NELSON A. ROCKEFELLER: Profile of a Collector

NELSON A. ROCKEFELLER: Profile of a Collector

By Harriet Hart


Nelson Rockefeller

Nelson Rockefeller made his first trip to Mexico at the age of 25 to buy paintings for the Museum of Modern Art. He fell in love with the country’s folk art and died, 46 years later, having amassed a collection of over 3,000 pieces. His daughter Ann wanted the collection placed where both Anglo-Americans and people of Latin descent could enjoy it. It is now housed in two museums: the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco.

On Rockefeller’s first visit to Mexico in 1933 he traveled through the central highlands, in and out of museums and shops in Mexico City, and to Puebla and Morelos to visit old churches decorated with folk sculptures and paintings. He made several more trips in the 1930s and continued to travel to Mexico throughout World War ll. He took his wife and family to Oaxaca in 1948.

During his years as the governor of New York, he had little opportunity to visit Latin America, and his collection of folk art was placed in storage. In 1968 a visit to a Mexican shop in Manhattan rekindled his interest; he unpacked the boxes and resumed studying and collecting Mexican folk art until the 1970’s.

Explaining her father’s deep love of Mexican artifacts, Ann said they were “part of a culture in which the ordinary events of daily life were celebrated…the mundane things made to carry out everyday acts – the containers we put things in, the clothing we wear, the religious objects we pray with, the toys we give our children…are all valuable and worthy of the greatest creative expression.”

Three months before his death, Rockefeller made one last trip to Mexico. In his journal he wrote: “We came to know the gentle warmth and hospitality so typical of the Mexican people and experience the thrill of watching creation in its simplest and most genuine form.”

During the course of his many visits, he met President Lazaro Cardenas, prominent painters like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, important collectors like Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias, and legendary folk artists such as Teodora Blanco, Dona Rosa Real de Nieta, and Josefina Aguilar from Oaxaca.

In 1939, as President of the Museum of Modern Art, he organized a major exhibition called Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art that brought together 2,000 masterpieces, the most extensive survey of Mexican art ever presented outside the country. He saw it as an excellent way of shoring up US/Mexico relations.

Shortly before his death, he decided to publish a series of books on his art collection and journeyed to Mexico to photograph folk artists, purchase new pieces and visit old haunts. His relationship to art was personal and emotionally charged; his approach to collecting was “visceral”* according to a Museum of Modern Art director who said: “Nelson had the most insatiable appetite for art I know. Works of art gave him a deep, almost therapeutic delight…”

An excellent coffee table book titled Folk Treasures of Mexico—The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection by Marion Oettinger, Jr. provides an overview of what Rockefeller collected: utilitarian objects such as water coolers and pulque pitchers, ceremonial objects like masks and incense burners, objects of play and fantasy such as coin banks, pull toys and whistles, and decorative objects like carvings. Over 80 color photographs illustrate Rockefeller’s eclectic, unique taste.

I’m tempted to grab the next flight to San Antonio just to visit the collection, but thanks to Feria Maestros del Arte held in Chapala, I can save the air fare and see Mexico’s folk art right here in November.  I think that Nelson Rockefeller would have loved this event because: “he enjoyed the process of collecting immensely, especially amid the hustle and bustle found in a Mexican market.” The Feria is a place to interact with the artisans directly and for Rockefeller, “the object had everything to do with the artisans, their pride and dignity, the transaction and the setting.”

Nelson A. Rockefeller has been called a “pure” collector of folk art.  Collecting had nothing to do with “status, competition, investment, pride of possession, pride of taste; even a reputation for being a ‘patron of the arts’ did not interest him.” Oettinger sums it up: “His collecting, out of step with most of his peers, was directed not by fashion, price or potential market value, but by the intrinsic beauty and charm he recognized in the pieces themselves.”

Mexican folk artists “mold, carve and paint the face of Mexico” and Nelson A. Rockefeller’s collection allows the world to gaze upon that face with wonder.

*(Quotations are from Marion Oettinger, Jr., Folk Treasures of Mexico (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2010)


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