Caravaggio in Kansas City

Brad Miner | September 17, 2023

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Matthew 11:11

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri began with a bequest of $300,000 from Mary McAfee Atkins (1836 – 1911), a retired schoolteacher. Well, she had been a teacher, but she was also the widow of a real-estate magnate.

William Rockhill Nelson (1841–1915) had attended the University of Notre Dame for two years, after which the Holy Cross fathers – politely, I’m sure – asked him to skedaddle. Mr. Nelson was relieved. A non-Catholic, he described Notre Dame as “Botany Bay for bad boys” – a reference to the place in Australia where English prisoners once were exiled. Nelson went on to co-found the Kansas City Star.

Mrs. Atkins’ $300,000 was the equivalent of more than $9 million today. And Mr. Nelson also made a gift, pretty much his entire estate, dedicated to the purchase of art “for public enjoyment” in the city that had rewarded him with success. That amount was $11,000,000, which today would be $353,958,000. In the 1920s, the only other American artistic institution with financial resources like that was New York’s mighty Metropolitan Museum.

So, with those several hundred million dollars to spend, the future Nelson-Atkins began to take shape, although ground-breaking did not begin until 1930.

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