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When Rockefellers Went Shopping, Culture Was for Sale: Review

The cover jacket of "America's Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy" by Suzanne Loebl. Source: Harper Collins via Bloomberg

If you love to shop, it helps to be a Rockefeller.

“America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy” is an absorbing book about buying and building, decorating and redecorating, commissioning and donating. The heirs of oil baron John D. Rockefeller had money, taste and a philanthropic tradition.

“America’s artistic landscape would be totally different were it not for the Rockefellers,” writes author Suzanne Loebl.

This largely admiring account doesn’t delve into the environmental legacy of the oil that enriched the family. And Loebl makes only passing reference to “the unscrupulous development of a highly profitable oil monopoly” that “mesmerized Senior” -- John D. Rockefeller.

She focuses on the role the Rockefellers played in creating the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Asia Society, among other endeavors.

The book starts with John D. Rockefeller Jr., a shy boy with psychosomatic ills who was a star student at Brown University. More than a dozen social-science courses helped instill in him a social conscience. He found he disliked working in the family business and focused on philanthropy. Even his prime commercial venture aimed high.

Rockefeller Center

He built Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center at great risk during the Depression, spending about $50 million of his savings. That’s equivalent to about $800 million today, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’s online inflation calculator. The project was initially dismissed by architecture critics but deemed a marvel once finished. It also made the family money.

Junior funded construction of Riverside Church, a Gothic cathedral completed in Morningside Heights in 1930. A devout and decisive man, he gave competing architects all of four weeks to come up with a floor plan. His donations to the cathedral exceeded $32 million ($421 million today).

He completed the atmospheric Cloisters in upper Manhattan in 1938, creating out of large chunks of imported medieval architecture a handsome setting for the Unicorn Tapestries, among other treasures. And in 1952, he left the place a $10 million trust fund (the equivalent of $83 million today). Germain Bazin, a former director of the Louvre, called it “the crowning achievement of American museology.”

Museum of Modern Art

Junior’s wife, Abby, was a pioneering contemporary-art collector who helped start New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She hired its first director, a 27-year-old scholar named Alfred Barr.

In an amusing aside, Loebl notes that Barr’s starting salary in 1929 was $10,000, with the museum entitled to royalties on his books. That pay is equivalent to about $130,000 in today’s dollars. MoMA’s current director, Glenn Lowry, earned $1.3 million in the year ending in June 2009.

A 1921 trip by Junior and Abby to China kindled what Loebl calls “a multigenerational passion for Asian Art.” In the 1950s, John D. Rockefeller 3rd and his wife visited Southeast Asia regularly and became unofficial extensions of the U.S. State Department. He’s credited with helping heal wounds from World War II, and in 1956 founded the Asia Society, now on Park Avenue.

Nelson Rockefeller understandably doesn’t receive much praise for sponsoring the gargantuan Albany Mall when he was governor of New York. It is now named the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza and, despite the endless years of construction and cost over-runs, it ended up enhancing the city, Loebl concludes.

If you weren’t aware of the Rockefeller imprint on Manhattan, the book is something of a revelation. But in chronicling several generations, it’s less successful at bringing to life these latter-day Medicis than the institutions they created and endowed.

“America’s Medicis” is published by Harper (429 pages, $34.99) To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Philip Boroff writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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