Andrew Mellon was one of the most prominent financiers in American history. Mellon investments helped launch the aluminum, coke, and carborundum industries; by the 1920s, he paid the third-highest income tax in the United States. Mellon dedicated his fortune to several favored charitable causes, including the University of Pittsburgh and what became Carnegie Mellon University. But Mellon also loved art, and was, in effect, an artist in the field of philanthropy. Nowhere is this clearer than in his crafting of one of the world’s great museums: the National Gallery of Art.
Mellon’s key insight was that charity differs only somewhat from for-profit business. He therefore applied his own business principles to the shaping of his charitable gifts. Mellon principles were, in no particular order: Compete with the private sector, and honor it. Forget your own ego. Ruthlessly exploit the mechanism of compounding. Always go up-market. To these fundamentals, Mellon added a final principle: When in doubt, make it marble.
After great success as a Pittsburgh banker and industrialist, Andrew Mellon came to Washington, D.C., in 1921, to serve as Secretary of the Treasury for President Warren Harding. Harding passed, but Mellon stayed, serving first Calvin Coolidge and then Herbert Hoover, always as the Secretary of Treasury. Over time, he settled on the contribution he himself would give to the nation’s capital: an art gallery.
Mellon offered the nation a stunning assemblage of artworks, then built a museum on the National Mall worthy to house them.
The need was clear. In the late 19th and early 20th century, foreign capitals welcomed and honored their citizens visiting with grand walkways, elevating vistas, and elegant edifices. Yet anyone who walked past the random ramshackle structures on Pennsylvania Avenue could see that Washington fell short. Officials had already undertaken ambitious plans to form what we now know as the Federal Triangle, lining the National Mall with inspiring architecture and building, as one contemporary author put it, “for the glory of Washington.”
Mellon’s purpose was thus not merely aesthetic. Many of the rising structures were funded by government—even, perversely, a building erected in the name of business. The massive headquarters of the Department of Commerce, made with 1.8 million square feet of Indiana limestone, was a pet project of Mellon’s fellow cabinet member (and later President), Herbert Hoover. Mellon thought the private sector warranted its own prominent place on the landscape. Why not on the National Mall itself?
The art gallery Mellon envisioned would thus demonstrate a point that he was simultaneously making in his efforts at the Department of the Treasury. To Mellon’s mind, one of the most irksome features of the tax structure was its progressivity. Early and vigorous taxation snatched productive capital from the hands of private citizens before it had a chance to compound its gains. The lower tax rates he promulgated as Treasury Secretary left more cash in private coffers longer. It was time to demonstrate that private compounding would, in the end, benefit the public better than immediate federal outlays. The gallery would be a monument to this conviction.
In the 1930s, while President Franklin Roosevelt was assigning the private sector more blame than praise, Mellon offered the nation a gift from the fruits of private enterprise: a stunning assemblage of 152 works, with an offer to build a museum on the Mall worthy to house them. Construction began in 1937, and Mellon spent an extra $5 million on pink Tennessee marble—an order so large it constituted, in Depression time, an economic stimulus all by itself. Few other expenses were spared at the gallery, whose architectural details gave much thought to citizen comfort. Understanding that some tourists would have difficulty handling stairs, for instance, Mellon kept his structure as horizontal as possible.
It was in amassing the content of the gallery that Mellon’s intelligence and cunning most exerted itself. Crossing the globe with the opportunistic eye of an eagle, Mellon grabbed up value where he found it, including in Lenin’s Bolshevik Russia. Some have said his large purchases from Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum made Mellon more buzzard than eagle, but the Pennsylvania banker classed his acquisitions differently. Lenin and the communists stole the art from the Russian people, Mellon believed, so preserving and displaying the art for people in the United States was both wise and fair.
As with the construction materials, so with the content: Mellon chose only top paintings for his gallery, like the Alba Madonna of Raphael, and Pietro Perugino’s triptych. With fewer than 200 objects in his gift, Mellon “had an art museum six blocks long on his hands, and enough paintings to decorate a good-sized duplex apartment,” the critic S. N. Behrman quoted a Mellon friend as saying. Mellon wagered that if he gave samples of the highest quality work from many periods, he would provide the seeds for a full collection. His gift would draw other gifts.
And he was right. By the time President Roosevelt dedicated the gallery in 1941, several other great business leaders—Samuel Kress, Joseph Widener, and Lessing Rosenwald—had likewise made major contributions. Other magnates were not the only ones to find inspiration in Andrew Mellon’s giving style. Indeed, his example eventually drew that one donor whom all philanthropists hope will follow them: his own son. Paul Mellon’s 1999 bequest of 100 pictures and $75 million was the largest gift ever donated to the National Gallery .
The National Gallery was an immediate success, on its own terms. Ready by wartime, it provided a welcome refuge to soldiers on leave, and a haven to many seeking beauty and peace in a world lacking both. Even President Roosevelt, author of so many tax increases, could not hide his enthusiasm at Mellon’s gift. “The giver of this building has matched the richness of his gift with the modesty of his spirit, stipulating that the Gallery shall be known not by his name but by the Nation’s,” said Roosevelt at the gallery’s opening. “And those other collectors of paintings and of sculpture who have already joined, or who propose to join, their works of art to Mr. Mellon’s—Mr. Kress and Mr. Widener—have felt the same desire to establish, not a memorial to themselves, but a monument to the art that they love and the country to which they belong.”
- David Cannadine, Mellon: An American Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)
- David Finley, A Standard of Excellence: Andrew W. Mellon Founds the National Gallery of Art at Washington (Smithsonian, 1973)
- Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (Harper, 2007)