From the Archives: The MoMA Looks Forward

by John Loring Photographed by Arnold Newman
Thursday, November 16, 2017

This article is taking from the September 1979 issue of AVENUE.

During the early months of 1929, three determined and formidable women interested in the fine arts met frequently to discuss the possibility of forming a museum of modern art, “to help people enjoy, understand, and use the visual arts of our time,” as one of them later explained. They were Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, born Abby Aldrich, daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich; Mrs. Cornelius Sullivan, wife of a prominent New York lawyer; and Lizzie (Lillie) Bliss, daughter of an extremely successful textile merchant.

Miss Bliss and Mrs. Sullivan had been friends since before the famous Armory Show of 1913 – which had stunned its American audience with the works of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Cubists of Europe – which they had helped finance. Miss Bliss and Mrs. Rockefeller met during the winter of 1929 in Egypt, where they had both gone for a holiday, and where they talked about the need for a modern museum in New York. On the ship home, in one of life’s happier logistical coincidences, Mrs. Rockefeller met Mrs. Sullivan, and they two continued talking about the sad state of art in America. It was one of these discussions, and later sessions held in and around the new sculpture gallery that modernist architect Donald Deskey had designed for Mrs. Rockefeller in her home at 10 West Fifty-fourth Street, that the Museum of Modern Art was born.

The three ladies were socially impeccable, immensely wealthy, and already very active art collectors, and they knew exactly what they wanted in a museum. But they also realized that, despite their credentials and enthusiasm, they would need someone to give their project a special authority and credence. He was Conger Goodyear, a well-to-do businessman and art collector in Buffalo, who became the museum’s first president.

From its modest beginnings – with a first exhibition held in six rented rooms in the Heckscher Building at 730 Fifth Avenue – MoMA grew so quickly that just ten years later the main building (designed by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone) that we knew today, was opened. And by that time, under the visionary leadership of its brilliant young director, Alfred Barr Jr., MoMA was well on its way to becoming one of the most influential museums in the world by, for the first time, making moderns art available – and perhaps even comprehensible – to the American public.

But while modern art at last became “respectable,” the authority and prestige of the museum’s president was no less crucial, and it was during that same tenth anniversary year that Mrs. Rockefeller’s son, Nelson, graduated from Treasurer to President of MoMA, a post he held off and on until 1953. Abby Rockefeller’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd (Blanchette), became president on the museum’s thirtieth birthday in 1959, a position she now holds again as MoMA celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Thus, with the exception of the museum’s fortieth birthday, which saw CBS Chairman William S. Paley as president, there has been a Rockefeller at the helm as the museum celebrated each new decade. And it is small wonder that to many New Yorkers, MoMA has been familiarly known as “The Rockefellers’ Museum.”

Blanchette Rockefeller, however, is the first to vigorously deny that such is, or ever was, the case. “Too bad,” she says, “when they refer to it as ‘the Rockefellers’ Museum,’ because a whole enormously generous and involved group that founded and supported it – Mrs. Sullivan, Lillie Bliss, Abby Aldrich, Conger Goodyear, Alfred Barr, and Nelson, of course – were all active in modern art. My mother-in-law had a fascination and knowledge about all the arts. She recognized the importance of the Modern, and that of course influenced me a lot.”

As to her own involvement with modern art, Blanchette Rockefeller admits that it was not exactly her first interest in life. “Actually,” she says, “I majored in music at Vassar, which doesn’t help me much here at Modern.”

“For myself, I love homemaking and old furniture – eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American thins. Oriental antiques were a great interest of my husband’s, and I too, am very drawn to them. My own house is a mish-mash.” Indeed she has hung a Jasper Johns in the front hall.

“If asked what my favorite works in MoMA are, I’d have to skin out of the questions by saying that my favorites keep changing – I’m still in the educational process. I want to be open-minded because that is what this museum is for.

“I do respond more quickly to some artists’ work than to others,” she says, “Rothko’s and Robert Motherwell’s and John’s work touched me strongly right off – we haven’t had as clear a thing as their work in the Seventies. I thought the Photo-Realists were awful in the beginning, and now I rather like them.”

Despite the family’s, and her own long involvement with the museum, Blanchette Rockefeller displays a certain modesty when denying her own “expertise.” “My role doesn’t require it,” she explains, “and I’m not an expert on modern art, just a person who has become interested. I try to deal with myself and with everything I’m exposed to, and I find that the more areas are investigated the more it all falls into place. But my job here is to be a lay administrator, a supportive trustee in a leadership role, to keep an ear to the ground when another trustee is getting out of hand. I sound forth with ideas, and occasionally our director, Richard Oldenburg – who has the low-keyed and clear leadership that keeps the museum alive – asks my opinion. But it always made sense to be on the lay side, always on the trustee-committee side. I’ve tried to be around a lot, and I was fortunate in being free for that – I sometimes wonder if I’ve spent too much time here. Let’s say I’ve felt noticed.”

