The original trustees of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art—William Volker, Jesse Clyde Nichols and Herbert Vincent Jones—had their hands full in the 1920s and 1930s, attempting to build an art museum with no art collection at its nucleus.
By 1932, when the original building was being finished and art shipments were arriving, the pace of events was so accelerated that the trustees saw the need for an assistant. They appointed Paul Gardner, who at that time was a graduate student at the Fogg Museum, Harvard.
Gardner, born in Somerville, Massachusetts, had graduated in 1917 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in architecture. He served in the U.S. Army in World War I and then spent nine years as a dancer with Anna Pavlova’s Ballet Company. Turning his attention then to art and history, he received a master’s degree in European history from George Washington University, then enrolled in the doctoral program in art history at Harvard. Gardner was named director of the Museum in September 1933.
He believed strongly that education was an important role for the Museum. He set up a docent program to give tours to schoolchildren, made sure free Saturday art classes were offered, and hired a full-time Director of Education. These endeavors were so successful that The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York modeled its program on the Nelson-Atkins program.
While Gardner was director, the Museum acquired works of art from every culture, including American Indian, ancient, European, American and Asian. In 1941, the Museum received its first major gift—a collection of English pottery from Kansas Citian Frank P. Burnap. Extensive additions were made to the Chinese collection under Laurence Sickman’s guidance, who had been appointed Curator of Oriental Art. By 1941, the Museum’s holdings of Chinese art placed it in the top rank of American museums in the Asian field. Also acquired was a respectable collection of sculpture from India and southeast Asia, as well as a small collection of Persian art.