‘Lindsay Hughes Cooper: A Portrait’ by Lindsay Major

In wartime, Cooper helped hold the fort at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The book’s cover features an image of Lindsay Hughes Cooper in 1945, modeling a robe from the Nelson’s textile collection. (courtesy of Lindsay Major)

If you have a local history buff on your gift list, check out Lindsay Major’s “Lindsay Hughes Cooper: A Portrait,” an engaging account of the extraordinary role played by her aunt, Lindsay Hughes Cooper, in the early days of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

While Major’s initial goal was to provide some context for her family, she realized that the story of Cooper’s career was one that would appeal to others as well. As a 1931 college graduate living with her parents during the height of the Great Depression, Cooper was desperate to get a job at the as-yet unopened Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. She spoke numerous times, verging on stalking, to Paul Gardner, the man who would become the Nelson’s first director. She told him she would work diligently for him in any capacity and remained undeterred even when he told her that he did not intend to hire any women because “they shirk.”

In September 1933, the “Kansas City Star” reported that Gardner had been promoted to head the museum, and Cooper’s father encouraged her to try again. This time, Gardner was open to employing her once he ascertained that she was able to sew. With a salary of $10 a week, Cooper reported to work the following Monday. On her first day of work, she and a colleague were assigned the task of repairing an antique tapestry in a storage area (something that would never happen today!)

The book offers numerous anecdotes and interesting tidbits surrounding the inception of the museum. For example, Whistler’s painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1,” better known as the portrait of “Whistler’s Mother,” was loaned to the Nelson for their opening celebration. Kristie Wolferman, author of numerous books as well as her 2020 history of the Nelson-Atkins, remarked that she was “indebted to Lindsay for her tales of the early days of the museum, which really gave me a colorful picture of what it was like starting a museum from scratch!” When the Nelson-Atkins officially opened to the public Dec. 11, 1933, 7,950 people viewed the new building and its collection on the first day.

Laurence Sickman became the Curator of Asian Art in 1936, and Cooper officially became his assistant, a job she was thrilled to accept.

By 1942, both Gardner and Sickman had left the museum to join the military. Lindsay Hughes Cooper and Ethlyne Jackson, Gardner’s assistant, took on the roles of their bosses, becoming acting curator and director while their superiors were at war. During Sickman’s absence, Cooper lectured, oversaw acquisitions, supervised loans and kept Sickman up to date through their correspondence. Coincidentally, both women left the museum in 1946 to marry. When she and her husband decided to return to Kansas City, Cooper worked again with Sickman from 1970 until his retirement in 1975.

Major wanted to tell the “inspiring story of a determined woman who was able, in spite of everything, to make her way in the art world.”

Wolferman feels that the author “totally captured Lindsay Hughes Cooper’s enthusiasm, determination, her unlimited quest for learning, and her frankness. Lindsay Major has given us a much more complete picture and understanding of this woman beyond her role at the Nelson-Atkins.”

Price: $14.95, paperback; available through Amazon

Nan Chisholm

Nan Chisholm is an art consultant and appraiser of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. After a long association with Sotheby’s, she founded her own business in 2003. She has appeared as a fine art appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” since its inception in 1995.

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