With world-class art collections and institutions devoted to music and the history of black sports, this prairie town has become a contender for a cultural hub.
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K.ansas City – once an edgy town known for cowboys and stockyards, Jesse James, and mob bosses – has grown into a sophisticated place devoted to art and music over the past century. Here, the nascent art of jazz was infused with ragtime and blues, where African American baseball players first formed a league of their own and the bold tastes of some visionary art collectors made the city a destination for art lovers.
It’s difficult – and subjective – to pluck the best museums from KC’s bumpers with extraordinary options. In addition to the four detailed below, there are house museums such as Wornall House, Major House, and Thomas Hart Benton House and Studio, where visitors can learn about important people who lived in Kansas City.
There are also museums with a broader focus on local history, such as the Arabia Steamboat Museum and Shoal Creek Living History Museum, as well as places of greater national and international interest such as the Truman Library and Museum and the Grand National WWI Museum and Memorial. There are also specialized and peculiar institutions abound: the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures and a museum dedicated to the TWA.
So come to Kansas City for a barbecue, but don’t miss the amazing music, art, culture, and history of this polished Midwestern gem.
The Nelson-Atkins Art Museum
The art on display at Nelson-Atkins is so diverse and impressive that coastal visitors expecting a taste of the province may be surprised. From the opening of the original building in 1933 – a subdued Beaux Arts limestone building – to a steady expansion that included the modern addition of five glass pavilions, the museum has amassed more than 34,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years.
The extensive Asian art collection began with formal works from Imperial China and now includes exciting pieces from all parts of the continent. Visitors can also look forward to beautifully crafted examples of Plains Indians and more than 60 paintings by the hometown boy Thomas Hart Benton, which add a local flair to galleries of European painting, African art and decorative art, as well as exciting modern works in the translucent Bloch- Building.
Outside, the 22 hectare Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park is a knockout: enormous badminton sculptures by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen rest on the spacious lawn in front of the museum. 12 monumental bronze works by Henry Moore inhabit their own forest area and a disturbing phalanx of 30 headless figures by Magdalena Abakanowicz takes center stage alongside works by sculptural superstars such as di Suvero, Segal, Morris, Cragg and Calder. Expect more than a couple of hours here.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
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The Negro leagues, which officially operated from 1920 to 1960, drew a crowd not only because of their world-class athleticism – players like Buck O’Neill, Roy Campanella, Pop Lloyd and Josh Gibson are still used for comparison today – but also because of the show style in every game. Pitcher Satchel Paige, a self-taught marketing genius, would be a great way to call the outfielder into the infield to signal his intention to beat the next batsman. And cool Papa Bell was running so fast that Paige joked that while he lived on the street together, Bell flipped the light switch and was under the covers before the room went dark.
Learn these stories and more at the 10,000-square-foot Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The institution is just a short walk from the famous Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque and is one of the cultural anchors of the historic 18th and Vine district, along with the adjacent American Jazz Museum and Gem Theater. The exhibits show not only Negro League artifacts (baggy wool uniforms, signed baseball balls, battered gloves, lots of photography), but also significant journeys into the world of segregation and racism that the teams face. a documentary narrated, of course, by James Earl Jones; and a gift shop homerun. (You already know you’ll want your hometown team jersey.)
Kemper Museum for Contemporary Art
The Kemper entered the Kansas City museum scene in 1994 (and is just a five-minute walk from Nelson-Atkins). It focuses on modern and contemporary art without making visitors feel that it is limiting its options. The sky-lit structure shows painting, sculpture, film and video, textiles and mixed media by future great artists, as well as well-known names such as Hockney, Bourgeois (one of their giant bronze spider sculptures guards the museum entrance), Pollock, O’Keeffe and de Kooning.
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A generous foundation keeps entry free and offers many programs for adults, young people and children – a fact that has made the museum a real community object in its relatively short term in office. Even Café Sebastienne, the lively on-site restaurant, has proven to be a popular brunch spot for locals.
American Jazz Museum
Before you get the idea that all of Kansas City’s jazz took place in the city’s distant “Cradle of Jazz” past, note that there are still roughly a million places in town that you can go to every night the week and even after listening to jazz, other clubs may close. (The Mutual Musicians Foundation, the listed union hall of former Colored Musicians Local 627, hosts jam sessions all night on weekends.)
In fact, the American Jazz Museum, located in the same building as the National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, has its own on-site live music venue, the Blue Room, where local and national bands play. The museum itself, a modern building with Art Deco flourishes, displays sentimental memorabilia (a sequined dress by Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker’s saxophone from KC) as well as photos, artwork, films and videos, sheet music, and fantastic neon signs from old clubs.
There are also engaging interactive elements like kiosks and listening stations where visitors can play with the big guys, learn about different styles of jazz, and play around with mixers and equipment for recording studios.
>> Next: The AFAR Guide to Kansas City