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David Rockefeller, banker, philanthropist and lifetime MoMA patron, dies at age 101

The former chairman’s ties to the institution reach back to his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who helped found the museum

by Helen Stoilas  |  20 March 2017
David Rockefeller, banker, philanthropist and lifetime MoMA patron, dies at age 101
Richard Serra and David Rockefeller at MoMA's 2015 Party in the Garden (Photo: Scott Rudd)
David Rockefeller, the New York banker, philanthropist and art collector, died at his home in the Pocantico Hills in upstate New York on Monday, aged 101. As well as the long-time chairman and chief executive of Chase Manhattan bank, Rockefeller served on the board of trustees of the Museum of Modern Art since 1948, taking the role of chairman for multiple terms. But his family’s ties to the museum go even further back however. His mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, helped found the museum in 1929 and the sculpture garden named after her is on the very spot where the Rockefeller family’s townhouse used to stand—and where the future philanthropist was born.

“David was here at the founding of MoMA,” the museum's director Glenn Lowry reminded those assembled at an early 100th birthday celebration in 2015, where guests ate cake decorated with a picture of Rockefeller’s boat (he was also a noted campaigner for the protection of the world’s oceans). He was also instrumental to the museum’s growth, securing significant works, including Gertrude Stein’s Modern art collection, as well as loaning his own paintings by artist like Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, acquired with his wife Peggy. Rockefeller was also one of the lead donors of MoMA’s Yoshio Taniguchi-designed expansion that opened in 2004, giving $77m towards the $858m campaign. The following year, he promised $100m to go towards the museum’s endowment fund after his death, the largest cash gift the institution had ever received at the time.

"David Rockefeller was an extraordinary man whose legacy lies not only in his many benefactions, but in his thoughtful leadership of our institution and many others," says Lowry in a statement. "Generous, passionate, and endlessly curious, he inspired generations of trustees and staff at the Museum of Modern Art by his belief in the singular importance of Modern art and his love of beauty."

Chase Manhattan bank also benefited from the collector’s eye. The bank’s corporate art collection was started by Rockefeller in 1959, making it one of the oldest in the country. Focussing on American Modern and contemporary art, but growing to include works by artists from countries in which bank does business, the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection (renamed after a merger) now holds more than 30,000 works, many of them hanging in 450 international offices. He even personally commissioned and funded the 40ft Jean Dubuffet sculpture Group of Four Trees (1972) that still stands at One Chase Manhattan Plaza in lower Manhattan today.

In an interview with The Art Newspaper in 2003, Rockefeller told us about his family's collecting tastes, the early days of MoMA, the influence of Alfred Barr, and gave a peek at a day in the life of a globe-trotting collector: "One day, I was having dinner with the Niarchos [family] in Paris and we all flew to Lugano to spend the weekend with the Thyssens. Heini told us that there was to be an auction of 20th-century art in Stuttgart. Stavros convinced the group to fly there on his plane to take a look at what was offered. When we arrived, we saw some pieces that appealed to us and we placed bids on several of them. After returning to New York, we learned to our pleasant surprise that we had acquired a Paul Klee and watercolours by George Grosz, Emil Nolde, Maurice Vlaminck and Vassily Kandinsky." When asked why, at the age of 87, he'd finally decided to publish his memoirs, Rockefeller responded: "It just occurred to me that I had led a rather interesting life and that my children and family might like to know about it."

Answering the question of what art meant to him, Rockefeller told us: "I think of art as the highest level of creativity. To me, it is one of the greatest sources of enjoyment."

To read the full interview with David Rockefeller, originally published in our March 2003 issue, click here.

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