Otto Kahn: Art, Money, and Modern Time
by Theresa M. Collins
University of North Carolina Press, 2001
383 pp., $34.95
In his day, J.P. Morgan was the best-known head of an American financial house. But Otto Kahn was a close second. Today, Morgan enjoys immortality in the popular imagination, while Kahn is all but forgotten. Thankfully Teresa Collins, professor of international history at Rutgers University and associate editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers, has produced a biography of Kahn that illuminates his importance as a man who successfully combined modern business sensibilities with art patronage.
Born in 1867 and raised in Mannheim, Germany, Kahn immigrated to the U.S. in 1893, where he made his way in the Jewish banking familial world and achieved a very successful partnership in the firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. His financial success allowed him leisure time to pursue a life-long dream, being a patron to budding American and European artists. Kahn often told others that in his youth he had wanted to be a poet/playwright. His parents, however, refused to encourage—and sometimes openly condemned—his aspirations. Kahn claimed it was his parents’ response to his dreams that made him resolve to become a patron to artists.
Most artists of Kahn’s era did not enjoy the financial support of the state, church, or individuals that artists had in previous ages. Those 20th-century artists who became famous did so through their own sweat and contractual relations with promoters and managers. Kahn was a throwback to the 15th-century patrons of the Italian Renaissance. During his life, he was sometimes even referred to as ‘Manhattan’s Maecenas’ or ‘Otto the Magnificent,’ after Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Medici family.
A sample list of some of Kahn’s philanthropic efforts in art patronage reflects the impact he had on the best artists of his age. He negotiated dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s passage to America during World War I; he financed the impoverished poet Hart Crane as he authored The Bridge; he invested $10,000 in George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady Be Good!; and he was a patron in some degree to author Ezra Pound, performer Paul Robeson, theatrical designer Norman Bel Geddes, and playwright Eugene O’Neill. As president and chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Opera Company for 23 years, Kahn (leveraged by his ownership of 83 percent of the total stock) helped guide the Met through its formative period.
Kahn was no Medici clone, however—his patronage was decidedly modern in approach. He insisted on making loans, not grants, to artists. Collins reasonably speculates that loans were preferred because they could be deducted as losses from his personal assets under federal tax laws. However, Kahn was idiosyncratic and erratic regarding his beneficence. He entirely forgave some loans, while he requested full repayment of others—the loan to Hart Crane was written off as worthless, for example, while Kahn expected full repayment of Paul Robeson’s loan. Kahn also differed from a classical patron in that he did not require his loans to be used solely for the production of art. Rather, Kahn saw his funds as a method of relieving an artist’s “material cares for a while.” He demanded very little of the artists by way of accounting, other than periodic updates via visits or correspondence.
In addition to providing cash, Kahn was a valuable patron in another way—he introduced his artists to the art world. Kahn’s position on the board of the Metropolitan Opera allowed him to introduce aspiring talent to directors, writers, and managers, thereby opening the door and allowing the artist a chance to excel based on his own merits. It was Kahn, for example, who brought designer Norman Bel Geddes to the attention of the Met’s management, which led to Bel Geddes’ entry into New York’s top opera venue.
In addition to funds and introductions, Kahn gave “moral” support to artists through his correspondence. He was careful not to become too familiar or intrusive in their lives, yet he responded with support when artists showed flagging spirits in their letters, or even when he might have justifiably felt used. When Bel Geddes opted to accept an offer from a competing opera company, Kahn earnestly told him “I appreciate the loyalty and delicacy of your attitude [toward the Met] . . . We have neither [the] right nor desire to stand in the way.”
Kahn remained a patron to artists even during the early months following the crash of ‘29. But, as the Depression worsened, Kahn was unable to sustain his rate of philanthropy. At the time of his death in 1934, Kahn’s cash had apparently dwindled to such an extent that he was unable to provide much financial help to fellow German-Jewish friends and acquaintances in Europe caught in the rising waters of Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism. Kahn, too, thought himself a victim of anti-Semitism at points in his life. He openly told the media that he resigned from the board of the Metropolitan Opera Company because the other directors were uncomfortable with a Jew as board director. One might wonder how firmly Kahn held such an opinion in light of the fact he had been president and chairman of the company for over two decades.
Kahn’s life does not make for adventuresome literature, and reading about his day job as an investment banker requires persistence. Nevertheless, Collins makes a good attempt at putting Otto Kahn in the context of his times and reminding us of his importance in the arts. Even though his name is rarely remembered today, his contributions to artists around the turn of the 20th century continue to live on in the works those artists produced. And that in itself is a form of immortality.
Ian Drake is an attorney in private practice who resides in Alexandia, Virginia.