When a group of Kansas Citians got together in 1885 to start a Sketch Club “to talk over art matters in general and to judge pictures,” they could not know they were creating an institution that would become a distinguished four-year college of art and design: The Kansas City Art Institute.
Notable names associated with the school include Walt Disney, who took Saturday classes there as a child; painter Thomas Hart Benton, who taught at KCAI from 1935 to 1941; multimedia artist Robert Rauschenberg, who studied fashion design at KCAI in the 1940s; sculptor, conceptual artist and writer Robert Morris, who studied at KCAI in the late 1940s; J. C. Nichols, real estate magnate and founder of Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, who was president of the board of trustees from 1920 to 1927; and William T. Kemper Jr., who joined the board in 1934 and served 54 years until his death in 1989, longer than any other trustee. During the J.C. Nichols years, the school’s budget was $40,000; today that figure tops $15 million.
Since its inception the school has moved multiple times, from its original location at 11th and Main streets to its current site at 4415 Warwick Blvd., where the campus has been located since 1927.
In that year, trustee Howard Vanderslice, grain dealer, merchant and donor of the “Pioneer Mother” statue in Penn Valley Park, came up with a plan for purchasing the August R. Meyer residence and the surrounding 8.5 acres. (Meyer was the mining magnate for whom Kansas City’s Meyer Boulevard is named.) The location was strategically adjacent to the tract that had been set aside for the Nelson Gallery and Mary Atkins Museum (now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), which opened in 1933.
Since 1996, the Kansas City Art Institute has completed improvements to the campus totaling more than $27 million, including the new Jannes Library and Learning Center, which opened in 2002 in a refurbished mansion at 3538 Warwick Blvd., and the Lawrence and Kristina Dodge Painting Building, which opened in 2006 at 4446 Oak St. In 1999 the college opened a public gallery, the H&R Block Artspace, located at 16 E. 43rd St., and in 2009 it opened a branch location for continuing education classes at 1801 N.W. Platte Rd., Suite 275 in Riverside, Mo., to serve Metropolitan Kansas City’s growing Northland region. In 2013, the college's fiber program was united under one roof in the new Warehouse building, 4218 Walnut St., located just north of the H&R Block Artspace.