On July 4, 1866, a number of well-to-do Americans in Paris are celebrating Independence Day with a fancy dinner. The group includes Mr. Bigelow, the American ambassador; Mr. Fox, assistant secretary of war; and several prominent pastors and businessmen. Lawyer and philanthropist John Jay has been invited to address the group, and, to their surprise, Jay uses the occasion to propose the founding of a “national institution and gallery of art” in New York.
Several men in the audience liked the idea, and they soon asked the Union League Club of New York (of which Jay was president) to take the lead in organizing the worthy endeavor. The club’s art committee concluded in 1869 that both the state and federal governments would be “utterly incompetent” to fund or lead such an institution. They also cautioned, though, against putting such a complex project in the hands of one powerful individual. Instead, a large private committee was appointed, and in 1870 the Metropolitan Museum of Art was incorporated and its first officers appointed, with railroad tycoon John Johnson selected as president.
Johnson was an aficionado of ancient art, and indeed was in Egypt when the committee cabled asking him to come back to New York and take the lead. He donated a Roman sarcophagus and most of his own art collection to the institution, and insisted that as one of the largest cities in the world, New York should have a museum to match, with a collection spanning the whole history of world art. Initial fundraising was difficult, and much of the launch goal of $250,000 was covered by Johnson himself, along with William Blodgett, who got the museum’s collection started with audacious acquisitions of two major European art collections that were endangered due to war between France and Prussia. The city of New York agreed to provide a building on Fifth Avenue, and in 1872 the museum opened.
Johnson and the museum’s board made clear their seriousness in the early years, as they rapidly acquired works from ancient Rome and major European artists. By the time of Johnson’s retirement in 1889, the museum was already among the best in the world. It moved to its current location in the early 1900s, and today, after more than a century of devoted support from legions of philanthropists, the museum houses more than two million objects.
While the building is still owned and partially supported by the city, the museum remains fiercely privately operated, and centered on philanthropy. A private corporation of just under a thousand benefactors owns the nonprofit, which has an endowment of over $2 billion and raises more than a hundred million dollars every year in fresh donations. The admission fees of 5 million annual visitors cover more than a seventh of the operations budget.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org
- Winifred Eva Howe and Henry Watson Kent, A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Gillis Press, 1913)