Michael Bloomberg, temporary savior of the arts

Lorenzo de Medici, who was a little like Michael Bloomberg. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Terry Golway

Follow: feed

As the city’s chief executive and its leading patron of the arts, Michael Bloomberg is a 21st Century version of Lorenzo de Medici, the Florentine prince who helped finance his city’s Renaissance half a millennium ago.

Lorenzo the Magnificent, as he was known to his close friends, used his private fortune and his public office to foster the arts and nurture the talents of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. (Something to think about: Were it not for Lorenzo’s patronage policies, da Vinci might have died an obscure man, and Dan Brown might well be just another semi-employed freelancer today.)

Bloomberg’s influence over the city’s arts community—from the great cultural institutions on Fifth Avenue to virtual mom-and-pop galleries and performance spaces outside Manhattan—is unprecedented for a mayor. The reason is pretty simple: Since taking office in January, 2002, he has given away nearly $200 million to arts organizations that might otherwise have folded or severely cut back their programs during two severe economic downturns since 9/11.

Now, however, the mayor is on the verge of shifting his philanthropic priorities, leaving the city’s cultural organizations to consider life without the patronage of Michael the Magnificent, as nobody calls him—although surely somebody would if it meant a few extra checks in the mail. Bloomberg is reportedly winding up a decade-long program in which he funneled money to arts and culture through the Carnegie Foundation, with his family foundation re-focusing its giving on broader domestic needs.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

The mayor’s donations through Carnegie were anonymous, but only in theory—unlike the mysterious John Beresford Tipton, the elusive philanthropist who gave money away in the 1950s television show “The Millionaire,” Bloomberg has left rather broad hints for those groups wishing to uncover the identity of their anonymous benefactor. Bloomberg’s longtime adviser, First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris, often had input into which groups received the mayor’s money.
   
THE IMPENDING DEMISE OF THE BLOOMBERG-CARNEGIE CULTURAL giveaway prompted not just a general gnashing of teeth, but a retrospective appreciation of the mayor’s influence over culture and the arts in New York. Bloomberg’s impact has been profound, but he is not the first mayor who pulled double duty as a philanthropist. It’s just that the city hasn’t had a mayor like Bloomberg in more than a century—the last one arrived at City Hall in a horse and carriage, not via the Lexington Avenue line.

The Gilded Age—that is, the years after the Civil War but before 1896 or so—produced a succession of wealthy men who dabbled in a mixture of politics, business and philanthropy. They were dubbed “Swallowtail Democrats” because of their propensity for formal wear and their loose allegiance to the “party of the people.”
W. R. Grace
The Swallowtails included people like W.R. Grace, who founded the now-defunct Grace shipping empire, and Abram Hewitt, half of the notable Cooper-Hewitt team. Grace dipped into his personal fortune to assist causes like famine relief in Ireland, while Hewitt donated about $1 million to help found the Cooper Union, named for his father-in-law, Peter Cooper. Neither man had the influence which Bloomberg enjoys, in part because he is far wealthier than they were, and in part because they were in office a short time. (Grace served for two non-consecutive two-year terms in the 1880s, Hewitt was mayor for just a single two-year term, from 1887 to 1888.) A contemporary of theirs, Samuel Tilden, served as Governor from 1875 to 1876, and created a philanthropic legacy when he donated $3 million in his will to create the New York Public Library.

After Hewitt left City Hall, the Mayor’s office passed into the calloused hands of professional politicians who, for the most part, dominated the office until Bloomberg’s election in 2001. Even reform types with polished fingernails—men like Seth Low, the Columbia University president who served from 1901 to 1902, and John Purroy Mitchel, elected in 1913 and dismissed in 1917—lacked the resources of their philanthropist predecessors. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once noted that under Tammany Hall, New York became the first great city to be ruled by common people as an ongoing proposition. Tammany’s influence meant that even its critics and opponents had to demonstrate their street cred—the idea of a Grace or a Hewitt as mayor was, by the early 20th Century, almost unthinkable.

So for the entire 20th century, the mayor’s office was, for better and worse, a people’s office. Various mayors may have engaged in taxpayer-supported philanthropy, but none had the resources to write millions of dollars’ worth of private checks to the Met or any other cultural institution.
Nelson Rockefeller
But one prominent 20th century politician did have those kinds of resources, and may well have had more influence over the city’s cultural community than even Bloomberg. That politician would be, of course, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, art collector, philanthropist, four-time governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, and perennial also-ran for his party’s presidential nomination.

Mayor Bloomberg’s influence over museums, community theaters, galleries and other cultural institutions is a function of his charitable giving. Nelson Rockefeller’s influence was far broader, for he not only funded the arts with taxpayer dollars, but was a world-class collector who was intent on sharing his enthusiasm with other art lovers and the general public.  

“There is a notion that Nelson Rockefeller was a frustrated politician who collected art,” said historian Richard Norton Smith, who is writing a biography of Rockefeller. “Actually he was a frustrated artist who went into politics.”

Rockefeller was a cultural power long before he was an elected official, driven, Smith said, by his unrealized dream of becoming an artist. “He concluded to his dismay while he was a student at Dartmouth that he was not capable of producing great art,” Smith said. “But he was reminded every time he went home that patrons have a great role to play in the art world.”

