Ralph T. Coe began his tenure with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 1959 as curator of painting and sculpture, then was appointed director in 1977. His time with the Museum was highly distinguished, greatly enhanced by his wide learning and his knowledge of the market in Native American art, 19th century and modern art. His focus on the curatorial aspects of museum work, together with his warmth and enthusiasm, resulted in productive leadership of the Friends of Art.
Before his appointment, Coe had organized a major exhibition with an initial appearance in London, celebrating the American Bicentennial in 1976: “Sacred Circles: 2,000 Years of North American Indian Art.” The popular exhibition came to the Nelson-Atkins in 1977, boosting the Museum’s attendance to the second highest level in its history. Another remarkable exhibition was offered in 1980, a collaboration between the Nelson-Atkins and the Cleveland Museum: “Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting.”
Acquisitions in the late 1970s were bolstered by an extraordinary gift from the mysterious Anonymous Donor, which enabled the purchase of a number of European paintings of outstanding merit, just before the boom in art prices in the 1980s. Also at this time a local banker began the purchase of American paintings, including portraits, landscapes and genre scenes.
In 1980, spurred on by a gift of $1 million from the Kansas City Star on the occasion of its centennial, the Nelson’s trustees began to prepare for the Museum’s 50th anniversary. Included in this undertaking was the creation of a long-range plan to anticipate and meet the Museum’s coming needs. A study was undertaken by the Committee on the Future, whose report established the agenda of the Museum’s goals for the 1980s. This report formed the basis for the Nelson’s appeal to the community for financial support and ushered in the new role of fundraising as central in the life of the institution.
Coe, whose interests lay in curatorial efforts, asked for a leave of absence in March 1982, and resigned from the position as director in June 1982. He resided in Santa Fe, N.M. until he passed away in 2010. The appointment of Marc F. Wilson as his successor set the stage for enormous change and growth.