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Kansas City Curator Who Built The Nelson-Atkins' World-Class Photography Collection Resigns In Protest

The Nelson-Atkins Museum campus with an illuminated Bloch Building on right.
Public Domain

In 2005, Keith Davis brought the Hallmark Photographic Collection to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and founded the museum's photography department. Now, he's leaving after another curator lost her job.

Last month, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art announced it was cutting its budget by 25 percent and laying off 36 staffers to cope with financial challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It does cut across all (of) the museum," said CEO and director Julián Zugazagoitia at the time, and suggested that "recalibrating and restructuring" was ahead.

National arts writer Tyler Green reported on Wednesday that the departures include two of three curators in the museum's photography department. These curators oversaw the internationally recognized Hallmark Photographic Collection with works from 1839 to the present.

According to Green, an author, critic and host of The Modern Art Notes Podcast, senior curator Keith Davis resigned in protest of the termination of curator Jane L. Aspinwall.

Davis confirmed Green's account with a copy of the email he'd sent on Tuesday to professional friends and colleagues.

When the museum announced cuts on October 21, Davis wrote, "To my surprise and shock, Jane L. Aspinwall was on that list."

Aspinwall was a curator and collections supervisor of photography. A bio on the museum's website says she "worked with the Hallmark Photographic Collection since 1999 and was the first member of the Photography department after the Hallmark collection was gifted to the Nelson-Atkins in 2005."

According to Davis, he lobbied for 10 days to save Aspinwall's position but received word on Sunday that he was not successful. So he chose to resign.

He added, "A department that had formerly had 3 richly experienced curators (one Senior Curator; two full Curators) now has a single curator. I very sincerely wish the new department well and hope that it will survive this Covid period and prosper in every way possible thereafter."

Green described recent events as a blow to the museum's reputation.

"The N-A has long had one of America's top photography departments," Green wrote on Twitter. "Now two-thirds of it is gone."

Dorothea Lange, American (1895-1965). Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936; printed early 1960s.
Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Dorothea Lange, American (1895-1965). Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936; printed early 1960s.

Davis' connection to the photography collection dates back to the late 1970s when he became curator of the Hallmark Fine Art Collections at Hallmark Cards, Inc.

From 1979 to 2005, Davis enlarged the Hallmark Photographic Collection from 650 works by 35 artists to 6,500 works by about 900 artists, according to his museum bio.

In 2005, Davis moved with the collection to become the founding curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. He continued to expand the museum's collection with new acquisitions, including 800 works in 2017, and it now holds more than 15,000 works from the 1820s to the present.

Some of the photographs in the collection — from daguerreotypes to holdings by Dorothea Lange, Harry Callahan and Terry Evans — are on view in rotation in the museum's Bloch Building, which opened in 2007.

“Keith should feel tremendous pride for the legacy he has helped to build," said Julian Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of the museum, in a statement released Thursday by the Hall Family Foundation.

The Foundation thanked Davis "for his long-term devoted service" and expressed their ongoing commitment to the museum.

“We have great confidence that the Nelson-Atkins will continue to build on the legacy of this photography collection,” said the Foundation's president Mayra Aguirre. “The Hall Family Foundation looks forward to continuing its long-standing support of this unique and special photography collection.”

Editor's note: This post has been updated to include responses from the museum and the Hall Family Foundation.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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