Like his fortune, Rockefeller’s interest in art was inherited—his mother, Abigail Aldrich Rockefeller, was a founder of the Museum of Modern Art in 1928. Her son, the future governor, became president of MOMA’s Board of Trustees in 1939, when he was just 30. With displays of energy that would become familiar to New York voters in the 1960s, Nelson Rockefeller helped expand the museum’s holdings and its physical space during a tenure of nearly 20 years as board president, in essence creating the world-class museum that it is today. Smith said Rockefeller and his four brothers referred to MOMA as “mother’s museum.”
Rockefeller moved directly from the presidency of MOMA’s board to the governor’s mansion in Albany in 1959 (he resigned from the board before becoming governor—his brother David replaced him). His inauguration marked the beginning of a Medici-like era of private and public patronage of the arts and culture in New York. In his private capacity as a collector and benefactor, Rockefeller continued to donate artwork to the city’s museums, works that reflected the governor’s enthusiasm for native artwork from Africa, Asia and Native America. For example, he gave the Met a collection of Alaskan Eskimo masks in 1961, a collection of Asmat basketry from New Guinea in 1965, and Ibo figurines from Nigeria in 1967.

As a political figure, Rockefeller was a pioneer in public funding for the arts. He created the state Council on the Arts, a forerunner of the National Endowment for the Arts, over the objections and even ridicule of state legislators, who saw arts funding as a useless perk at best, and the indulgence of an elitist governor at worst.  From an initial state appropriation of $50,000 in 1961, the council went on to become a national leader in arts funding. The state contributed $710,000 for grants and $1.7 million for operations within 10 years of its founding. Currently, even as Governor Paterson seeks to reduce state funding by more than $7 million, the council receives more than $40 million in state funding.

“The National Endowment for the Arts really was an outgrowth of Rockefeller’s State Council,” Smith said. “And when budgets became tight in the early 1970s and even Rockefeller understood the need for cuts in spending, the one sacred cow was the arts council. He was adamant—it wasn’t going to be cut.”

Rockefeller’s private contributions to the arts and cultural community continued throughout his tenure as governor, culminating in the donation of a museum he founded in 1954, the Museum of Primitive Art, to the Met in 1969. Rockefeller’s donation of more than 3,000 pieces remains the heart of the Met’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

Empire State Plaza

Rockefeller’s zest for art was not just a private matter. The Empire State Plaza, a collection of state office buildings adjacent to the Capitol building in Albany, was conceived and constructed during Rockefeller’s tenure. Though the plaza’s charms often are lost on the legislators, aides, and lobbyists who populate its public spaces, Rockefeller saw it as monumental work of art.

“I’ve always believed that the plaza is an outdoor sculpture garden,” Smith said. “The buildings themselves are geometric works of art.” Referring to an arts center shaped like an egg on the Plaza’s perimeter, Smith noted that “that shape had never been built. It didn’t exist except in Nelson’s head, and it clearly is a work of sculpture.” The plaza, known to political insiders as the Albany Mall, also contains more than 80 works of art commissioned, in essence, by Rockefeller. “He was an enthusiast,” Smith said. “And enthusiasts loved to share. Nelson gave the public credit for being teachable when it came to art, and New York has been permanently affected by Nelson’s eagerness to share.”

Rockefeller, in fact, shared his enthusiasms not simply through commissioned works of public art and donations of fine art to the city’s great museums, but also through the state Council on the Arts, which funded dozens of smaller enterprises, from community theaters to local museums to concert halls. Public funding of art and culture became not a luxury but a necessity during his 15 years in Albany.

When Rockefeller stepped down as governor in 1973, the days of wine and roses—as Hugh Carey put it—were coming to an end. So, too, an unprecedented era for the arts in New York. Nevertheless, Rockefeller’s Council on the Arts remains a permanent, vibrant force for art and culture in New York, even if governors since Rockefeller have not been loath to cut its budget.

Nelson Rockefeller’s years as governor were not without controversy. And his legacy of so-called Rockefeller Republicanism has been reduced to a historical curiosity in today’s more conservative Republican Party. Nevertheless, in the world of art and culture, Rockefeller’s gifts remain, in a word, magnificent.

Michael Bloomberg may be more likely to kvetch about his golf game than offer an expert assessment of Latin American folk art, but for the city’s arts and cultural institutions, he surely has been the most-influential—and generous—public official since Rockefeller.

His legacy will not consist of priceless collections or monumental public art. It will be in the day-to-day operations of dozens of institutions, large and small, that have been able to meet payrolls during two devastating downturns.

As the Carnegie-administered program winds down, the question is whether Bloomberg’s generosity ensured the long-term survival of dozens of arts organizations, or simply put off the inevitable. That will become evident sooner rather than later.

What this mayor has done is to ensure that the doors remained open on his watch, at least. In an era of diminished expectations, that is no small achievement.

Mark Hay contributed research and reporting to this article.

Terry Golway teaches history at Kean University, and is the author of Washington's General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution, So Others Might Live and Together We Cannot Fail: FDR and the American Presidency in Years of Crisis. He was a member of the New York Times editorial board and city editor of The New York Observer.