Laurence Sickman was enthusiastically appointed as director on April 23, 1953, during a meeting of the Museum trustees. However, his involvement with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art actually began more than 20 years earlier.
Sickman was named in 1931 as assistant to Langdon Warner, who had been retained by the Nelson trustees to purchase Chinese art. Sickman was a Denver native, a Harvard graduate who went to China in 1930 on a Harvard-Yenching Fellowship. His fluency in the language and knowledge of Chinese art and architecture would provide to be an invaluable asset to the Nelson-Atkins.
During his trips to China in the early 1930s, Sickman discovered and purchased a wealth of treasures. He was instrumental in acquiring the ceiling from the Ch’ih’hua Temple in Peking, built in 1444 by Wang Chin, now one of the glories of the Museum’s Chinese Temple Gallery. He collected objects from the whole range of the evolution of Chinese civilization, starting with Neolithic pots dated 3500 B.C.E. and continuing through works up to 1850.
After his appointment as director in 1953, Sickman assembled an impressive staff in the areas of European and American art, Ancient, and European decorative arts. Acquisitions in the following years included Rodin’s Adam, Monet’s Water Lilies and de Kooning’s Woman IV. Sickman continued to buy Asian art, including outstanding Indian and Chinese bronzes and Chinese paintings, and urged the trustees to buy Japanese art. The Friends of Art made stunning purchases during the 1960s, including works by Kandinsky, Rothko, Calder, Lipchitz, Pollock and Warhol. The 1970s saw the acquisition of Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, and The Ballet Rehearsal by Edgar Degas. In 1975, the Gallery became the preeminent holder of 28 works by Kansas City’s own Thomas Hart Benton.
Many worthwhile special exhibitions were mounted during the 1970s, but none so spectacular as “Archaeological Finds of the People’s Republic of China.” This exhibition of 385 pieces was a product of the political détente between the United States and China. It is without doubt the reputation of Laurence Sickman that brought the exhibition to Kansas City. In charge was then curator of Oriental art, Marc F. Wilson, who served as the Museum’s director/CEO from 1982-2010.
After 25 years as director, Sickman retired in 1977, ushering in the third director, Ralph T. Coe. The first special exhibition presented under Coe’s leadership was “Hills and Valleys Within: Laurence Sickman and the Oriental Collection,” honoring Sickman’s role in forming the Gallery’s great Asian collection.