The Founding Curator of the Nelson-Atkins Photography Department Has Resigned in Protest of Layoffs at the Museum

Keith F. Davis, the founding curator of the photography department at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, has resigned his position in protest of layoffs at the institution. Davis had spent 10 days fighting to save the job of Jane L. Aspinwall, the museum’s photography curator and collections supervisor, before making his decision, according to radio outlet KCUR.

The Nelson-Atkins announced last month that it was laying off 36 staffers, or 16 percent of its employees, in an effort to reduce the museum’s budget by 25 percent, to about $26 million.

When the museum named the terminated employees, “to my surprise and shock, Jane L. Aspinwall was on that list,” Davis wrote in an email to colleagues, which was quoted by the radio station.

Davis joined the Nelson-Atkins in 2005, when it acquired the 6,500-work Hallmark Photographic Collection from the Hallmark Fine Art Collections, where he had served as curator since 1979.

“My goal was to build a genuinely special American collection,” he told Photograph in 2013, “one with breadth and depth that could tell a fresh story.”

Jane Aspinwall. Photo courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Jane Aspinwall. Photo courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Davis has since helped grow the Nelson-Atkins’s photography holdings to more than 15,000 images while continuing to work an advisor to the Hall Family Foundation. His resignation this week terminates his tenure at both organizations.

“I would like to express the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s deep gratitude to the Hall Family Foundation for its generous commitment to growing the collection over the years and especially for Keith’s stewardship of this remarkable collection,” said Julian Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, in a statement issued by the Hall Family Foundation. “Keith should feel tremendous pride for the legacy he has helped to build.”

The museum declined to comment on the circumstances of Davis’s departure or the decision to lay off Aspinwall, who began working with the Hallmark Photographic Collection in 1999 and joined the Nelson-Atkins when it was gifted to the museum.

Unknown photographer, California gold miners with long tom (c. 1850). Photo courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

She has curated such as exhibitions as “Golden Prospects: California Gold Rush Daguerreotypes,” “Dignity vs Despair: Dorothea Lange and Depression-Era Photographers,” and “Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans,” and was most recently working on an Alfred Eisenstaedt exhibition and catalogue, set to open in January.

Davis has more than 100 exhibitions under his belt, and has authored more than 30 catalogues and books. His honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the 2018 Award for Lifetime Contributions to the Field from the Association of International Photography Art Dealers.

“The [Nelson-Atkins] has long had one of America’s top photography departments,” wrote art critic Tyler Green, who first reported news of Davis’s resignation on Twitter. “Now two-thirds of it is gone.”

The museum is among a growing number of museums nationwide who have been forced to resort to layoffs this year. While the Nelson-Atkins was closed for six months between March and September, it “lost revenue from event rentals, fundraisers, ticketing, the Rozzelle Court Restaurant, parking fees, and sale of merchandise,” according to a statement from the museum. It does not charge admission.

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