K.C. home of artist Thomas Hart Benton often overlooked by visitors

Monday, January 16, 2006

The site's operating budget is barely $500 more than it was 23 years ago.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Nearly 23 years after opening to great fanfare as a state museum, the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio is a lonely place.

"It's kind of sad," said Jerry Rardin, the home's maintenance man and groundskeeper for 20 years. "When I first started working here, we were busy every day with tourists. Last five or six years, we'll go days and not have anybody."

The museum is the 1903 house where Benton, one of Kansas City's most famous artists, worked for nearly 30 years. It is preserved as it was when Benton died there 31 years ago this month.

But each year fewer people enter the large wood and limestone house in Kansas City's Valentine neighborhood to see Benton's books, or his framed prints or originals, or the rooms where the Bentons' two children grew up.

"In the back of my mind I'm kind of worried," said site administrator Steve Sitton.

More than 7,300 visited the Benton home in 1983, when the Missouri Department of Conservation opened the home as a state historic site. Except for 1989, when 8,700 toured the house during Benton's 100th birthday celebration year, attendance has declined steadily. Fewer than 3,300 visitors came last year.

The site's operating budget, just short of $11,000 a year, is barely $500 more than it was 23 years ago.

"The last big group I had wasn't this weekend, it was the weekend before," tour guide Michael Parks said. "Eight, maybe 11 people."

Future concerns

Sitton said that in an era of tight state budgets, the future concerns him. He's certain the state will always preserve the house. But to what degree?

"How low does visitation go before the state legislature decides that this isn't worth three full-time salaries," he said.

Even compared to other area historic sites, attendance at the Benton home is low. More than 9,400 people toured the Vaile Mansion in Independence. The closest was the John Wornall House Museum with 3,448 visitors.

"The John J. Pershing house is in the middle of nowhere," Sitton said of the Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing's boyhood home in Linn County. "They have a higher attendance than I do."

More than 5,700 people toured the World War I general's home in 2005.

Popular artist

Benton's work, however, remains popular. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art holds one of the largest collections of Benton's work, including "Persephone" and "Hollywood."

A Nelson exhibit last summer of works by George Caleb Bingham and Benton drew thousands. Harvard University author Justin Wolff will publish a new Benton biography this year.

"He has not fallen off the radar. If anything, quite recently, there has been a resurgence of interest," said the Nelson's curator of American art, Margie Conrads.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources said they would like the number of visitors at the Benton home to be larger, but they're not overly concerned.

"We're not about huge visitation, we're about preservation" said Jim Rehard, the department's supervisor for Missouri's northern historic district. "Right now the home is very special. It has so much integrity.

"Actually, it would be difficult if we had 100,000 people going through there."

Besides being hard on the neighbors, he said, it would also be hard on the house.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: