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The Metropolitan Museum’s Global Revolutionary

How the original Rockefeller Republican effected radical change by championing "Primitive" art

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Mask (Kifwebe), Luba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th century, wood, pigment.

COURTESY THE MICHAEL C. ROCKEFELLER MEMORIAL COLLECTION, BEQUEST OF NELSON A. ROCKEFELLER, 1979.

From our current vantage point, it’s shocking that before 1982, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the nation’s premier encyclopedic museum, had no galleries devoted to the cultural achievements of Africa, Oceania, or pre-Columbian art.

Early generations of directors of the Met, which opened in its current location on Fifth Avenue in 1880, didn’t think such objects belonged in an art museum. Proposed donations of so-called Primitive Art were directed across Central Park, to the American Museum of Natural History.

The world was changing around the Met, but it took a politician to change the culture inside it.

That was Nelson A. Rockefeller, the politician, businessman, and philanthropist who made it his lifetime mission to open the museum to the non-Western cultures whose art he collected and championed.

The story behind Rockefeller’s campaign to bring what was still called Primitive Art to the museum’s galleries is the subject of “The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas,” a yearlong exhibition that opened inside the Rockefeller Wing on Tuesday.

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Nelson A. Rockefeller during a 1969 press conference at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a pair of Bamum figures from Cameroon.

PHOTOGRAPH: MICHAEL FREDERICKS, 1969.

With some 50 masterpieces along with archival documents, the show is timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Museum of Primitive Art, the institution Rockefeller established on 54th Street to showcase his holdings. It took decades of lobbying for that collection, along with Rockefeller’s own holdings, to make its way to the Met.

The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing–named after Nelson’s son, who lost his life on an expedition in New Guinea in 1961–opened in 1982, immediately transforming the identity and focus of the museum. In 1991, the Met’s board voted to give its Department of Primitive Art a new name: the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

“This was a seismic shift,” current director Thomas Campbell said at the opening Monday night, as members of the Rockefeller family looked on. “It changed the direction of the museum radically.”

“For the very first time,” he added, “the Met became truly global.”

The exhibition and its supporting documents chronicle Rockefeller’s role as an advocate and collector, beginning with his first acquisition of non-Western art, a Hawaiian bowl, on his honeymoon in 1930. In 1940 he became president of MoMA’s board, and two years later he proposed that the museum form a collection of folk and indigenous art of the New World, including painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, and other objects of applied art.

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Four Female Figures (One of Four), Chupicuaro, Mexico, 3rd century B.C.-4th century A.D., ceramic, pigment.

COURTESY THE MICHAEL C. ROCKEFELLER MEMORIAL COLLECTION, BEQUEST OF NELSON A. ROCKEFELLER, 1979.

Just like his proposal that the Met collect pre-Columbian art, this idea went nowhere.

But under the guidance of René d’Harnoncourt, the scholar who was an adviser to Rockefeller (and MoMA’s director from 1949 to ’67), over the next decades MoMA far surpassed the Met in its embrace of non-Western art. MoMA showed “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art” in 1940, “Indian Art of the United States,” in 1941, “Arts of the South Seas” in 1946, and “Ancient Arts of the Andes,” in 1954.

Meanwhile, Rockefeller gave up for the moment his campaign to expand the purview of New York’s existing institutions. In 1954 he founded the Museum of Indigenous Art, with himself and d’Harnoncourt as principal officers. In 1956, art historian Robert Goldwater (also known as Louise Bourgeois’s husband) became director, and the name was changed to the Museum of Primitive Art.

In 1969 d’Harnoncourt brokered a deal with Thomas Hoving, then the Met’s director, to transfer the contents and staff of the Museum of Primitive Art to the Met.

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Yam Mask, Abelam people, Prince Alexander Mountains, Sepik region, Papua New Guinea, early to mid-20th century, fiber, paint.

COURTESY THE MICHAEL C. ROCKEFELLER MEMORIAL COLLECTION, PURCHASE, NELSON A. ROCKEFELLER GIFT, 1965.

For Rockefeller, who was elected governor of New York in 1959 and was later vice president under Gerald Ford, cultural diplomacy was part of political strategy. As coordinator of the Office of Inter-American Affairs in the early ’40s, he traveled widely in South America, attempting to strengthen artistic ties as part of a larger policy to discourage the young republics from embracing fascism.

The show opens with a Nasca ceramic bowl Rockefeller acquired in Buenos Aires in 1939. Later, working principally with d’Harnoncourt (whose notes on acquisition strategies are in the show) Rockefeller collected far and wide, with an international consortium of dealers (long before cultural-property laws restricted the movement of art objects from their countries of origin). His goal was to collect the best, and the extraordinary objects in the show reflect the scope of his efforts–a feathered Peruvian textile, a spectacular Solomon Island shield, an Abelam Yam Mask from New Guinea, male and female poro figures from the Ivory Coast, a tripod vessel from Teotihuacan, a Tiwanaku figure, Moche jewelry, Olmec ceramics, a Tlingit dagger, Kongo sculpture, a Taíno deity figure, carved whale ivory from Tonga, and the famous Dogon male figure with raised arms that usually greets people to the galleries–to name but a few.

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The woodcarver Ndanim of Omadesep displaying the paint vessel or jifoi, 1961.

PHOTOGRAPH: MICHAEL C. ROCKEFELLER, VISUAL RESOURCE ARCHIVE, DEPARTMENT OF THE ARTS OF AFRICA, OCEANIA, AND THE AMERICAS, THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK.

Also included are stunning objects that Michael Rockefeller collected on his expeditions to New Guinea, where he made a special effort to identify and document local artists, a sensibility that was far ahead of its time. One photo shows Ndanim of Omadesep, an Asmat craftsman, holding a carving that is also on view in the show.

In many ways, the museum—and the art world—are still catching up to the Rockefeller vision.

Recent developments at the museum, including the current show “Interwoven Globe,” a multi-department collaboration that examines the international textile trade during the rise of colonialism, reflect the rise of a more internationalist approach to art history. So do two new hires in the American art department: Joanne Pillsbury, a specialist in pre-Columbian art, and Ronda Kasl, a specialist in colonial Latin American art. That field, representing the artistic production that occurred in South America after 1492, is a relatively new focus for the museum, proving that the process of going global is still going on.

To see highlights of the exhibition, click on the slide show below.

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