Kansas City—once a rough-edged town known for cowboys and stockyards, Jesse James and mob bosses—has over the past century become a sophisticated place, devoted to art and music. This is where the nascent art of jazz was infused with ragtime and the blues, where African American baseball players first formed a league of their own, and where the bold tastes of a few visionary art collectors turned the city into a destination for art lovers.
Plucking the best museums from KC’s bumper crop of extraordinary options is tough—and subjective. In addition to the four described at length below, there are house museums like the Wornall House, the Major House, and the Thomas Hart Benton House and Studio, where visitors can learn more about important individuals who lived in Kansas City.
There are also museums with a broader focus on regional history, like the Arabia Steamboat Museum and the Shoal Creek Living History Museum, as well as places of a greater national and international interest like the Truman Library and Museum and the grand National WWI Museum and Memorial. Specialized and quirky institutions abound, too: the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures and a museum dedicated to TWA, among them.
So sure, come to Kansas City for the barbecue but don’t miss out on seeing the fantastic music, art, culture, and history of this polished Midwestern gem.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
So wide-ranging and impressive is the art on display at the Nelson-Atkins that coastal visitors expecting provincial taste may be surprised. From the 1933 opening of the original building—a subdued Beaux-Arts limestone edifice—through a steady expansion that has included the modern addition of five glass pavilions, the museum has amassed more than 34,000 pieces of art spanning 5,000 years.
The extensive Asian art collection began with formal works from Imperial China, but now ranges to exciting pieces from all over the continent. Visitors can also look forward to beautifully wrought examples from Plains Indians and more than 60 paintings by hometown boy Thomas Hart Benton, which add some local flavor to galleries full of European painting, African art, and decorative arts, as well as exciting modern works housed in the translucent Bloch Building.
Outside, the 22-acre Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park is a knockout: Enormous shuttlecock sculptures by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen rest on the expansive tiered lawn in front of the museum, 12 monumental bronze works by Henry Moore inhabit their own wooded area, and a disturbing phalanx of 30 headless figures by Magdalena Abakanowicz stands at attention, alongside works of sculptural superstars like di Suvero, Segal, Morris, Cragg, and Calder. Expect to spend more than a few hours here.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
The Negro Leagues, which formally ran from 1920 all the way through 1960, drew crowds not just because of the world-class athleticism on display—players like Buck O’Neill, Roy Campanella, Pop Lloyd, and Josh Gibson are still used for comparision today—but also because of the showmanship involved in every game. Pitcher Satchel Paige, a self-taught marketing genius, would grandly summon the outfielders to the infield to signal his intent to strike out the next batter. And Cool Papa Bell ran so fast that Paige joked that, while rooming together on the road, Bell would flip the light switch and be 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, located just a short walk from the famous Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, is one of the cultural anchors of the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood, along with the adjoining American Jazz Museum and the Gem Theater. In addition to displaying Negro League artifacts (baggy wool uniforms, autographed baseballs, battered mitts, lots of photography), the exhibits include meaningful trips into the world of segregation and racism faced by the teams; a documentary film narrated by, of course, James Earl Jones; and a home run of a gift shop. (You already know you’re going to want your hometown’s team jersey.)
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
A 1994 addition to Kansas City’s museum scene (and a pleasant five-minute walk from the Nelson-Atkins), the Kemper focuses on modern and contemporary art without giving visitors the sense that it’s narrowed its options. The sky-lit structure exhibits painting, sculpture, film and video, textiles, and mixed media from soon-to-be-big artists as well as well-known names like Hockney, Bourgeois (one of her immense bronze spider sculptures guards the museum’s entrance), Pollock, O’Keeffe, and de Kooning.
A generous endowment keeps admission free and offers lots of programming for adults, teens, and kids—a fact that has made the museum, in its relatively short tenure, a real community fixture. Even Café Sebastienne, the lively on-site restaurant, has proven a favorite brunch spot for locals.
American Jazz Museum
Before you get the notion that all the jazz in Kansas City took place in the city’s distant “Cradle of Jazz” past, please note that there are still roughly a million places in town to see music any night of the week, and even after the other clubs shut down. (The Mutual Musicians Foundation, the landmarked union hall of the former Colored Musicians Local 627, holds all-night weekend jam sessions.)
In fact, the American Jazz Museum, housed 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 structure with art deco flourishes, displays sentimental memorabilia (a sequined gown owned by Ella Fitzgerald, KC native Charlie Parker’s saxophone) alongside photos, artwork, film and video, sheet music, and fantastic neon signs salvaged from old clubs.
There are also engaging interactive elements like kiosks and listening stations, where visitors can play along with the greats, learn about different jazz styles, and mess around with mixing boards and recording-studio equipment.
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