Published: November 10, 2020
By Greg Smith
KANSAS CITY, MO. — Shortly after federal PPP funding ran dry, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art announced it was cutting its budget by 25 percent and laying off three dozen staff, among them the elimination of curator and collections supervisor of the photography department, Jane L Aspinwall.
Following an unsuccessful lobbying effort, the museum’s senior and founding curator of photography, Keith Davis, resigned in protest.
In a letter to colleagues, Davis wrote, “On October 21, our director announced that 36 museum staff members would be cut, effective immediately, in order to address the museum’s fiscal deficit. To my surprise and shock, Jane L. Aspinwall was on that list. This was utterly unexpected for a whole host of reasons, including the fact that Jane has the longest tenure in our department, has the deepest knowledge of the collection, has done a series of brilliant projects, and, not incidentally, the fact that our department was funded by outside money from the generous Hall Family Foundation. I spent ten intense days trying to save her position at the museum. On Monday, [November 2], I got final word that my efforts had not succeeded. As a consequence, I resigned my position as the museum’s Senior Curator of Photography.”
In a department that had three curators, one remains: April Watson, who curates the current exhibition “Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali.”
Both Davis and Aspinwall are responsible for building and elevating the Nelson-Atkins’ photography collection to one of the greatest holdings in the world, bolstered by the Hall Family Foundation’s Hallmark Photographic Collection, which Davis brought to the museum in 2005, in doing so founding the department. Its collection was installed in the museum’s newly constructed Bloch Building in 2007. Aspinwall had worked with the Hallmark Photographic Collection since 1999.
Davis had built the Hallmark collection since the 1970s as curator at Hallmark Cards, Inc. The Hall Family Foundation said he enlarged its collection from 650 works by 35 artists to 6,500 works by about 900 artists. The museum’s photography collection now contains over 15,000 images.
In a statement released October 21, the museum wrote, “The museum depends on private donations, and supporters have continued to be generous. The museum was successful in securing a Payroll Protection Program loan, and has also worked with long-time donors to reallocate funds that were previously restricted. However, those steps — while important and helpful — were not enough to cover the lost revenue caused by the pandemic-related closure.”
In a letter to the museum’s director, Julián Zugazagoitia, president of The Daguerreian Society, Mike Medhurst, wrote, “The loss of expertise represented by the departures of Jane Aspinwall and Keith Davis will be an extraordinary blow to American art, history and culture. This loss will be concentrated in Kansas City and Missouri, but it will be felt nationwide and globally.”
Since 2006, Davis and Aspinwall have been responsible for mounting approximately 45 photography exhibitions at the museum with a number of them traveling to other institutions. Davis authored 22 books and catalogs on behalf of the collection and Aspinwall has produced or contributed to at least five herself.
“We have great confidence that the Nelson-Atkins will continue to build on the legacy of this photography collection,” said Mayra Aguirre, president of the Hall Family Foundation in a statement following Davis’ resignation. “The Hall Family Foundation looks forward to continuing its longstanding support of this unique and special photography collection.”
Readers of Antiques and The Arts Weekly may remember “Golden Prospects: California Gold Rush Daguerreotypes,” an examination of Aspinwall’s most recent acclaimed exhibition at the museum that ran in our November 15, 2019 issue.
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