The Life and Lasting Impact of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Many have admired works by Picasso, Calder, and Maillol at the tranquil Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden that graces the Museum of Modern Art, but few know how instrumental the garden's namesake was to the building of MoMA and to ushering in the avant-garde in NYC during early 20th century.
Abby Greene Aldrich was born in 1874 in Providence, Rhode Island, the fourth child of Nelson Aldrich, a successful businessman, who, by the turn of the century, became the most powerful Republican in the Senate. Abby was outgoing, curious, and intelligent — a vibrant personality who drew the eager attention of the more reserved and fastidious John Rockefeller Jr., founder of Rockefeller Center and son of Standard Oil magnate John Sr. They met in 1894 when he was still a sophomore at Brown University, and after a seven-year courtship, the couple married in 1901. By all accounts, theirs was a happy and devoted marriage that produced six children—Abby, John Davison III, Nelson, Laurance, Winthrop, and David—and lasted until Abby’s death in 1948.
It was Abby who took the responsibility of her husband’s vast inheritance seriously — her husband’s father would become America’s first billionaire — and with a forward-looking mindset encouraged her husband to support programs dedicated to promoting cultural change and social reform. She herself contributed to a range of social causes, from the YWCA — concerned about the quality of housing for the new post-war female workforce, she built one of the first women’s hotels in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1921 — to the Girl Scouts. But perhaps her greatest legacy is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which she cofounded with two other women — Lillie Bliss and May Quinn Sullivan —in 1929. In fact, the museum stands on the West 54th Street property of the Rockefellers' former townhouse, the site where David Rockefeller was born.
Her husband wasn't particularly interested in art, especially when it came to contemporary work. It was Abby who began acquiring pieces by Matisse, Picasso, and Seurat with her own funds, developing the collection that she first displayed in her home gallery, and later donated to launch MoMA, the first museum of its kind dedicated to modern art. She supported emerging artists and cultivated relationships with painters such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, celebrating the new and breaking away from the grip of the old masters on the art world. Abby also played a decisive role in making Rockefeller Center the forward-looking haven for public art it continues to be today.
Abby lived with the rarest of wealth and privilege, yet remained committed to using it to serve the public good. As The New York Times noted at the time of her death, “Possibly never again, and at least not in our times, will an immense fortune such as that of the Rockefeller family be built up. But if this does happen, one could wish that the great responsibility that goes with great wealth will be borne in as wise and distinguished a manner.… In the handling of that wealth, the character, the integrity, the uncompromising principles and beliefs of Mrs. Rockefeller played an important part. This has been a fortunate thing for society, for this country and for the world.”
The Rockefeller matriarch's immense influence can also be seen in the family's art collection at Kykuit in the Hudson Valley, and in the vast collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller (who served on the board of MoMA). In addition to supporting MoMA, Abby also donated her entire collection of American folk art to Colonial Williamsburg and gave substantial contributions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design.
This article was first published in The Center Magazine on April 18, 2018; it has since been condensed and edited.