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The Kansas City Art Institute

While we throw around familiar terms for our beloved KCAI, we thought it might be interesting to explore who the benefactors are, what are the origins of the institution, and a brief history. 

In 1885, at the suggestion of Fred Richardson of The Fine Arts Institute of Chicago, The Sketch Club was organized with the express purpose to “talk over art matters and to judge pictures.” By 1887, there was enough local momentum to incorporate the Kansas City Art Association and School of Design to, “conduct a school for instruction in drawing, modeling, printing, and designing, and the construction and maintenance of buildings suitable for such purposes.” A School of Fine Arts and a night school were opened in 1888. But, unfortunately, a fire destroyed the entire school. For 14 years, the entire art project was abandoned.

By 1907, The Fine Arts Institute of Kansas City was incorporated, putting the concept back on the map. In 1920, the name was amended to Kansas City Art Institute, and was moved to the Toll residence at Armour and Warwick Boulevards. In 1927, Mr. Howard Vanderslice purchased the A. R. Meyer residence at 4415 Warwick and gave it to the Art Institute on eight and a half  acres, where – in 1928 the facility moved. Upon Mr. Vanderslice’s death in 1929, he bequeathed $200,000 to KCAI for an endowment, libraries, and scholarships. (He also donated the statue Pioneer Mother to Kansas City.) Shortly thereafter, in 1930, Mrs. U. S. Epperson dedicated Epperson Memorial Hall in her late husband’s name. The Gothic-designed building provided an auditorium, an organ, a piano, galleries, and lecture halls as the need for classroom and community spaces had been increasing. By this time, coursework included painting, drawing design, murals, commercial illustration, interior architecture and design, costume design and fashion, pottery, lettering layout, lithography, color theory, and art history. 

By the early 1920s, J.C. Nichols took the helm of the office of president (while launching the Country Club Plaza), and F. M. Bernardin then succeeded him in 1927 as president. Under Mr. Bernardin’s guidance, the organization relieved itself of debt, and he helped found the Outdoor Studio Programs during the summers. With obvious links to the Nelson and Kirkwood families at the time, the slice of acreage just east of the upcoming Country Club Plaza was firmly entrenched in the culture of and education of art and artists. 

In an obscure reference in the 1932 article, we came across this quote:                          

“Mary Atkins and Frank Rozzelle share with Mr. Nelson and Mr. Vanderslice as benefactors of the cause of art.” There is no attribution, but it is a fair addition to the discussion of art.

According to the KCAI website of today, its purpose is: The mission of the Kansas City Art Institute is to prepare gifted students to transform the world creatively through art and design. And, the vision of the Kansas City Art Institute is to be an innovative leader in art and design education. There are 13 majors, 16 acres, and a newer neighbor in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art within 200 yards. Our hat is off to the visionary founders and benefactors of such an important part of Kansas City’s history and continued education. 

Photo reprinted from the September 24, 1932 issue of The Independent.



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