Metropolitan Museum of Art displays collection of Rockefeller ’30

by Margot Byrne | 11/11/13 4:25pm

Nelson Rockefeller ’30, a prominent benefactor to the College who went on to pursue an extensive career in diplomacy, was also an avid art collector. On Oct. 4, a year-long exhibition titled “The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to commemorate Rockefeller’s passion for non-Western art.

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was a central figure in politics, serving as Vice President from 1974 to 1977 under President Gerald Ford and as New York state governor for four consecutive terms between 1959 and 1973. His position as assistant secretary of state for American republic affairs under President Franklin Roosevelt necessitated extensive traveling to Mexico and Latin America, where Rockefeller’s interest in non-Western art originated.

Rockefeller’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was a donor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and appointed her son to the board after he graduated from Dartmouth. From his travels, Rockefeller acquired an expansive collection of Far Eastern sculpture and painting, pre-Columbian, South Sea Islands and African art.

Rockefeller strongly advocated for the display of pre-Colombian art at the Met, which, at the time was not included in the museum’s permanent collection. Rockefeller’s efforts were prevented, however, by then-director Herbert Winlock, who could not envision a place for the genre.

With the encouragement of Rene d’Harnoncourt, then-director of the Museum of Modern Art and Rockefeller’s close associate, Rockefeller founded a cultural organization devoted to his diverse art acquisitions.

The Museum of Primitive Art was built in 1957, located in a townhouse adjoining Rockefeller’s childhood home across from the Museum of Modern Art.

“A generation before ‘globalism’ became a household, Nelson Rockefeller’s vision for the Museum of Primitive Art was to make evident the enormous spectrum of artistic expression absent from the Metropolitan’s fine arts holdings,” said Alisa Lagamma, curator of the department of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1968, Harnoncourt and noted art historian Robert Goldwater brokered an agreement with the new Met director, Thomas Hoving, to create a department encompassing the holdings of the Museum of Primitive Art and Rockefeller’s personal collection.

The Museum of Primitive Art closed in 1974 and its library, staff and 3,500 works were transferred to the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, named for Rockefeller’s son, at the Met, which opened to the public in 1982.

“When a survey exhibition of the Museum of Primitive Art’s collection was presented at the Met in 1969, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller announced at a press conference that his non-Western art collection would be given a permanent home at the Met, thus rounding out its art archives of the creative accomplishments of [humankind],” Lagamma said. “This development and subsequent transfer of the Museum of Primitive Art to the Michael C. Rockefeller wing marked the culmination of a quest that was sparked in the 1930s, when a young Nelson Rockefeller first began a lifelong engagement with Latin America and its pre-Colombian artistic heritage.”

The Met’s department of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas is celebrating the creation of its permanent collection by organizing the Rockefeller exhibition,

“The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision,” to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Museum of Primitive Art, Lagamma said.

Works highlighted in the exhibition will be presented in conjunction with archival documents, installations drawings and photographs from the Museum of Primitive Art. Distinctive pieces in the collection include a vibrantly colored 14th-century feathered Inca tunic from Peru, a rare Solomon Island shield with mother of pearl inlay, a sculpture representing the Polynesian agricultural god Rago — considered by art critics to be the signature Oceanic work acquired by the Museum of Primitive Art — and a 19th-century Tlingit knife from Alaska, which was among the first objects from North America that Rockefeller purchased and kept in his home. The exhibition will end in October 2014.

African and African American studies professor Antonio Tillis did not respond to requests for comment by press time.