Mary McAfee was a Kentucky schoolteacher, born in 1836, who moved to Kansas City in 1878 after marrying her longtime friend James Burris Atkins. He was also a Kentuckian, but he had come to Kansas City in 1865 to enter the milling business and to speculate in Kansas City real estate.
When he died in 1886, he left Mary grief-stricken as a 50-year-old widow. He also left her a sizable estate. At the turn of the century, Mary Atkins began the first of eight trips to Europe, where she immersed herself in the collections of the Louvre and the Luxembourg in Paris, the National Gallery in London, and the Saxon royal museums in Dresden.
Her love for the art treasures and her strong sense of community helped her decide to leave funds for a museum of fine arts. Mary Atkins died in 1911, and she left $300,000 to build a museum. Because of the prudent management of the estate by trustees, that amount had grown to $700,000 by 1927.
Although the Atkins Museum of Fine Arts was originally to be built as a separate institution, trustees agreed that the Atkins funds would be joined with the Nelson funds to create what is today one of the finest art museums in the country.