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Getting and Giving

The first family of American patronage of the arts.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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Moreover, John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s taste in art was quite refined. His most personal project is the Cloisters, located on one of the highest points in Manhattan. In the 1920s, Junior began working with George Grey Barnard, a sculptor who collected remnants of French medieval cathedrals and shipped them to the United States. Barnard donated his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but Junior decided to create a building for Barnard’s collection and the other medieval works he purchased and enjoyed, such as the seven very large Unicorn Tapestries created around 1500. The Cloisters, opened in 1938, is operated by the Metropolitan Museum but would never have existed without John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s vision and taste. It remains the crowning achievement of Rockefeller arts funding.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. influenced art a third way by limiting the spending of his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who fell in love with modern art at an early stage. Junior’s response was to ban his wife from spending more than $1,000 on anything modern; Abby’s response to that was to spend money she inherited on smaller works by young, struggling artists. She also worked with other donors to fund the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1934, Junior relented and allowed his wife to spend more money on contemporary art. After Abby Rockefeller’s death in 1948, Junior chose to honor his wife’s memory by making gifts to the Museum of Modern Art which ultimately totaled over $4 million.

One of Abby Rockefeller’s favorite artists was the Mexican Communist Diego Rivera who, in 1931, obtained a commission to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center. In his wisdom, Rivera created a mural where, on the left, plutocrats and society matrons played cards under a cloud of syphilis and gonorrhea germs, while on the right, workers were being clubbed by police officers. “The dominant color is red,” one New York newspaper wrote, “red headdresses, red flags. Waves of red.”

“Mrs. Rockefeller said she likes my painting very much,” Rivera said. “Mr. Rockefeller likes it too.” But as soon as Rivera began to paint Lenin into the fresco the Rockefellers objected and the mural was, at first, boarded up and then destroyed in 1934. Rivera re-created it in Mexico City, making sure that Junior was added to the group of plutocrats doomed by venereal disease.

Most of John and Abby Rockefeller’s children bought art. John D. 3rd continued his father’s interest in Asian art and bought many Japanese sculptures, paintings, and prints, which he gave to the Asia Society. David Rockefeller bought a great deal of art for the Chase Manhattan Bank (which he chaired for many years) and also served as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art’s board for over a decade, steering it through several financial crises in the 1980s and ’90s. David has said that, when he dies, MoMA will get $100 million from his estate. But the most passionate art collector of his generation was Nelson Rockefeller. Buying art seems to have been a form of therapy for him. His chief art adviser, René d’Harnoncourt, recalled that, during his two years as vice president in the Ford administration, when Rockefeller would enter late Friday afternoon

absolutely gray-green from overwork, his idea of a relaxing rest was to take a night plane with me to the West Coast, arrive at nine a.m. and carefully examine some 1000 pieces of primitive art, of which he would buy about 40. He returned to Washington on the next night plane looking refreshed, rosy-cheeked, and as fit as after a vacation.

Martin Morse Wooster, senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, is the author, most recently, of Great Philanthropic Mistakes.

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