The Remarkable Hall Family of Kansas City
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
“The fine arts,” says Donald J. Hall, “are tangible expressions of the very best kind of creativity and problem-solving. They contribute directly to our quality of life and our sense of what is possible.”
Those words aren’t a simple platitude. They come from the head of a family that has contributed immeasurably to advancing photography as fine art and to emphatically enhancing the qualities of people’s lives in the communities where they live. You might not know the name “Donald Hall”, but once you connect it to the company his father founded―Hallmark Cards―you begin to get a sense of the measure of his words.
Hall has now been at the helm of Hallmark Cards for more than fifty years, and during his tenure he and his family have lived by his words. In addition to assuring the corporate generosity of the Hallmark Cards Corporation, Donald chairs the Hall Family Foundation, which has left a significant mark on its hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.
Fortunately, for historians, students and other lovers of the photography, Kansas City is also home to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a world-class institution that now houses one of the premier photography collections in the world. And the story of how that collection came into being is inextricably bound to Donald J. Hall and his family.
At the head of the Hall family was Joyce C. Hall, the man who started a bare-bones postcard business in 1910 and grew it into a printing company five years later. Hall, whom everyone called J.C., and his brothers expanded the printing business with a prudent but self-assured approach, and by 1928, the Hall Brothers company was successful enough that they began selling greeting cards under the Hallmark brand name.
Through smart marketing (think “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best.”) and shrewd business skills their business grew into a national and then global powerhouse. As their success and their wealth grew, J.C. and his wife Elizabeth decided to give back to the city where they lived. Along with J.C.’s brother Rollie, they formed the Hall Family Foundation in 1943 to “help the people and enhance the quality of life” in Kansas City. The Foundation is still very active today.
In 1949 J.C. decided that one way to improve the quality of life was to bring more art to town. He established the International Hallmark Art Awards competition to help broaden the public’s interest in contemporary art and to help the company select the best works of art to purchase. Within a few years, the Hallmark Art Collection included paintings by a growing group of modern masters, including Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, David Park, and others.
Donald J. Hall, J.C.’s son, became involved in expanding the collection in the 1960s, and at the recommendation of the company’s Vice President David Strout Hallmark began collecting photography in 1964. Their first purchase set the tone for the collection for many years: 141 prints by Harry Callahan, representing an entire cross-section of his career up until that time.
Fast forward to 1979. Over the 15 years since Hallmark’s first photography acquisition, their holdings had grown modestly to about 650 prints, and Strout began looking for someone to help catalog their holdings. Strout also served on the Board of Trustees of the George Eastman House, and it was there he met a young intern named Keith F. Davis. Davis, who had recently received his graduate degree in photography at the University of New Mexico under Beaumont Newhall, moved to Kansas City for what was supposed to be a six-month job. He has never left.
With the unwavering support of Donald J. Hall and Hall Family Foundation president William A. Hall, Davis used an innate collector’s eye and a deep knowledge of photographic history to gradually expand their holdings into one of the country’s top corporate photography collections. At every step of the way, he was encouraged by the family’s enthusiasm and sense of pride in his accomplishments.
Davis told me, “The family is committed to the idea of that some of the most important things that can be done are done steadily, consistently, over decades or even generations. The photo program is one facet of this larger vision that the Hall family and the Hall Family Foundation have in regard to the life of their community. They look for specific things that really are special and that no one else is doing. It’s that long-range thinking and commitment to lasting principles that make all the difference.”
By the late 1990s, the Halls began to consider the transition of the collection to a permanent venue. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, one of Kansas City’s iconic institutions, was about to undertake a major expansion, and the family began serious discussions about how to integrate the photography collection into the new building. The Halls had a long history of giving significant gifts of both art and funding to the museum, and it was only natural that the photography collection would be folded into the museum’s holdings as well.
Davis said, “The Hall family sincerely wanted then―and continues to want now―to do what it can to make this community exceptional, to do things unique to Kansas City. The photography collection is one of those special interests that they take great pride in.” The transfer of the collection took place in late 2005, in the final phase of the build-up to the opening of the museum’s new Bloch wing in June 2007. Donald Hall insisted that Keith Davis go with the collection in order to maintain the continuity of the family’s vision and to provide the museum with immediate world-class expertise.
Among the 6,500 photographs that were transferred to the museum are 320 works by Callahan, believed to be the largest private collection of his prints in the world; 237 prints by Andre Kertesz; 161 by Todd Webb; 127 by Clarence John Laughlin; 88 by Dorothea Lange; and 84 by Carl Van Vechten. The collection also includes hundreds of American daguerreotypes and many other 19th century images.
At the time of the transfer to the museum, it was estimated that the value of the collection was $65 million. The Hallmark corporation arranged for a significant portion of the collection to be given as a gift to the museum, and the remainder was purchased with a donation from the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. Since that time the Hall Family Foundation has supported the museum’s photography program, with funds for continuing acquisitions, curatorial and conservation positions, and general support of the department. The total amount of these contributions is known to be at least $20 million.
Keith Davis says of the Hall family’s contributions, “It was a matter of some genuine imagination for a corporation to get involved in photography in 1964. That legacy, that history, that early commitment, is a definite point of pride. It’s hard for me to convey how special and unusual their contribution has been.”
“Even if some works may be highly abstract or constructed, photography begins as a fundamentally inviting medium. And from that starting point, it can take us just about anywhere.”
It is impossible to separate the significance of the photography collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art from the vision and generosity of the Hall family. Hallmark Cards says it’s part of their mission to bring people together “because what we create only matters when it’s shared with someone else.” Certainly, those values come directly from the vision and generosity of the Hall family.
When asked why the family has invested so much in making photography a centerpiece of their philanthropy, Donald J. Hall said “The art of photography is a wonderfully rich and deep subject, but we like the fact that most viewers engage the medium out of a basic sense of comfort and familiarity. Even if some works may be highly abstract or constructed, photography begins as a fundamentally inviting medium. And from that starting point, it can take us just about anywhere.”
For more about the Hallmark Cards Photography Collection, see Keith F. Davis’s authoritative book An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital.