Under the influence of his friend Henry Frick, Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon had begun collecting art in the 1910s. During years of great instability in Europe, he acquired a remarkable number of masterpieces, including at one point a group of Rembrandts, Van Dycks, and Botticellis sold by Russian boss Josef Stalin himself. Mellon donated the paintings to his own foundation, with the stated intent of starting a national museum. In 1934 he hired architect John Russell Pope (with whom Mellon had already worked on construction of the National Archives) to design a museum building located in Washington, D.C.
Mellon died in 1937, leaving his art collection to the United States as promised. His foundation funded the creation of what is now known as the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and President Franklin Roosevelt accepted the furnished museum in 1941. Mellon had hoped that his donation would inspire others to make similar gifts, and his hope was rewarded in subsequent years. Many prominent donors gave large collections to the museum, including Samuel and Rush Kress, Joseph Widener, Chester Dale, Lessing Rosenwald, Edgar William, Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, and Mellon’s own daughter, Ailsa Mellon Bruce.
Mellon’s impact on the National Gallery of Art extended long after his death, as the Andrew Mellon Foundation continued its support of the museum. In 1978, a second building (the East Building) was completed, funded by the foundation and several of Mellon’s descendants. The new building focused on special exhibits, offices, and facilities for conservation. In 1999, an outdoor sculpture garden was added on the west side of the original building (funded by the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation).
Together, the museums offer one of the largest and broadest collections of world art anywhere. Today’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, given its current structure by Mellon’s two children, donates about $240 million a year, with art restoration and the development of junior and senior museum staff among its leading areas of interest. The foundation offered a $30 million challenge grant to the National Gallery in 2016, structured to generate a sum of $75 million in private gifts to the museum as it celebrated its 75th anniversary. This pledge brought the Andrew Mellon Foundation’s cumulative support for the NGA over the years to $123 million, without adjusting for inflation.
- National Gallery of Art history, nga.gov/content/ngaweb/about.html
- Olivier Zunz, Philanthropy in America: A History, (Princeton University Press, 2012)