The National Gallery in the New Century: The Mellon Legacy
Marina Kellen French, a trustee of the American Academy, introduced the distinguished visitor of her namesake, Earl A. Powell, III, director of the National Gallery of Art. An expert in 19th and 20th European and American art, Powell (or "Rusty," his nickname) has held the esteemed position since 1992, subsequent to positions at the University of Texas and his directorship of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from 1980-1992, which he transformed, Art in America wrote, "from a local institution to a museum of international stature."
Joined by heads of art museums from across Germany, a number of them from Berlin, Powell leavened the introduction to his talk with tales of how he tried to lose that "Rusty" nickname at various junctures in his life -- alas, to no avail. Still, he says, the United States, as Kellen French alluded, having a nickname makes one more approachable, which has served Powell well in all of his endeavors.
Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh financier and energy baron who served as Secretary of the Treasury under three Presidents (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover), conceived of and financed the National Gallery at its conceptual outset, in the 1920s, brought to love the fine arts by Henry Clay Frick, the industrialist and fiancier. During his ambassadorship to the Court of St. James, in London, Mellon was inspired by the idea of a national gallery. Mellon himself collected art sparingly, and was loathe to make any quick decisions about what should be in his collection. But he had done so with great curatorial acumen, and he presented the idea to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saying that he would donate his private collection and provide the funds to renovate the building to house it. But Mellon also insisted that the museum should not bear his name. It was, rather, to be the people's collection and be free to the public, governed by a secret board of trustees made up of private and public figures. Roosevelt was thrilled, and the bill was approved in a Act of Congress, which still guarantees funding for all of the National Gallery's operations. The National Gallery remains a public-private partnership, with an independent Board.
Once the idea was approved, John Russell Pope designed the Beaux-Art building, which began construction in 1936, and is today linked via an underground tunnel to the East Wing building, designed by I.M. Pei in 1978. At the main structure's opening, in 1941, Powell said, "there were more guards than paintings." The Gallery's collection of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, medals, and decorative arts, after years of careful curation, traces the development of Western Art from the Middle Ages to the present, including the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas and the largest mobile ever created by Alexander Calder. The National Gallery of Art is also the only building on the Mall made of pink marble; all the others are made of granite. And when the fabric samples were delivered for the walls of the Renaissance section of the gallery, the first director, David E. Finley, wrote to Mellon to say that the fabric was a bit on the expensive side. "I don't care how expensive it is," Mellon replied, "so long as it doesn't look it." Mellon spared no expense in building the people's collection.
Powell then ran through "the pretty picture part of the lecture," he said, showing slides of some of the National Gallery's most impressive holdings: works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, Jan van Eyck, Rubens, and Watteau, among others, which were purchased during the famed Soviet sale of artworks from the Hermitage Museum, in 1930-31. By the end of that year, Mellon had formed the core of the National Gallery's collection for an astoundingly low cost of roughly seven million dollars. To this collection, the Kress family added its own, including works by Giorgioni and Lucio. Additional collections added to the National Gallery include major works of art donated by Paul Mellon, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, Lessing J. Rosenwald, Peter Arrell Brown Widener, Joseph E. Widener, and Chester Dale, bringing, with the inclusion of Van Gogh and Picasso, among others, the collection into the twentieth century. These gifts form what the National Gallery calls the "founding collection."