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Department of Modern and Contemporary Art Records

 Record Group
Identifier: RG-05

Collection Description

The records contain correspondence, memos, financial records, presentations, and dealer, exhibition, grants, catalog, and research files, departmental planning and reporting, and other miscellaneous materials which document the activities of the department, primarily from the tenures of Deborah Emont Scott, Jan Schall, and Leesa Fanning. The following exhibitions are heavily represented in the records: Ken Ferguson, Joel Shapiro, Tempus Fugit, Electronic Super Highway, Carrie Mae Weems: The Hampton Project, and Electromediascope. There is also a significant amount of material on the Electromediascope film series, the Kansas City Sculpture Park, an initiative to collect the works of African American artists, the Modern Sculpture Initiative, and other collecting programs, as well as Horizons (a program to foster interest in modern and contemporary art, and gallery reinstallations.


  • Creation: 1971-2005

Conditions on Access

Since this collection is unprocessed, requested records must be reviewed before they can be viewed by researchers; allow a minimum of one week for review.

Conditions on Use

Notification of intent to publish, quote, or cite archival materials is required. Contact the archives via

Administrative/Biographical Sketch

Reflecting his preference for art by Old Masters, museum founder William Rockhill Nelson prohibited the use of funds from his bequest to purchase works by artists unless they had been dead for at least 30 years, a rule that made it difficult for the museum to build a collection in modern and contemporary art. Nelson's trustees determined, however, that this restriction did not prevent them from accepting such art as gifts. In December 1934, Kansas City art supporters formed the Friends of Art, a separate organization that would annually select and buy a work of modern or contemporary art for the museum. The Friends of Art made it possible for the museum to establish a modern art collection through both gifts of art and monetary contributions, with the museum’s first director, Paul Gardner, acting as their guide through selections and purchases.

In December of 1954, The Nelson Gallery Foundation was established as a way to work around some of the stipulations set forth in Nelson’s will, including the exclusions established towards the purchase of more current works of art. That same year, Patrick J. Kelleher was hired by the museum "to strengthen the department of western art" as Curator of European and American Arts, while also serving as the Curator of Paintings and Sculpture and as primary contact with Friends of Art. Kelleher left the museum in 1959 for new duties as Director of the Princeton University Art Gallery, at which point Ralph “Ted” Coe took over both roles until eventually becoming both the Curator of Primitive Arts and the museum’s new director in 1978. During Coe’s tenure, he organized multiple groundbreaking exhibitions and activities which promoted and featured contemporary art. These included the controversial yet well-attended Logic of Modern Art exhibition in 1960, Sound, Light, Silence: Art That Performs in 1966 (which showcased a “Happening” staged by artist Al Hansen), as well as the museum’s first interactive contemporary “psychic art” show, The Magic Theatre in 1968. He also oversaw the opening of the Parker Grant Gallery in May of 1971 - a space dedicated solely to the exhibition of the museum’s contemporary art works purchased through Friends of Art. The funds for the gallery were given to the museum by Inez Parker (one of the original founders of the Friends of Art) and her brother, Earle Grant, and was the largest gift to the museum since its founding.

In 1967, Ellen R. Goheen began her career at the museum as an assistant to Coe and carried out many roles in the department until she was appointed Curator of Twentieth Century Art in 1975. She remained in this position until 1981 when she assumed the role as Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of Academic Programs in the Education Department. The position remained vacant until 1983, when Deborah Emont Scott was appointed the Sanders Sosland Curator of Twentieth Century Art. This new position, which was endowed by Mrs. Frank Lipari and other members of the Sosland family, made Scott the first curator at the museum with an academic concentration in contemporary art. During her tenure, the museum also launched the Modern Sculpture Initiative which expanded on the Henry Moore Sculpture Garden (now the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park) and saw the installation of the iconic Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen Shuttlecocks on the museum’s lawn in 1994.

In November of 1997, The Department of Twentieth Century Art officially changed its name to The Department of Modern and Contemporary Art in anticipation of the 21st century. When Deborah Emont Scott was appointed as the museum’s first full-time Chief Curator in May of 1998, she continued to hold the Sanders Sosland Curator position until Jan Schall (who came to the museum as the department's associate curator in 1996) was promoted as her successor in 2001. In 2013, Leesa Fanning (who came to the museum as the assistant curator of the department in 2002) was promoted to become the first curator for the newly named Department of Contemporary Art. Schall retired in February 2018 and Fanning in June 2018.


121.35 Linear Feet (In 87 record center cartons (84 legal, 3 letter), 1 full legal document box, 3 full letter document boxes, 1 clamshell box, 1 tube, and 1 oversize box with lid.)

Language of Materials


Note on Collection Organization

This is an unprocessed collection. A general overview of each box's contents is provided in its associated scope and contents note.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Transfer; accession numbers associated with this collection are 1996-13, 1999-13, 1999-14, 1999-15, 1999-17, 2001-03, 2000-04, 2001-06, 2000-16, 2000-22, 2003-03, 2007-01, 2007-02, 2009-01, 2009-04, 2009-05, 2009-06, 2009-07, 2009-11, 2009-12, 2010-01, 2010-03, 2010-04, 2010-14, 2010-15, 2010-20, 2011-01, 2011-02, 2011-04, 2011-05, 2011-06, 2011-10, 2012-01, 2012-05, 2012-08, 2012-12, 2012-13, 2012-14, 2013-01, 2013-03, and 2013-06.


Additions to the collection are anticipated.

Finding Aid of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art Records, RG 05
Finding aid prepared by Tara Laver and Christain Hartman
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Archives Repository

4525 Oak St.
Kansas City MO 64111 United States