Shawnee Mission approves loan of ‘Utah Highlands’ to Nelson, paving way for public viewing

The landscape was painted in 1954 by Thomas Hart Benton, and publicly displayed at SM North from 1957 to 2008.
The landscape was painted in 1954 by Thomas Hart Benton, and publicly displayed at SM North.

SM North area residents who want to lay eyes on “Utah Highlands,” the Thomas Hart Benton painting given to the school as a gift of the class of 1958, will soon have the opportunity — they’ll just have to travel to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.

The Shawnee Mission School Board of Education on Monday unanimously approved an agreement to deliver the work to the museum on long-term loan for display as part of the museum’s Benton collection later this year.

The whereabouts of the painting caused a media frenzy early this year after the Kansas City Star published an article raising questions about where the painting was being held. After an appraiser valued the work at upwards of $700,000 in 2008, the district had the original work placed in a safe on the SM North campus. In response to the media attention, the district moved the work from SM North to an undisclosed location. Shawnee Mission School District Director of Safety and Security John Douglass held a press conference in January alongside the painting to prove it was still in the district’s possession and to announce the district was seeking a partner to help display it publicly.

That partner turned out to be the Nelson, which already holds one of the most robust collections of the famous Kansas City muralist and painter’s work.

The Nelson will be responsible for securing and insuring the painting under the new agreement. A letter from museum director Julián Zugazagoitia to Superintendent Jim Hinson notes that the museum will be conducting an examination of the painting and frame to determine if any restoration is necessary.

“Given that the painting hung in such a public space for so many years, our paintings conservators may recommend that the picture, or its frame, be stabilized,” Zugazagoitia wrote. Should the museum determine stabilization work is required, they would present a plan and a cost to the district for approval. The letter also notes that the work is likely to be rotated on and off view to help preserve it.

A release from the district indicated that the painting is expected to be on display in the Enid and Crosby Kemper Rotunda in late April. Signage by the painting will note that it is on loan from the Shawnee Mission School District. Should the district decide to reclaim the painting, it can do so by giving the Nelson a 60-day notice.

A copy of the letter from Zugazagoitia to the district is embedded below.