When William Rockhill Nelson arrived in Kansas City in the early 1880s, he found a raw frontier town. He pronounced it “incredibly ugly and commonplace” and determined that “if I were to live here the town must be made over.”
As founder of The Kansas City Star, Nelson soon became a crusader for civic improvements, setting out to make the city more beautiful with parks, boulevards and plantings. Perhaps his major contribution to the city’s advancement, however, was his advocacy for the creation of an art gallery.
Unknown to Nelson and the vast majority of local citizens, another area resident had dedicated herself to the acquisition and exhibition of fine art. Mary McAfee Atkins had moved to Kansas City in 1878. When her husband, James Atkins, died in 1886, he left his widow a considerable estate.In 1927, by consensus among their respective trustees, the Nelson and Atkins funds were combined, resulting in a total of more than $3 million to build an art museum that would rival the best in the country.