Blanchette Rockefeller has, of course, been more that “noticed” at the Modern, where she served as chairman and co-chairman of the Junior Council from 1949 to 1955. She has been a trustee for twenty-six years and served as president of the museum’s International Council. She was first elected president in 1959 and served in that capacity until 1962. She then served on the board until 1972, when she was again elected president, succeeding William Paley. With William Paley, she is now the driving force of the museum’s expansion committee.

Her involvement with museums does not stop at the Modern. She is a Life Fellow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a very active member of the Asia Society (which her late husband founded), and a member of the American Advisory Committee of the Japan Foundation.

Despite all this, however, Blanchette Rockefeller looks to the day when museums are not so dependent on families like her own. “Today, museums are becoming more and more the public’s,” she points out. “People of more substance do help, of course, but more and more the public takes it over, and a broad scattering of support is healthier.

“I don’t think museums can depend on families with large fortunes,” she continues. “The Rockefeller children [her son, John D. Rockefeller IV, is is Governor of West Virginia] are all sensitive to beautiful things to different degrees, but they are neither active in collecting nor involved with museums. Children of families with large fortunes will not be able to carry on in the same way as the older members of the family. So institutions must broaden their base.”

In “broadening its base,” MoMA has embarked on an expansion program of considerable portion. Under Richard Oldenburg’s guidance, exhibition costs can now increasingly be met through corporate and government support, but this kind of funding is only one of the museum’s major problems. More troublesome is the limited size of the existing building, which is quite inadequate to display MoMA’s vase collections – perhaps the most important modern art collection in the world, but never even half-visible because of limited gallery space. Of course, acquisition funds are also needed.

Many of MoMA’s problems, its leaders feel, will be solved by accomplishing the main business of the expansion committee: the construction of a forty-four-story apartment tower at the wester end of the museum’s Fifty-third Street site, which in its lower floors will offer the much needed exhibition space, doubling the present amount. The revenue from the other floors is expected to bring the museum much closer to being financially self-sufficient. 

At the moment, MoMA is far from being self-sufficient, and its current financing is anything but reassuring. There was an operating deficit of $975,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1978, and the endowment continues to diminish. The proposed tower will presumably cure both of these ills.

This immense undertaking has essentially been led by Blanchette Rockefeller and her predecessor, William Paley, whose modesty in discussing his role at the Modern parallels her own. “I have a nominal role as an advisor and guider,” he says. “I just cooperate to my fullest ability. Mrs. Rockefeller gives the kind of spirit we are so lucky to have, and we both got excited about the expansion program at the beginning.”

Their excitement has not always been shared, and in fact the idea of a mid-block tower just off Fifth Avenue was quite unpopular at the beginning. “When you do something in a big city, it doesn’t affect everyone positively,” Mrs. Rockefeller comments. However, the museum’s leaders are confident of the wisdom of the expansion program. MoMA is unquestionably a major cultural asses, not just to the city, but to the country as well, and it must expand to meet the widening public interest in its diverse programs. “Any urban institution has new problems,” they point out, “and this is an urban solution, innovative, which with minimal risks can guarantee the museum’s interests.” 

Again and again in describing the function in the community of the great institution entrusted to their care, Blanchette Rockefeller and Richard Oldenburg emphasize its role as a public education institution, and see themselves much as the officers of a university. “Everything that we do is an education function, even if it’s not identified as an educational program,” Oldenburg says.

“Traditionally, the Modern has had quite autonomous departments,” he says. “It has an almost ‘collegiate’ structure, and the director finds himself in a coordinating role, interpreting the staff to the trustees, and so on.”

“We have a good system. a federation of departments where the director has to be, and is,” adds Mrs. Rockefeller, “a broad-gauged person with a lot of skills and a real understanding. Dick Oldenburg stands over with a lose-reined knowledge and an ability to communicate with these very intellectual and superior people on the curatorial staff, and that is what keeps the museum alive.”

The attraction and strength of MoMA, they both feel, lies in the breadth of their programs (“A very full plate,” Oldenburg says) – not just in its collections of painting and sculpture, but in its concern for prints, drawings, design and architecture, in its more pioneering departments of photography and films, and in its touring programs and urban projects. Their first aim is to make all of this “very visible,” so that the Museum of Modern Art will productively continue its role envisioned by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Mrs, Cornelius Sullivan, and Miss Lillie Bliss, “to help people enjoy, understand, and use the visual arts of our time.”


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