From Philanthropy, Winter 2013, “American History’s Great Philanthropists”
Andrew Mellon 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. The banker-turned-Treasury Secretary chose only top paintings for his collection, like the Alba Madonna of Raphael, and Pietro Perugino’s triptych. With fewer than 200 objects in his gift, Mellon had created “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, those would become the seeds for a full collection. And his gift did indeed draw other gifts. 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.
The woman often called the First Lady of Texas did not, pace the joke, have sisters named “Ura” and “Hoosa.” She did, however, make enormous efforts to bring the fine arts to the Lone Star State. In 1913, she helped to found the Houston Symphony Orchestra, organizing a subscription series of three concerts over the course of a year. In 1917, she became president of the symphony’s board. She continued to support the symphony for the rest of her life and worked to increase public exposure to music and the arts. The avid collector of early American antique furniture and decorative art placed much of her collection at Bayou Bend, a house she built in 1927 as a home for herself and her brothers Will and Mike in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston. Nearly 30 years later, after the deaths of both brothers, she decided to give the house to the Houston Museum of the Fine Arts, along with a $750,000 endowment. It opened as the MFA Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens in 1966.
J. Paul Getty
“If I were convinced that by giving away my fortune I could make a real contribution toward solving the problems of world poverty, I’d give away 99.5 percent of all I have immediately,” wrote oilman J. Paul Getty. “But a hard-eyed appraisal of the situation convinces me this is not the case.” If charitable giving could do little to remedy poverty, to Getty’s mind it still had one distinct advantage: it could help preserve the artistic achievements of Western civilization. Philanthropy provided the means by which his private collection could become a public resource. “In learning about ancient Greek and Roman art,” Getty wrote, “one cannot help but also learn about the civilizations and the people who produced the art. This will unquestionably serve to broaden the individual’s horizons and, by increasing his knowledge of past civilizations, greatly aid him in knowing and understanding his own.”
J. P. Morgan
John Pierpont Morgan was a central figure in many of the most important transactions of the Industrial Revolution. He arranged the merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston Electric, leading to the creation of General Electric. In 1901, he led the consolidation of Carnegie Steel Company with several other similar concerns, creating history’s first billion-dollar corporation in U.S. Steel. When a financial panic gripped Wall Street in October 1907, Morgan took charge, convincing New York bankers and businessmen to pledge their own assets to provide liquidity to the faltering financial system. Thanks to his intervention, the crisis was averted, and by November, financial markets returned to relative stability.
Morgan was among the most maligned of the so-called “Robber Barons.” He is remembered as a beefy, red-faced bully, fierce and lonely, possessed of small ideas and consumed by enormous greed. All of this is deeply unfair to Morgan. Recent biographers—most notably Jean Strouse—have looked at Morgan with fresh eyes, finding a much more subtle and interesting character than his caricature would allow.
He was a genuine polymath, fluent in French and German, steeped in literature and the arts, whose aptitude for mathematics prompted one of his professors at the University of Göttingen to encourage him to consider an academic appointment. He was remarkably generous, and devoted his considerable wealth and energy to a few, favored causes, ranging from New York’s Museum of Natural History to his beloved Episcopal Church.
But Morgan is perhaps best remembered for being his era’s greatest patron of the fine arts. He began collecting art while touring Rome, not long after finishing at Göttingen at the age of 19. It was the start of a lifelong love affair. He was the driving force behind the rise of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, serving as president and donating extensively from his personal acquisitions. His reputation, however, was established by a bitter enemy, the artist and critic Roger Fry. Fry belonged to the Bloomsbury Set, and had once been a curator of paintings at the Met. He suspected—not without reason—that Morgan was behind his firing. “A crude historical imagination,” Fry icily pronounced, “was the only flaw in his otherwise perfect insensibility.”
As Strouse notes, the letters Fry wrote to his wife during a purchasing tour of Europe in 1907 tell a rather different story. They praise at surprising length the artistic sensibilities of the “Big Man.” Contemporary critics increasingly agree with Fry’s earlier assessment. “Almost single-handed, Morgan turned the Metropolitan from a merely notable collection into one of the three or four finest anywhere,” writes historian Paul Johnson. “Morgan obviously employed experts . . . but it is astonishing how few mistakes he allowed them to make on his behalf.”