most of the current holdings have been acquired through purchase or loan since the Library commissioned a handful of works in the 1950s and ’60s. New momentum came with its 1988 split from Kansas City’s public schools district and the establishment of an independent board of trustees.
Former Commerce Bancshares Vice Chairman Jonathan Kemper, who joined the board in 2001 and became president four years later, has driven the growth of the collection since then, donating half or more of the Library’s present holdings. Peggy Doncevic, now the Library’s project management specialist, has collected and maintained the records — “a labor of love,” she says — for the past 13 years.
“In a way, we like to think of the Library as the city’s oldest cultural institution,” Kemper says. “It’s not just about books. It’s about lectures and other programs. And about art.”
The emphasis is evident from the moment a visitor steps into the Central Library. Dominating the wall behind the circulation desk is a more than 7-foot-wide, 5-foot-high reproduction of George Caleb Bingham’s famous oil painting “Martial Law or Order No. 11.”
A specially commissioned English slipware commemorative plate created by famed Kansas City potter Irma Starr rests on a shelf in the third-floor Grand Reading Room. A trove of treasures in the fifth-floor Missouri Valley Room, home to the Library’s special collections, includes an original 49-by-61-inch map of “Westport Mo. and its Additions,” drawn in 1885.
Soon to come is a batch of original illustrations by inimitable gonzo artist Ralph Steadman, whose works were highlighted in a special traveling exhibit that ran at the Library for three months in 2019. Thirteen of the drawings were created during Steadman’s assignment by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City, and they are coming back to the Library on extended loan from the Ralph Steadman Art Collection.
The sweeping art project — underwritten by the Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts — entails more than taking inventory, cataloging and digitizing, which has focused first on Central Library and eventually will reach the branches. Library staffers who handle the collection will get training. There are plans to set up a Central walking tour.
Even patrons have been swept in.
“They’ve given us a lot of good research nuggets,” says Dohogne, a Cape Girardeau native who’s a former assistant gallery director at Kansas City’s Todd Weiner Gallery. “There was a stadium (old Municipal at Brooklyn Avenue and East 22nd Street) in the background of a 1940 Liberty magazine poster that I didn’t know was the precursor to Kauffman Stadium. When people give us that kind of information, we can verify it with research, and it makes for a much more robust portfolio on each of the pieces. “It has been a fun and rewarding experience.”
–Steve Wieberg, all photos by D2 Research / Linda Link