Pittsburgh’s Carnegie family, Maine’s Farnsworths and Arkansas’ Waltons founded museums to enlighten and educate the workers on their railroads and in their steel mills that produced and sold the goods that made their families wealthy, exposing them to the arts. Money from an inheritance earned through the Irish linen trade and investment in mining opportunities by her father, David Stewart, allowed Isabella Stewart Gardner to amass a fabulous art collection that became so large it needed its own museum. Subsequently, the owners of these private collections generously opened their doors to the public.
The Morgans cleaned out their attic of treasures taken from colonial outposts to fill multiple large galleries comprising the decorative arts wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. They donated Roman sculptures, casts taken from sculptures at Karnak, the Parthenon and Notre-Dame de Paris, and equestrian statues. As these families’ reputations were publicly known, their donations nor donors’ ethics were rarely questioned.
In one outstanding case in the early 1900s, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, millionaire head of the American Sugar Refining Company, sought an appointment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees. He bought and donated Gilbert Stuart’s “Carroll Washington” portrait and important Courbet, Manet and Degas paintings suggested by Mary Cassatt, a friend of his second wife, Louisine, to the museum. However, his boorish nature and the board’s concerns about the federal investigation of the Sugar Trust in 1907, specifically citing Havemeyer’s firm for underweighting sugar imports and withholding appropriate duties, kept him from joining. Though forced to pay the government more than two million dollars, he further acquired and donated El Grecos, five Rembrandts, five Cézannes, a P oussin, two Ingres, and Old Master prints, all labeled the H.O. Havemeyer Collection for permanent display at the Met. Still not a board member, he lived to see his name displayed at several galleries at the museum.
Dr. Paul D’Ambrosio, director of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and president of the New York State Historical Society, told me he personally knew every donor of work and funds to the museum over his 30-year tenure, so vetting was unnecessary. Graham Campbell, former head of studio art at Brandeis University, related that artist Jasper Johns handpicked the Rose Art Museum’s original collection. Johns convinced friends of long-standing to donate work. With an aim toward exhibiting American artists, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Museum of American Art amassed a collection that began with her personal holdings, including work of artists she knew.
Vetting was unnecessary when smaller gallery and museum owners knew their artists and benefactors. As museums grew into mega galleries, millions were needed from wealthy private individuals and corporations to add to and maintain collections and buildings. Government funding does not adequately support public museums: expensive artwork and mega-shows can only be produced with contributions from wealthy individuals or by board of trustee members’ required donations. Board chairmen of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston make their money from investment and private equity firms. The chairmen of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim Museum head real estate investment firms, often derided as unethical by the public.
Funders will support a museum hoping to enhance or rescue their reputation, and museums have encouraged these gifts and donations, often with naming rights, but studies have shown that the public will not attend and pay to see artwork provided by a funder of whom they do not approve. There is now a price to pay for that solicitation and acceptance of funds.
As millions die and suffer from OxyContin addiction, the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin and has donated money to universities and art museums worldwide, has had its name removed from art institutions worldwide. London’s National Portrait Gallery refused Sackler funding.