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The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy Explored in New Book
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at MoMA. "Ever since it opened, MoMA's Sculpture Garden has been one of Manhattan's most beloved outdoor spaces. Its terraces are filled with carefully chosen trees, ivy, benches, and about two dozen familiar and important works by leading sculptors of the twentieth Century. Olga Guggenheim donated Maillol's The River, a large nude seemingly dipping her hair in one of Johnson's signature reflecting pools. Other works include Pablo Picasso's She-Goat, Henri Matisse's The Back (I, II, III, IV), Gaston Lachaise's Standing Woman, and Elie Nadelman's Man in the Air. One of Hector Guimard's entrance gates to the Paris Métro illustrates the museum's commitment to utilitarian art.
LONDON.- When John D. Rockefeller Jr. commissioned a great deal of art for the construction of Rockefeller Center during the midst of the Great Depression, Vogue editor Frank Crowninshield praised Rockefeller as “the greatest friend and patron of the arts since Lorenzo de Medici.” Both Rockefeller and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller felt passionately about the arts, and in AMERICA’S MEDICIS: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy (Harper; November 16, 2010; Hardcover; $34.99), author Suzanne Loebl details the Rockefeller family’s remarkable impact on the growth of the American art scene in the twentieth century.

Drawing upon extensive research from the Rockefellers’ archives and endowed institutions, Loebl recounts the family’s enormous contributions to artistic endeavors, both in New York City and across the country. Through their financial support, as well as their personal enthusiasm for collecting and building, the Rockefellers impacted over thirty major and minor museums or building projects. Sometimes they were the major or only driving force behind a particular endeavor, at other times their contributions were more limited. Some examples of Rockefeller-endowed institutions include:

• The Museum of Modern Art: Although John D. Rockefeller Jr. was not particularly fond of modern art, his wife, Abby A. Rockefeller, was passionate about it. Together with Lillie Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, she founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1929, overseeing the Museum’s organization, staffing, and exhibitions. Abby handed her dedication to sons Nelson and David and daughter-in-law Blanchette, all of whom exerted a major influence on MoMA’s collections development.

• The Cloisters: In 1917, John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased sixty acres at the northern end of Manhattan and donated this park to the city of New York. Together with architect Charles Collens and curator James J. Rorimer, he built the medieval-styled Cloisters. Junior was incredibly devoted to The Cloisters, where his beloved Unicorn Tapestries were proudly displayed.

• The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg: Sharing the dream of Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, John D. Rockefeller Jr. rebuilt Colonial Williamsburg. During this period, Abby enthusiastically collected American folk art, which was unpopular at the time. After his wife’s death, Junior endowed the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum to house her collection in Williamsburg. The Museum was the first to be devoted entirely to folk art.

Rockefeller Center: Built at the height of the Great Depression, Rockefeller Center is John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s best-known legacy. The art deco plan for Rockefeller Center placed great importance on murals, sculptures, and bas reliefs. Avant-garde in style and derided during its construction, Rockefeller Center is now considered an important architectural masterpiece.

Lincoln Center: In 1956, John D. Rockefeller 3rd agreed to assist with the development of a cultural space and performing arts center in New York City, which entailed the much criticized demolition of affordable, though deteriorated, housing stock. It was a massive undertaking, and construction constantly exceeded its budget. Rockefeller 3rd oversaw a team of architects that constructed a complex of theater and performance spaces, a performing arts library, and a stunning reflecting pool.

• The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art in San Antonio, Texas: This Center houses Nelson Rockefeller’s extensive Mexican folk art collection and attests to his championship of the art of south of the border at a time when it was still ignored by many art historians.

Beyond the family’s monetary support, which was essential to the development of these institutions, Abby and John Rockefeller, as well as their descendants, were truly committed to their artistic projects, taking an active role in leadership, oversight, and acquisitions. Educators at heart, the Rockefellers espoused the belief that art should be enjoyed by all, not just the elite. The Rockefellers backed unknown artists and helped America’s art scene to flourish and gain recognition on par with the European art world.

Informative and engaging, AMERICA’S MEDICIS is a fascinating account that examines for the first time the entirety of contributions of one of America’s wealthiest and most influential families to the American art world.

Suzanne Loebl | The Rockefellers | London |


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