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America's Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy

Suzanne Loebl

(HarperCollins; US: Nov 2010)

With friends and students fretting about job prospects and other recession-related woes, I was not especially enthusiastic about reading what I thought would be a book lauding the massive fortunes and opulent estates of the Rockefeller family. I am, however, a frequent visitor to a beneficiary of their largess, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and I am fortunate enough to have an office just around the corner from another Rockefeller building, Riverside Church.


To my delight, Suzanne Loebl’s America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy turned out to be a very rewarding read. She uses correspondence and other archival material to offer a glimpse into the private family life of America’s most storied capitalist clan and their belief in the civilizing power of human creativity. In addition, Loebl provides a fascinating account of how iconic spaces in New York were conceptualized and created as a result of the Rockefellers’ sponsorship of cultural production.


Focusing on John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Junior), his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and their sons’ philanthropy, each chapter is devoted to a particular set of efforts undertaken by the family in relation to the arts. It quickly becomes clear that the Rockefellers’ art purchases were not a matter of conspicuous consumption, but rather a result of their earnest appreciation for a wide variety of artistic styles. A fondness for art, of course, reaches whole new heights when one is able to draw on the considerable resources yielded by the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil empire. In a letter to his father, for example, Junior asks for a loan in order to acquire Chinese porcelain vases that would cost him over $1.5 million. Writing to the man who co-created the forerunner to ExxonMobil and Chevron, Junior states, “A fondness for these porcelains is my only hobby—the only thing on which I have cared to spend money.”


A devout Baptist, Junior worked with the pastor of his Park Avenue church to move the congregation to a less exclusive neighborhood. The new location was chosen near the Columbia campus in Morningside Heights, a block away from another Rockefeller project, the University’s International House. Given Junior’s devotion to European cathedrals, Riverside Church was built as a stunning Gothic masterpiece. Its soaring tower was populated by monstrous gargoyles and its entryways were ornamented with biblical figures. Throughout his lifetime, Junior donated over $32 million to the church, which would host memorial services for his son Nelson, a ceremony attended by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.


One of the world’s greatest museums, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), emerged from the enthusiasm for contemporary art that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller shared with her friends but not with her husband. Incredibly, within six months of an organizing meeting among Abby’s friends and the Buffalo lumber tycoon A. Conger Goodyear, MoMA opened to the public under the leadership of Alfred Barr. Abby and her son Nelson would remain avid stewards of the museum’s operations and collection. According to Loebl, “By 1959, it owned 19,000 items” and at the time of his retirement in 1967, “[Barr] had become America’s, if not the world’s, undisputed apostle of modern art.” Under Barr, MoMA acquired a permanent collection without equal and today features groundbreaking exhibitions of works in architecture and performance art. MoMA’s sculpture garden, which today hosts lavish parties attended by New York’s glitterati, is now fittingly known as the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden and occupies the spot where one of the original Rockefeller mansions once stood.


Another of Junior’s sons, John 3rd, spearheaded the construction of the Lincoln Center “cultural acropolis” on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. John 3rd skillfully led fundraising efforts and donated $11.5 million of the $186 million ultimately needed to build the center, a large portion of his contribution given anonymously. Already a home to theatre, dance, and opera performances, this year Lincoln Center also began hosting New York Fashion Week. Again skillfully interweaving family members’ own thoughts into her account, Loebl mentions several interesting diary entries by John 3rd. Knowing the undeniable mark that he and his celebrated family left on American history, it was astounding to read that John 3rd harbored the same insecurities as plenty of young adults today: “I have no personal attraction. Nobody wants to sit next to me at the table,” or, “I wish I was different in many ways than I am.”


The most famous of the Rockefellers’ Manhattan projects still bears their name and remains one of the city’s great iconic spaces. In addition to being the epicenter of New York’s holiday season merrymaking, Rockefeller Center is home to NBC and its popular Today Show, 30 Rock, and Saturday Night Live programs. The Center’s famous Radio City Music Hall was named by its original main tenant, the now extinct Radio Corporation of America (which once owned NBC). Through Loebl’s account of the site’s creation, I learned that the land was once controlled by Columbia University and was actually intended to be its main campus. When the University eventually decided to re-locate to Morningside Heights, negotiations led to control of the site by Junior, who worked with Raymond Hood on its now revered art deco design.


The Rockefellers’ impact is clear from one tip of Manhattan to the other, as seen in 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan and the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan. Their mark is present in other parts of the country too, from Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia to the family’s Kykuit estate in Westchester County. Outside of New York, the family’s cultural interests led to their sponsorship of a variety of projects. While the family’s love for the art of the Far East resulted in the acquisition of an impressive collection, Junior’s interest in biblical history yielded the Rockefeller Archeological Museum in Jerusalem, which is now part of the Israel Museum. The Empire State Mall in Albany is named after Nelson, who was elected New York’s Governor in 1958 and reshaped the administrative center of the state’s capital. Contemporary art in line with Governor Rockefeller’s tastes were incorporated into the city’s new buildings, including works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, who completed Pop portraits of several members of the Rockefeller family.


It’s not hard to see why Loebl’s tone is celebratory. As she writes, the family’s “most important contribution was to teach America that art and its enjoyment, message, and healing power did not belong to a rarefied elite, but could be loved, understood, and even owned by all.” Clearly, the Rockefellers’ mark on the preservation, display, and appreciation of American art is undeniable. The obvious set of questions emerging from this kind of historical account involves the long-term effect of the present recession on the degree to which high-income individuals will continue to support contemporary and experimental art. As recent auctions have shown, tens of millions are still being paid for works by Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among several others. But are substantial amounts funding unknown early-career artists? With state and local governments hampered by crushing debt, will tycoons of the digital age like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin also nurture the same devotion to art as the Rockefellers?

Rating:

Victor P. Corona, Ph.D. (http://victorpcorona.com) is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @victorpcorona


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