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Abby Rockefeller's Impact

By Karen HudesApr 18 2018

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 Aldrich Rockefeller was a visionary art collector and patron who not only played a decisive role in making Rockefeller Center a forward-looking haven for public art, but who co-founded MoMA 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 John D. Rockefeller Jr., the founder of Rockefeller Center and son of Standard Oil magnate John Sr., 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 helped to bring in Alfred H. Barr as the first director of the museum. Following Abby's death in 1948, Barr wrote to her son Nelson, who had served as MoMA's president before becoming governor of New York, "Few realize what positive acts of courage her interest in modern art required...She was the heart of the Museum and its center of gravity."

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, outstanding collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller (who served on the board of MoMA), coming up for auction at Christie's in May—a juggernaut of Impressionist, post-Impressionist and decorative pieces that's set to be one of the biggest art sales of all time, with all proceeds going to charity.

Photo courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Updated September 10, 2014:

The rich life of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Rockefeller name has been synonymous with philanthropy both here in New York City and elsewhere. Numerous institutions, buildings and foundations owe their existence to the family’s largesse, including the Rockefeller University, today a leading biomedical research facility; the Rockefeller Foundation, which supports humanitarian initiatives around the world; Colonial Williamsburg; Grand Teton National Park (the Rockefellers donated a significant portion of the land); and of course, Rockefeller Center. But what many may not know is that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller Jr., helped direct her family’s charitable contributions, and was a leading philanthropist in her own right who left a lasting imprint on America’s cultural landscape.

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 that drew the eager attention of the more reserved and fastidious John Rockefeller Jr. 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.

Abby 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 in 1929.

A lover of art, Abby had amassed a sizable modern art collection—despite her husband’s vocal disdain for it—but felt strongly that this new art should be made available to the public. (Until this time, museums exhibited only older, traditional masterworks.) She called on friends and fellow patrons and collectors, and within months MoMA became a reality. Over the next 16 years, Abby donated her entire collection of more than 180 paintings and drawings and 1,600 prints to the museum, worked as its treasurer, served on its executive committee, promoted the establishment of a film library and provided the institution with its first formal purchase funds, helping to shape MoMA into the premier institution it is today. (In addition to supporting MoMA, she 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.)

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller 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.”

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